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Democratic deficit

‘Democratic deficit’ is a term used to denote a situation where institutions and their decision-making procedures may suffer from a lack of democracy and accountability. In the case of the European Union (EU), it refers to a perceived lack of accessibility or lack of representation of the ordinary citizen with respect to the EU institutions – a sense of there being a gap between the powers of those institutions and a perceived inability of citizens to influence those institutions’ decisions.

The issue of democratic legitimacy has been a sensitive one at each stage of the European integration process. It was addressed in the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice Treaties, which progressively gave more powers to the directly elected European Parliament and extended the areas in which it has joint decision-making powers with the Council of the European Union. As a result, the Parliament has evolved from a consultative assembly to a co-legislator.

Several changes introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, which has applied since 1 December 2009, served to address concerns of a democratic deficit in the EU. The treaty strengthened the Parliament’s powers in the following three areas.

  • Financial. The Parliament plays a key role in approving all categories of EU annual budget expenditures.
  • Legislative. The co-decision procedure became the ordinary legislative procedure and applies to almost all areas where the Council decides by qualified majority vote.
  • Nomination. The Parliament elects the President of the European Commission on the basis of a candidate proposed by the European Council taking into account the results of the Parliament elections. The Commission as a body is subject to the consent of the Parliament before being appointed by the European Council.

With the principle of subsidiarity in mind, the Treaty of Lisbon also introduced ways to encourage national parliaments to participate in EU policy formulation, giving them the opportunity to scrutinise the Commission’s legislative proposals (known as the subsidiarity scrutiny mechanism).

The Treaty of Lisbon also establishes a citizensinitiative right, where citizens can ask the Commission to propose legislation in any field in which it has the power to act. To launch a European citizens’ initiative, a group of organisers must be set up, comprising at least seven EU citizens from seven different EU Member States. Once an initiative has reached 1 million signatures and the prescribed minimum thresholds in seven Member States, the Commission will decide what action to take.

The institutions’ decision-making processes are sometimes criticised for their lack of transparency, in particular in the context of trilogues between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament. Today, the institutions publish the final compromise text that is adopted as a result of interinstitutional negotiations. In addition, the formal rules of procedure relating to the negotiation process have been improved.

Members of the Council meet in public sessions when discussing or voting on proposals for legislative acts. The first deliberation on important non-legislative proposals is also public and the Council also regularly holds public debates on key issues affecting the interests of the EU and its citizens.

The Conference on the Future of Europe, which formally concluded on 9 May 2022 (Europe Day), was a bottom-up, grassroots exercise, which has allowed citizens to have a say on what they expect from the EU and have a greater role in shaping its future. The conference was a joint undertaking of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission, acting as equal partners together with the Member States. A key component of the conference was the creation of citizen panels at the EU level and in several Member States, which held debates and events designed to feed into the conference plenary with recommendations for the EU institutions. The conference results are presented in a report which puts forward 49 proposals on the future of Europe, covering several topics including European democracy. The EU institutions provided their feedback regarding these proposals at a feedback event in autumn 2022.