Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Europe’s House of Cards? Between Democratic Deficit and CSDP Legitimacy

by Raluca Csernatoni



Jürgen Habermas, the esteemed philosopher and recognized ‘Last European’, might have overstated the downfall of the European ideal by saying that Europe is ‘experiencing a dismantling of democracy’ because of the ‘pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets’ (2011). Nevertheless, his words have not been too far off and they have accurately reflected the generalized disenchantment of the European public with both national and supranational politics. One additional element further contributing to this sweeping disillusionment is the EU’s perceived democratic deficit and the ways in which it has been instantiated in specific policy areas such as security and defence.


The European Union, as a suis generis institutional actor, has prompted different responses to the ontological challenges of capturing its fleeting political identity and its unique and complex structure. From this perspective, it would be misleading to accommodate a multi-faceted entity such as the EU to classical state-centred democratic templates of analysis, the EU being neither an intergovernmental organization nor a fully-fledged supranational actor. Rather than conceptualizing the EU in the traditional Wesphalian, state-centred key, we should take into consideration and recognize the EU’s multi-dimensional nature and its institutional “intermittent status” (Bretherton & Vogler 1999) in the international system. The EU’s contested institutional identity, complex multi-level governance, and supranational decision-making process have all elicited numerous academic debates on what kind of political entity the EU actually is. The EU has been labelled from a new ‘political system’ (Hix 2005), a ‘polity’ (Mair 2005), a ‘regulatory polity’ (Tallberg 2002), to a ‘multi-level governance’ (Hooghe & Marks 1990s).

Multi-level governance suggests that political arenas are interconnected rather than nested within states, sub-national actors thus operating in both national and supranational arenas and creating transnational associations in the process. Consequently, the first underlying question addresses the type of democracy that characterizes the decision-making process in such a complex intergovernmental and supranational institution. Is there a genuine prospective for a new supranational democracy model (Meny 2002), encompassing the EU’s complex institutional background and its convoluted governance practices? Recent discussions on the role played by the European Parliament as the key institution most inclined to address the EU’s democratic deficit are particularly disheartening, especially in light of the recent European elections from last May and their Euro-sceptic orientation.

Concerning the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the democratic deficit problematique becomes especially relevant in terms of parliamentary monitoring and political oversight. In the context of increased defence build-up tendencies at the EU level, critical voices have claimed that the EU suffers from a double-democratic deficit (Wagner 2005; Stavridis 2006; Sjursen 2011)within the EU and the CSDP respectively, especially concerning sensitive decisions to use of force, international projection, and defence capabilities build-up. In the context in which the CSDP is experiencing a level of intervention ‘fatigue’ and accountability issues in terms of output and input legitimacy, there is increased concern that security and defence policy decisions are being taken at the EU level in the absence of genuine democratic control. A pan-European defence development trend seems to favour large security and defence companies and a select club of powerful EU member states. Issues pertaining to democratic accountability and oversight come up in the discussion, especially when the European Parliament is not extensively involved in the debate and the EU institutions are under lobbying pressure by the European defence industry to put forward favourable policy initiatives.

Key elements contributing to the perceived democratic deficit in the EU:

  • The unelected and supranational nature of both the European Commission and the European Central Bank, added to the predominant role played by the ministers in the Council of the European Union – all demonstrate a tendency to establish an executive dominance at the EU level without proper democratic accountability. There is a power withdrawal process from national parliaments as a result of the EU integration process, by tilting the balance toward the executive and by concomitantly decreasing the role of national parliamentary oversight;
  • The European Parliament’s case of democracy ‘lite’ and its supposed weakness: although its powers have increased with the Treaty of Lisbon in terms of legislative and budgetary matters, the Parliament still exerts weak democratic control. The Parliament has a perception problem (Merritt 2014) in terms of convincing European citizens that it represents their interests in EU-related issues, coupled by gaps in popular authority and legitimacy that are intrinsic to national legislative assemblies. The role played by the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is paramount; many MEPs remain divorced from the national political systems, being more concerned with boosting the EP’s own powers in the EU‘s institutional landscape;
  • The scarcity of substantive democratic markers such as: the absence of a pan-European common identity or a ‘demos’, the lack of a shared political culture, low voter participation in European elections (mostly considered as second-order elections), the shortage of strong democratic partisanship, the secrecy accompanying decision-making processes in the Council when it acts as legislature, and last but not the least, the EU’s perceived distance from voters.

