There is much talk about the European Union being undemocratic and remote from the people. It is considered undemocratic because the two of the principle institutions, the Council and the Commission are not directly elected. If you look closely at this claim it does not stand up so well.
The EU has an executive called the Commission. It has two legislative chambers, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Examining how these institutions are made up shows the strength and weaknesses of the lack of democracy thesis.
The members of Parliament are directly elected by EU citizens. So there can be no claim that there is an absence of democracy. It is valid to claim that the means by which Parliamentarians are elected varies from Member State to Member Sate and that this may affect the quality of the democracy but this is a different point. The Ministers in the Council are made up of the democratically elected governments of the 28 Member States. It can be argued that Ministers who represent their governments in the Council are not directly elected. It is only the national parliament that elects the government and the government which appoints ministers. However there is no claim at the national level that governments are not democratically elected. So how can it be claimed that ministers who are considered democratically legitimate at the national level are not legitimate from a democratic perspective at the EU level.
The main claim that the EU is not democratic lies in the fact that the Commission is not directly elected. The Commission is the executive of the Union. The executive is made up of 28 Commissioners who sit in a College and exercise the powers granted to the Commission by the EU Treaties. If the College acts outside the powers granted to it action can be brought before the EU’s constitutional court in Luxembourg, the Court of Justice, to have the act declared invalid for lack of jurisdiction.
The Members of the College of Commissioners are nominated by the democratically elected governments of the 28 Member States. So national parliamentarians who are directly elected by the citizens chose a government which in turn nominates a Commissioner. So the Commissioners are one step further away from the directly elected parliamentarians. But if you think about it, there are many functions in civil society that are one step further away from the elected parliamentarians. Think of the many bodies which have competence to regulate sectors of the market. In Italy AGCM is a good example. AGCM has significant powers. The persons who exercise the powers are not directly elected but are appointed by the government which is nominated by the elected parliamentarians.
It can be seen that the bodies that make up one chamber of the EU legislator, the governments of the 28 Member Stats, nominate the Commissioners. It is also the governments of the 28 Member States who nominate the President of the Commission. The President has institutional powers and while technically a Commissioner is primus inter partes.
In recent times the European Parliament, the second chamber of the legislature, has sought to have a role in the process of nominating both the President and the Commissioners. Individual Commissioners must report to the Parliament and the Parliament can either reject the Commission as a whole or accept it. Some say the Parliament should have the right to reject individual Commissioners. But it is not clear that this step actually improves democracy as the right of nomination rests with the Member States and all the Parliament can do is reject.
In relation to the nomination of the President the practice is evolving whereby the Members States must only chose as the President from among candidates that are first nominated by the European Parliament. The current President, Jean Claude Juncker, was the nomination of conservatives in the European Parliament. In this way the President has the endorsement of both chambers of the legislature. Thus the President of the Commission is nominated by directly elected parliamentarians and is only one step away from the electorate.
It can be seen that the European Union is constantly evolving. Another step is the Your Voice In Europe initiative. The Commission has established a single access point to a whole series of public consultations and feedbacks on EU policies and legislative initiatives.
The idea of consulting citizens and stakeholders who have an interest in the development of different EU policies and laws is part of the EU Commission’s Better Regulation Policy. There is no doubt that the consultations methodologies can be improved. But they are a good start.
Currently the Commission has open consultations on rinse off cosmetic products as well as peanut oil and hydrolysed wheat proteins in cosmetics, the functioning the EU training foundation, the Start Up initiative, capacity building on security and development in foreign relations, the effectiveness of the insolvency directive, copyright in the publishing value chain, trade relations with Turkey, rates for fixed and mobile terminal rates, social rights, economic relations with Australia and New Zealand, the REACH regulation, the EU’s R&D strategy, competitiveness, the training and regulation of train drivers, should there be a lobbyist register, the EU fishing fund, an action plan for drugs, double taxation, an EU bioenergy policy, anti- dumping methodologies, migrant smuggling, the governance of the Energy Union to name but a few.
Citizens are given the opportunity to respond to these consultations in any one of the EU official languages (even if, sometimes, not all the information is provided by the Commission in all the languages).
It is hard to maintain the argument that the EU is not democratic in the face of the scope and range of consultations that are currently on-going. But there is more. The European Citizens initiative allows citizens to call on the Commission to develop a policy in any particular area. If the call is backed by more than 1 million citizens (there are about 500 million citizens in the EU as a whole) from at least 7 different Member States then the Commission must address the call and either initiate a policy or say why it is not appropriate to do so.