The past years of treaty negotiations and renegotiations, of referenda and re-referenda and of financial and economic crisis have put the unity of the union to the test.

The debates may have been paradoxical, opaque and tortuous, but no matter which issue was at the stake, one term has become an omnipresent description of why Europe "has not worked": the EU's lack of democratic legitimacy.

Picture: Pia-Theresa Lücker / youthmedia.eu
The institutions don't listen to the people!
A common yet wrong conviction.

Where We Think We Are: Democratic Legitimacy in the Times of Treaty Negotiations

The critics' story about democratic deficit goes like this: when a few bureaucrats, most importantly Jean Monnet, the first President of the European Commission, and some key politicians like Robert Schumann and Konrad Adenauer initiated the European process in the 1950s, it began as an approach from the top and was never based on the will of the people. And this original sin of an undemocratic and illegitimate elitist process remained the main characteristic of European unification up till now:

When we watch news from Brussels on TV, we normally see statesmen giving press conferences and smiling with well-fed faces at the photo sessions. In contrast, who has ever seen a European Parliament member on screen?

When we finally hear some snippet about the European Parliament, one might get the impression that democracy means cutting mobile roaming rates or labelling obviously unhealthy products with warning signs. While the European court protecting people's rights sits in Strasbourg, the EU's Luxembourg court talks about what can be named brandy and on what criteria. Damn it, how can a court decide how to name the liquor on my table without asking us, the people? Europe and democratic legitimacy – two terms which are not supposed to go together?

"The EU's institutional setting is at least as democratic as any European national system – but a lack of media pressure and media report on EU issues constitutes what we feel to be the undemocratic character."

Where We Are in Reality: The Democratic Deficit Myth and the EU Institutions

Putting aside what has become a common conviction – the undemocratic EU – today's system turns out to be somewhat different from what we believe it to be. The EU's institutional setting is at least as democratic as any European national system – but a lack of media pressure and media report on EU issues constitutes what we feel to be the undemocratic character of the EU.

The most astonishing thing any political science research on the EU's democratic deficit has revealed is the fact that compared with nation states, the EU's institutional system does not do worse in terms of democratic legitimacy than democracies like France, Germany or Italy: like many Western systems the EU has a bicameral system, meaning that legislation is made by two bodies, of which at least one is directly elected by citizens. In the EU, these bodies are the European Parliament, as the directly elected part, and the EU Council, a second chamber representing national governments.

In such systems, federal legislation is based on the agreement of both chambers. In the case of the EU, the Lisbon Treaty will extend the European Parliament's powers in almost all policy fields of the union. The parliament will then be able to deny any legislative initiative of the Commission, as the highest executive of the EU.

Compared, for example, to France or Italy, the EU's Parliament has much more power while the French and Italian system hands huge chunks of power up to the president as the highest executive. In the EU, the member states' governments or the Commission will not be able to decide anything against the will of their people's parliament.

Hence, the institutional design of the EU is in no way more undemocratic than an average European national system. In some respects, the EU is even a frontrunner in legitimacy issues: the EU publishes all official documents of Commission decisions, EU regulations, funding programmes and a lot more on its website and makes them available for everybody. In any rating of legislative transparency, the EU would, surely, come out first in the world.

Where We Feel We Are: Between the Balance Sheets and the Eyes of the People

Nevertheless, you might have the persistent feeling: "No matter what political scientists or journalists say in their analyses, I do not feel comfortable with the EU and I do have the impression that these guys in Brussels and Strassbourg are following their own and not the people's agenda." And although I have been arguing the opposite, I may agree with you because the EU tells us a very important lesson about democratic legitimacy: a democratic system on the balance sheet does not constitute a democratic system in the eyes of the people.

Picture: Monika Albert / pixelio.de
What happens in this building is more important than
most people realise – the European Parliament.

The key to why people do not see the legitimacy of what seems to be legitimate on paper is the media: they prevent the Strasbourg Parliament, the main democratic institution representing Europe's people, from becoming a well-valued and trusted guarantor of democracy.

Where the Solution Lies: The Role of European Media

Studies show that the media coverage for EU legislative initiatives is very low in all member states and in no way corresponds to the importance of the decisions taken in Strasbourg. Whereas with national legislation fourteen newspaper articles can be found for a single initiative, national newspapers only publish three articles for a comparable initiative in Strasbourg. Furthermore, studies show that the quality of the European commentating lags far behind that of national reporting.

Therefore, it is no surprise that people feel that the EU does things they do not know about and cannot control at all. And even worse: if people know little about legislation processes at the European level, if media coverage is thin, then no discourse can evolve which could have the power to prevent ongoing initiatives. Whereas in national systems, media pressure can even depose governments or stop legislation when outrage is overwhelming, at the European level these forms of democratic control through media pressure are not available. In the same way, elections get difficult: should I vote for my European Parliament candidate? Well, did he do a good job? Hmm, I do not know, I have never heard of him or his party, not on TV, nor in the newspaper...

The media may complain about the EU and they may have created the notion of "democratic deficit." But in fact, not only did they create this term, they is themselves at the root of the problem. Thus they are the only solution to it - because the EU institutions are actually more democratic than we think or feel.

IN -1022 DAYS