Existing academic debates on the EU’s democratic deficit are multi-folded, heterogeneous, and most of the times confusing (Jensen 2009). This is partly the case due to the authors’ particular theoretical biases, their exacting definitions as regards ideal standards of democracy, or their specific perceptions of legitimacy or accountability sources. More specifically, output legitimacy in the case of the EU refers to output effectiveness of the institutions, while input legitimacy measures the European citizenry’s level of political participation within the EU (Schmidt 2012). Despite the multi-faceted approached, the democratic deficit is a concept principally invoked when discussing the EU’s lack of democracy in the functioning of its various institutional bodies and its overall inaccessibility to the common citizenry.

Several conceptual points need to be taken into account so as to better understand the ways in which the EU’s democratic deficit is understood in the academic literature:

  • Democratic deficit seen as a form of parliamentary deficit (Coultrap 1999): the relative weakness of the European Parliament, the lack of prominence of the European elections, and the gap between the European citizenry and the EU institutions (Weiler 1995);
  • Democratic deficit represented by the legitimacy deficit (Katz 2001) of a technocracy-dominated, EU-level executive, its secretive and convoluted nature, and its lack proper accountability (Schmitter 2003);
  • Democratic deficit defined in relation to demos and polity deficit(Decker 2002) problems: there is an absence of a European discourse and a sense of belonging to a pan-European political community (Sifft 2007).

The double legitimacy deficit in the CSDP

The more recent discussions surrounding the CSDP have emphasized the advantages of a collective approach to emerging transnational security challenges, seen as a viable alternative solution to dwindling national defence budgets and obsolete, territorial-based militaries. While arguments for further integration in the field of security and defence are meaningful in terms of addressing such challenges at the EU level, little reflection has accompanied actions as regards democratic accountability and control. The democratic deficit in the CSDP is on the one hand engendered by the broader democratic deficit debates within the EU and the specific ways in which national governmental powers are manifested within the CSDP governance practices and policies (Fanoulis 2014). Such issues refer to democratic oversight, but also to the nature of the secretive and opaque decision-making structures responsible with the more recent calls for pooling and sharing military initiatives.

Efficiency and flexibility is preferred by a club of influential and powerful member states to the detriment of democratic accountability. This situation is particularly obvious in cases in which less prominent countries, opposing EU military action or further security and defence integration, may become influenced to use the option of ‘constructive abstention’.  The agenda-setting powers are ceded to a group of front-runner countries in charge with decisions over the EU’s military future. Furthermore, the Treaty of Lisbon commits the EU member states to constantly upgrade security and defence capabilities and the European military development is generally entrusted to EU-level decision-making bodies rather than national governments. The CSDP suffers from both output and input legitimacy deficits targeting: on the one hand, the CSDP’s effectiveness in crisis management situations; and on the other hand, the adequate democratic control and involvement of national authorities in the policy making process.

In terms of the output legitimacy deficit, the CSDP should be also judged in light of moments of inaction and the lack of political will when the international security context called for a coherent response, such as the Libyan crisis or the broader Arab Spring upheavals. Despite the sometimes optimistic EU rhetoric outlining the successes of the CSDP missions, the impact of the CSDP is often hard to evaluate: due to the difficulty in identifying the actual effects of the CSDP action; and especially because the EU deployments have tended to be reactive rather than preventive. As well, it could be said that the EU has significant force generation problems and it has thus far not made use of the battlegroups despite multiple occasions to deploy them. As far as input legitimacy is concerned and despite the fact that member states have primacy in decision-making process, substantial agenda-setting powers and security and defence innovations are transferred to the EU institutional structures without substantial democratic oversight or public debate. Moreover, it remains to be seen how effective or ‘powerful’ is the European Parliament to prompt genuine accountability with the Subcommittee on Security and Defence’s (SEDE) role as information gatherer and its oversight functions.

