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The role of the European Parliament in reducing the EU’s democratic deficit

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The permissive consensus that characterised the formation and first decades of operation of the EU has progressively been replaced by the so-called ‘democratic deficit’, which has been defined as the fact that European citizens have few opportunities to influence EU policy outcomes and decisions or that the EU is not accountable enough to its citizens (McCormick, 2014: 104). This was particularly noticeable during the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty, which, after being rejected in referenda in France and the Netherlands, was nonetheless mostly implemented with only minor changes through the Treaty of Lisbon. More recently, the democratic credentials of the Union have been further negatively affected by the economic crisis, given that since then the troika -unaccountable to citizens- has largely taken control of economic and monetary policy at the expense of elected institutions, such as the European Parliament (EP) (Fossum, 2014: 60-65).

Thus, the above events have provided an ideal context for the spark of criticisms against the original federal idea of expanding the powers of the EP to legitimise the EU by those in favour of a more intergovernmental approach, such as Vitkovitch (2015: 18), who advocates for avoiding further expansion of the EP’s powers and giving national parliaments more supervision rights as a means to reduce the EU’s perceived democratic deficit.

However, before dismissing supranational institutions, it would be pertinent to assess their representativeness, in particular that of the EP, which is the only directly elected EU institution. For example, if we concentrate on analysing the voter-MEP congruence of a ‘hard case’ such as UKIP (given their Eurosceptic stance within an EU institution), during the three first years of the current EP mandate, it is possible to conclude that UKIP MEPs like Farage, Nuttall and O’Flynn represent fairly well the views of UK citizens, at least across two of the three dimensions typically established to determine linkage: the EU, the socio-cultural and the economic dimensions.

In regards to the EU dimension, for example by constantly labelling the EU of undemocratic, UKIP MEPs reflect the opinion of a majority of UK citizens who consider that their ‘voice doesn’t count in the EU’. They also oppose initiatives that require further integration, such as the creation of an EU army, along with over 50% of citizens. Similarly, in relation to the socio-cultural dimension, it seems that the three MEPs mentioned above do also represent the fact that immigration is the top concern of UK citizens at national and EU levels by calling for migration controls and complaining about the inability of the UK to control its borders as a result of its EU membership. As far as the economic dimension is concerned, UKIP’s outright rejection of the Euro does also seem to match the average opinion of citizens. However, in spite of these matching views, some congruence gaps can also be observed, e.g. Nuttall and O’Flynn oppose TTIP while, according to polling data, a majority of the population is actually in favour of such initiative, or the highly negative vocabulary used by UKIP MEPs in relation to the EU (defunct, unable, doomed, etc.) does not match the fact that a slight majority of the population in the country did not actually have a negative image of the EU during the timeframe studied. Nevertheless, the biggest issue relates to the economic sphere, due to the party’s lack of initiatives to solve some of the most important concerns of citizens: unemployment or inflation, which underlines its protest-based nature and seriously undermines the representation of this particular area.

These mismatches can be explained by the low turnout to EP elections (35.60% in the UK in 2014) given their second-order character, since they are generally fought on national issues by national politicians and do not result in government formation. However, a majority of those who voted -‘core’ Eurosceptic UKIP voters and ‘strategic’ supporters that vote for UKIP just in EP elections to show their Euroscepticism (Ford et al., 2012)- can be said to be fairly well represented. This implies that the higher the turnout, the higher the congruence would be, which, therefore, underlines the need for increasing turnout in order to improve the EP’s representativeness. This could be achieved by politicising the EU and presenting competing positions for EP elections (Follesdal & Hix, 2006). But for this ballot to become first order, it would also be necessary to provide this elected body with the power to create legislation rather than leaving this crucial task to the unelected Commission. Alternatively, it would also be pertinent to elect the Commission by universal suffrage. Moreover, in relation to the current institutional setup of the Union, it can be said that the rather positive discursive representation of UKIP is compromised by the party’s record-low voting in the EP (Hix et al., 2016). Therefore, an immediate step to improve representation through this institution would be to ensure that MEPs vote regularly.

In any case, the fact that overall voter-MEP congruence exists -albeit to different levels depending on the issue or dimension- does not then justify intergovernmental calls for reducing the role of the EP. The reforms suggested above, coupled with existing initiatives to provide citizens with opportunities to propose or contest legislation, such as the Citizens’ Initiative (directly) or the Early Warning Mechanism (through national parliaments), can not only improve the representation of citizens whilst also providing them with constitutional agency, but also they would encourage the emergence of a European demos, which according to critics does not currently exist, thus adding legitimacy to the EU’s political system (cf. Glencross, 2014).

Posted by Sara Aguilar-Suárez, MA candidate in "The European Union and International Relations" at Aston University

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