Democracy is an essential part of the European Union’s system of values, the prerequisite for the legitimacy of European policies and for their acceptance by citizens. At the same time, the shape of the European democratic process is the subject of lively debates. For the bigger the part citizens play in the EU’s decisions, and the more direct this participation is, the more powerful the EU will become in relation to the nation‑states. Against this background, what should the cooperation between the EU and its member states look like? How many areas of competence do the member states have or want to transfer to the EU, indeed are allowed to transfer, and how should national sovereignty in the EU be shaped in the future? How can the decisions and processes of the European institutions be made more transparent and lent greater democratic legitimacy?
In order to achieve greater participation...
Since the start of European integration, the EU and its predecessors have been criticised for their lack of direct democratic legitimacy. And it is true that the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was initially marked by indirect democratic legitimacy. Under executive federalism, the legitimacy of political actions was derived from the legitimacy of democratically elected national European governments. The representatives in the Council of Ministers were appointed by the governments and, what is more, the members of the predecessor of today’s European Parliament, the Assembly of the ECSC, were elected in the early years by the national parliaments of the member states.
That did not change until 1979 when the citizens of the EC were called upon for the first time to directly elect members of the European Parliament (whose name was not recognised by the member states until 1986). Since then, the Parliament’s powers have slowly but surely expanded, often at the initiative of the parliamentarians themselves. Politically, however, for a long time the Parliament only had the right to put forward amendments to draft legislation, which were not binding for the Council of Ministers. That changed in 1992 with the introduction in the Maastricht Treaty of the co‑decision procedure and the option of committees of inquiry.
As important as the Maastricht reforms were, in the early 1990s the question as to how the EU as a whole could be brought closer to the citizens and rendered more transparent and democratic was still being asked. In the course of intensive negotiations, substantial progress was made with the Amsterdam Treaty of 1999 and the Nice Treaty of 2003 towards, for example, extending the co‑decision procedure to almost all political spheres. Nevertheless, the EU project needed further reforms – and that was no easy undertaking. A Constitution for Europe had been rejected in several national referendums and the process of further European integration seemed to have come to a standstill. On the other hand, the internal pressure was considerable. The EU had grown significantly in the meantime and so had citizens’ expectations. And the ever louder critical voices which portrayed the EU as a Eurocracy without democratic legitimacy also had to be taken into account.
...it took more than one attempt
The third attempt following Amsterdam and Nice to fundamentally reform the EU finally led to a breakthrough. On 13 December 2007, the EU Heads of State and Government signed the Lisbon Treaty, which encompassed far‑reaching changes to the EU’s entire structure. The preamble set out the objective: the Treaty was concluded with the desire “to complete the process started by the Treaty of Amsterdam and by the Treaty of Nice with a view to enhancing the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the Union and to improving the coherence of its action”.
In order to achieve the stated goal of enhancing democratic legitimacy, the competences of the European Parliament were increased – with the exception of foreign and security policy – and placed on a level with those of the Council of the European Union. What is more, the Parliament was granted the final word on the expenditure side of the EU budget. The strengthening of the national parliaments, which since then have been able to reject EU legislative processes if they believe that the principle of subsidiarity has been breached, was also of great importance. Further measures put in place by the Lisbon Treaty concern the decision‑making process in the Council of the European Union, which has had to comply with the double majority principle since 2014. Under this principle, the adoption of a decision requires a majority of states (55%) which, at the same time, must represent a majority of 65% of the population.
The Lisbon Treaty even introduced a plebiscitary element: the European Commission can be forced by the European Citizens’ Initiative to address an issue and to draft legislation provided an initiative has been signed by at least one million people in various member states.
What happens next? Where are we heading?
A look back reveals how far the EU has come in terms of transparency and democratic legitimacy during the last three decades. Democratic legitimacy has been considerably enhanced by strengthening the European Parliament; the institutions’ new transparency is demonstrated not least by the fact that some sessions of the Council of Ministers are held in public. However, the process of European integration is far from completed, and not only when it comes to democratic legitimacy. At the heart of the Europe‑wide discussions lies the question: where is the European Union heading in the long term?
The debate about the “ever closer Union”, about the ever-closer ties among the member states, only focuses on one aspect among many. In view of the rapid global changes and epochal challenges such as tackling climate change and the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic, European answers are urgently needed, for instance in the economic sphere or on how to deal with new technologies.
This is what the Conference on the Future of Europe, a proposal from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, will focus on. The aim of the project is to enable citizens in all EU member states to actively participate in the discussion on Europe’s common future.
They will be able to contribute their ideas about what the EU should look like in five or ten years. For example, these ideas might be about the future of the European economic and social model, sustainability and climate protection, innovation and the digital transformation or the fundamental values of the EU. The question of what lessons Europe is drawing from the COVID-19 pandemic could also be taken up.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is to be supported jointly by the institutions of the Union (Council, Parliament and Commission) and held throughout the EU over a period of two years. Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU will endeavour to ensure that the Conference on the Future of Europe can begin its work as soon possible in whatever form is permissible during the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Other EU‑wide projects such as the European Commission’s European Democracy Action Plan are not only intended to help further improve the framework for a vibrant democracy at European level but also to identify concrete measures aimed at dealing with current challenges to democratic participation, for example disinformation on the internet.