Critics of the European project will often point to the notion of a “democratic deficit” to undermine the credibility of the European Union. Some say its supranational structure simply cannot account for democracy to the same extent that national governments can, and that may be true. As long as states are sovereign, they will necessarily cater to a wider variety of their citizens’ needs. These include fundamental responsibilities like education, health care, and other social services. Citizens may feel more comfortable with their national governments or feel that the national, regional, or local levels of governance are more relevant to their interests, as our host father does. He can talk all day about Belgian politics, a system that seems far more complex than the European system, but he shows little interest in the machinations of Europe-wide politics. And who can blame him? The EU is an emerging institution with changing purposes and functions, and it is certainly difficult to learn the inner-workings of a bureaucracy that is not indigenous to you, as we have learned so far on this trip.
However, these shortcomings should not delegitimize the EU, nor should they amount to a deficit of democracy, at least not structurally. There could always be improvements; perhaps a directly elected President of the European Parliament would assuage the concerns of the European people. But what the EU does, it does democratically. All states that have joined the EU have democratically elected governments that have decided (and, with the Treaty of Lisbon reforms outlining the protocol for departure from the EU, must continue to decide) that being a member of the EU is in their best interests. The European Parliament has been directly elected by European citizens since 1979 and Lisbon reforms have also made the European Council and the Council of Ministers more beholden to the people. Though voter turnout has been decreasing, a common phenomenon in modern Western democracies, the recent elections have demonstrated that they adequately express popular sentiments in the EU. Unfortunately, those sentiments have been largely nationalist and euroskeptical, but if the EU were an undemocratic institution, the Eurocrats would have been able to impose their will of orgiastic Europhilia unimpeded by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Instead, the people spoke, and the people reined in ambitions of further integration. If a great deal of Europeans disagree, maybe voter turnout will be higher in 2019 – the democratic structure is there, but it is up to the people to engage in the democratic process.
In the spirit of President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy, an avid haiku poet, I feel that the succinctness of the haiku format can express my sentiments:
So, too, must people
Outstanding Josh! A fantastic, balanced and nuanced analysis of the issue. Ultimately, it is down to the people.