A Union of States and a Union of Citizens

Juncker’s State of the Union launches a roadmap for a more democratic European Union. But are the proposed reforms compatible with his vision?

‘A more united, stronger and democratic Union’ was the slogan of this year’s State of the European Union address. On Wednesday September 13th, in a speech that pundits have judged to be more optimistic than the last, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker laid out a reform roadmap that included big-ticket proposals such as the establishment of a European Monetary Fund and the accession of Serbia and Montenegro. Less high-profile but more to the point of democratic governance was a smattering of institutional and administrative reforms that suggest the European Union is embracing a more supranational and federalist governance model.

Macro-federalism in the EU

Juncker’s proposed measures, such as more European Council decisions by qualified majority, parliamentary co-decision, and the call for a single Council and Commission President, will strengthen the ‘democratic chain of delegation’ and enhance the democratic accountability of EU executive organs.

Calling for greater devolution of competences to member states and more participation from national parliaments and civil society while remaining ‘big on big things’ is in line with an evolving governance framework in which EU institutions and procedures increasingly guide policy-making at the national level. Although the devolution of decision-making to member states can be construed as a move keeping with the Union’s state-centred origins, it should also be understood as a macro-federalist reform. Member state decisions are increasingly embedded in EU institutions. Through strict monitoring and binding terms of conditionality, the Union is able to shape European policy in an autonomous capacity, overcoming the limitations imposed by member state sovereignty.

Implicit in several of this year’s proposals is a supranational conception of a ‘more democratic Union’. But such a perspective cannot be wholly realised because, as Juncker’s own words betray, the ‘true nature of the Union [is] both a Union of States and a Union of Citizens’. Such a claim strikes at the heart of what makes the EU unique, as a multi-level governance structure, and what makes the democratic legitimacy of the EU so challenging to secure.

Competing claims on democratic legitimacy

States and citizens are two competing actors to which EU governing organs are accountable, and correspond to two distinct ontologies with divergent implications for democratic legitimacy and accountability. The intergovernmentalist perspective, from which the majority of international organisations are seen, gives pride of place to member states, to which EU-level actors are held accountable. The assumption here is that the democratic legitimacy of the EU is indirectly bestowed via the national level. The supranationalist perspective on the other hand regards EU institutions – the Commission, Court of Justice and the European Parliament (EP) – as autonomous, conferring direct legitimacy on the EU and (ideally) held to account by citizens through European-level institutions, most especially the EP.

Reconciling these two perspectives and their underlying assumptions is a source of friction in delineating cohesive measures for democratic accountability. Strengthening EP powers vis-a-vis the Council and Commission renders these institutions more democratically accountable. And yet the sovereignty of member states prohibits the full realisation of a democratically legitimate EP, which would require the entrenchment of legally binding representative democracy at the European level. In its purest form, this would necessitate that EP elections are guaranteed the same level of constitutional and popular support afforded to national elections.

Accountability and the democratic deficit

The tension between member state and EU citizen interests manifest in several other of Juncker’s proposals, such as the devolution of competences to national parliaments and civil society, which follows a trend in EU governance already underway. Since the mid-1990s, increasing pressure from member states for more control resulted in a more ‘governance-of-governance’ approach to EU policy, in which transnational networks of state-based policy-makers play a dominant role in policy formation.

These institutions have fostered greater accountability within and across policy circles as policy-makers find themselves facing the demands set by their peers in addition to those of their respective governments. But as some critics have remarked, this is no replacement for democratic accountability, and may even present a trade-off scenario in which policy-makers must choose between national interests and supranational ones. These policy networks have enhanced peer-to-peer accountability, but they lack the control inherent to national hierarchies which are ultimately accountable to legislatures and electorates.

Juncker has also called for greater transparency in all draft-negotiating mandates put to the Council by the Commission, along with more civil society involvement in the work of the Union. These initiatives are laudable, promoting greater participation, deliberation and consultation. However, transparency does not constitute accountability because it does not impose demands on policymakers to justify their decisions, citizens cannot pass judgement and, most importantly, impose consequences.

Greater participation of civil society in transnational policy networks fosters partnership between policy-makers and the public, but at the same time, they serve the purpose of legitimising supranational governments because, in the absence of directly inherited democratic interests, they authenticate the Union’s representational claims. Moreover, these partnerships are more often established with policymakers and bureaucrats, not elected politicians. They represent specific interests that are not aggregated through constituencies to representatives.

Conflicting interests have been at the heart of EU politics since its inception, and have shaped it into a multilevel structure unlike any other international organisation. It is quite possible that the normative and empirical standards we use to evaluate the governing regimes of nation states are incapable of comprehending the ever-evolving body of EU institutions. But so long as member state sovereignty exists, traditional conceptions of representative government will prevail and the democratic deficit that culminated in the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999 will continue to plague EU attempts to strengthen its mechanisms for democratic governance.

Imogen Liu is currently completing a Research Master in Political Science and Public Administration at Leiden University.

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