June 29, 2012

Passing the Parcel: Who Will End Up Holding Europe's Democratic Deficit?

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/business/eurodead

It is widely thought that Europe has a democratic deficit (Follesdal and Hix 2006; The Economist 2012). This means that the European Commission and European Parliament exercise powers in the name of a European community and identity that do not really exist. In reality, these bodies are accountable only to national electorates. There are no true European parties, and national electorates make their choices on national, not European calculations. As a result, European institutions hold powers that are neither accountable nor legitimate. This is one source of the current crisis.

Since the Euro is unworkable in its current form, it must change. An interesting question is what will happen then to the existing democratic deficit. Whatever changes, the democratic deficit will not go away. Instead, it will be redistributed across the terrain of the Eurozone. Different upheavals will pass it around in different ways. Two scenarios illustrate the point.

  • Scenario 1

If current proposals for a fiscal union across the present Eurozone are adopted, member states will lose much of their already limited sovereignty over public spending and taxes. Their remaining sovereignty will be pooled in Brussels and Strasbourg. Thus, the democratic deficit will continue to be Europe-wide.

Many citizens will get the feeling that the democratic deficit has widened, but this will be more apparent than real. The democratic deficit will be felt more, because its true scale will have been formalized in new unaccountable powers, whereas in the past the deficit was merely implicit in powers that were often deployed ineffectively. This feeling, however, will be particularly acute in the two poles of the Eurozone, Germany and Greece. This is because German voters will contribute most to the new fiscal transfers against their will, and because Greek voters will lose most sovereignty to new fiscal controls.

  • Scenario 2

Suppose instead that one or more Club Med countries are ejected from the Eurozone, as may still happen. Provided the Euro itself survives, in the Eurozone core the democratic deficit should then shrink for two reasons. First, the required severity of new fiscal controls and the scale of new fiscal transfers within the Eurozone will be less, so Brussels and Strasbourg will acquire fewer new powers. Second, the sense of a shared European identity among the core countries may well be greater than at present, because the national electorates that remain will be those that feel more affinity with Germany.

Under this scenario the democratic deficit may shrink in the core of the Eurozone but expand in the countries that exit. Again there are several reasons. In theory, the exiting countries will regain sovereignty over their own affairs. In practice they will have less sovereignty even than now, because their financial systems and their international credit will have been wrecked in the process. As a result, their voters will face few, if any, good choices. In the face of national humiliation, the voters may well turn to anti-system, anti-democratic parties that will steal power first from the discredited democratic leaders, and then from the voters themselves.

In short, there do not seem to be any easy ways to make good the democratic deficit that has been built into European institutions. At best, all we can do is pass it round.


Economist, The. 2012. The Euro Crisis: An Ever Deeper Democratic Deficit. The Economist, May 26. Weblink: http://www.economist.com/node/21555927.

Follesdal, Andreas, and Simon Hix. 2006. Why There is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: A Response to Majone and Moravcsik. Journal of Common Market Studies 44:3. pp. 533-562. Repec handle: http://ideas.repec.org/p/erp/eurogo/p0002.html.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Benjamin

    Hello Professor Harrison,

    for a german (like me) it is really painful to see the wealth we still possess transfered to uncompetetive southern european countries against the will of the german people. As I see it we are burning what is left for the debts of the GIIPS countries instead of making an investment into the future of our own country (maybe you know that Germany had the lowest investment figures of all EU countries in the period 1999-2008, which resulted in a substantial detoriation of the local infrastructure, not to mention the already existing shortcomings for example in the educational sector).

    In my opinion the best what could happen to Germany would be a reduction of the whole EU to a free-trade-zone. What do you think about this? What dangers/advantages do you see if Germany 1. leaves the EU as it currently is (with Germany being a netto payer effectivly subsidizing the majority of the european countries) 2. stays and accepts the euro bonds 3. insists on expelling bankrupt states from the EURO zone?

    Best regards

    03 Jul 2012, 11:45

  2. John

    “In practice they will have less sovereignty even than now, because their financial systems and their international credit will have been wrecked in the process. As a result, their voters will face few, if any, good choices. In the face of national humiliation, the voters may well turn to anti-system, anti-democratic parties”

    I have a feeling this is backwards. In the short/medium term grexit (+ pexit, spexit etc.) and devaluation will almost certainly be less painful than internal adjustments. Indeed, despite inevitable initial turmoil return to competitiveness may even be within the political cycle (cf argentina). I think the benefits of staying in the EZ (and poss EU) are much longer term (not just to PIIGS!)

    In terms of democratic deficit, I think scenario 1 is far more nefarious.

    04 Jul 2012, 11:29

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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