But is there really a democratic deficit at the EU level?

The Treaty of Lisbon, by putting forward the Early Warning Mechanism (EWM), has increased the collective capacity and the involvement of national parliaments in the EU policy-making process: under the mechanism, the European Commission is bound to send concomitantly draft legislative documents to national parliaments as its sends them to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (Wilde 2012). The EWM is meant to address the lingering and much-debated problem in the EU governance system and the democratic deficit, by mitigating the concern as regards the degree to which the EU adequately represents and is accountable to European citizens. The European Parliament has been also heralded to become a ‘driving force’ of the CSDP and to consequently contribute to the parliamentarization of the EU’s security and defence policy through contributions in agenda-setting, parliamentary oversight, political control, law-making, and budgetary prerequisites (Schlomach 2014).

Moreover, it could be argued that the EU has been unfairly judged (Moravcsik 2002) by being either contrasted to ideal standards of democracy or compared with national democratic contexts and governance practices. It is worth mentioning the fact that the most advanced national democracies do not always meet such lofty standards. The goal is not to mimic, duplicate and advance such democratic rules and regulations from the national and supranational level, but to construct new democratic paradigms, rules and institutions amenable to a supranational reality (Meny 2002). As well, the democratic element should not be narrowed down to parliamentarism or electoral representation, other procedural legitimacy elements taking centre stage in the discussion of an EU-level democracy: for example the EU comitology system, in the vein of a deliberative democracy or a networked governance system, seen as an example of non-hierarchical governance structures operating on the basis of persuasion, argument and discursive processes (Jorges & Neyer 1997 in Jensen 2009).

In the same procedural legitimacy reading, if we were to understand the EU as a regulatory state (Majone 2006), the EU’s role refers more to producing Pareto-efficient outcomes in security and defence integrationg, creating satisfactory economic policies and correcting market failures, and it is less concerned with further political integration at a supranational level or substantive democratic debates. The economic crisis and the implemented austerity measures have however weakened the output legitimacy of the EU in terms of the added benefits of its regulatory policies, as reflected in negative economic growth patterns across the Eurozone, high unemployment rates, and unilateral EU bailout programmes. There are also critical voices arguing beyond procedural legitimacy when the EU governance is concerned, putting forward issues of social legitimacy, the construction of a pan-European demos and polity, and social-cultural cohesion (Cederman 2001).

Nevertheless, such high ideals as pre-conditions of pan-European community building and European polity construction are inherently problematic, due to the difficulties in the construction of an engaged public sphere (Sifft 2007) beyond the nation state. The lack of an European identity is reflected in the EU’s lack of political will concerning foreign policy and security matters –  the EU is often accused of being unable to ‘speak with one voice’ when EU military deployments are under discussion. Truth be told, the EU has a complicated system of checks and balances that is accounted for by super-majority and concurrent voting requirements, a tendency to adopt centrist policies through compromise, easy access to EU official documents, narrow and alternating mandates, and separation of powers between EU institutions. Due to the fact that member states still dominate both the decision-making and policy processes within the EU, the outputs of such processes are legitimized by the democratic and parliamentary accountability of national governments.


The very unique institutional nature of the EU has determined an array of debates regarding the EU’s democratic deficit as a post-sovereign and “post-modern polity” (Bretherton & Vogler 1999), developing novel ways of political governance and democratic processes. In light of these debates, we must remain sceptical regarding the possibility of democratic international organisations (Dahl 1999), but at the same time we must recognize the fact that complex and economic, cultural and security issues are transcending national state boundaries and require collective international attention. The EU can become from this point of view an interesting laboratory for testing the likelihood of democratic governance at a supranational level (Jensen 2009) beyond the limits of the nation state. Multi-level and inter-parliamentary cooperation and checks-and-balances mechanisms of the CSDP, involving both the European Parliament and national parliaments, could also be the best mélange solution for increased democratic oversight over security and defence matters.

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