WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
Democracy is the idea that a society can be governed by its citizens. The idea was born in Athens in Greece 2500 years ago. The word comes from two concepts. Demos means “people”. Kratos means “ruling”. Democracy therefore means government by the people. In the words of American President Abraham Lincoln in his famous address at Gettysburg, it means "government of the people, by the people, for the people".
Democracy is the governing form in all 28 member states of the European Union. It is enshrined in their national constitutions. No country can become a member of the European Union without having strong democratic institutions.
The idea of democracy is in opposition to other ways of governing a society. It can be an oligarchy or plutocracy where small number of powerful or rich people decide instead of the voters. It can be a meritocracy where rulers are picked for their wisdom. It can be a dictatorship or tyranny where one or a few persons or a party decide without real control or even influence by the citizens.
Democracy is also in opposition to fascism, where corporations govern instead of the voters or to one tradition of Marxism ,where the working class is supposed to govern as a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Democracy may take the form of direct democracy where voters decide directly in referendums. Or it can be indirect or representative democracy where voters elect representatives to an assembly or parliament to represent them. Or it can be a mixture of both these forms.
The essence of democracy everywhere is that the voters have the last word on the government and the laws of the country concerned. Voters can participate in elections, chose a new majority and then create produce a new government and new laws.
DEMOCRACY IN THE EU
The idea of democracy unites the peoples of Europe. It can also be found in the Lisbon Treaty Article 10 TEU stating:
- "The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy".
In all EU member states the idea of democracy is implemented by different institutions with similar functions.
There is an elected legislative body most often called the parliament or in some countries the national assembly. This is elected by the voters in universal elections. It approves the government and the laws.
There is an executive body that is the government, which is held accountable to the national parliament. It is appointed or approved by the majority in the parliament. It is the case everywhere that the government must resign and leave office if a simple majority in the parliament so decides.
The government serves the parliament by proposing and implementing the decisions and laws of the elected representatives of the voters.
There is also a judicial body, an independent Court or supreme court which decides on concrete conflicts regarding the interpretation of the constitution or law.
And there is a more or less clear division of powers between the legislative body, the executive and the judiciary as recommended by the French philosoph Montesque. This "separation of powers" between the three arms of government is generally considered to be essential for a parliamentary democracy.
In all 28 member states the elected members of each parliament can amend the law by a simple majority of members if they are not satisfied with the implementation by the government or the interpretation by the court.
In federal systems a new law may also require the support of a second chamber representing the participating states.
The core belief everywhere is the same: There is no one above or beyond the voters. We, the voters, must decide. That is democracy.
EUROPEAN ORGANS WITH DIFFERENT ROLES
In the European Union we have institutions with similar names to those governing the national democracies. However, they have rather different functions.
The European Parliament does not decide the laws in the same way as national parliaments.
The European Parliament has a so-called power of co-decision in many areas. This method is now called the Ordinary Legislative Procedure and is presented in Article 294 TEU.
It offers MEPs increased influence in the daily life of citizens and companies - but not the legislative power as in national parliaments.
Only the non-elected Commissioners can put forward proposals for EU laws. And only in the so-called third reading is it necessary for the European Parliament to positively adopt a text before it can become law.
In the first and second readings a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers can decide a law without the positive support from the European Parliament. That is what the legal rules say.
In practice individual MEPs has a much greater influence on law-making than many MPs and even ministers at national level. 80% of all law-making under the ordinary legislative procedure is done through compromises between the representatives from the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament.
The compromises are come to behind closed doors in so-called “trialogue”-meetings and offer the participating “rapporteurs” and “shadow rapporteurs” a personal influence on law-making which is much less common in national parliaments.
The European Parliament matters – and it is worth voting for, even if it is still very different from what we call democracy.
MEPs CAN PROPOSE AMENDMENTS
Members of the European Parliament can propose amendments. From 1999 – 2004 the EP had 307 amendments accepted, 809 were agreed in a different form and only 228 amendments were not accepted.
These figures show an important influence of the elected members of parliament. An efficient MEP can influence more laws than national MPs. However, it is mainly working as political lobbyist convincing the non-elected and by participating in the trialogue. It is only very seldom as an expression of legislative power.
The European Parliament is elected in the same way as the national parliaments. The MEPs have gained an increased influence on European laws. But the power to decide the law is very seldom with the elected members of parliament.
The European Parliament can only “co-decide” the tip of the iceberg of European rules according to the rules.
THE ROLE OF THE COMMISSION
The European Commission functions like most national governments in terms of its role in preparing new laws and their implementation. Yet the 28 Commissioners do much more than serving the elected. They decide far the most EU rules on their own. Not the most important ones, but most of them. And they cannot be amended by normal majorities in the Council or in the European Parliament.
The European Commission"s own legislative power is immense which can be shown by some figures provided by the Commission itself. In these figures the Commission have excluded all acts not published in the Official Journal and all routine management acts that are valid for a limited period only.
In 2008, the Commission adopted 574 regulations, 53 directives, 612 decisions and 24 recommendations, in total 1263 legal acts.
In fact the total number of Commission decisions is much higher. In 2008 the Commission decided 269 files through oral procedure, 3067 in written procedure, 2227 in empowerment procedure and 4008 in delegation to Commissioners or by sub-delegation to civil servants.
This gives a total number of 9571 files adopted in the name of the European Commission in just one year.
Also in 2008, the total number of implementing measures further decided by the Commission through the so-called comitology procedures was 2125.
Furthermore, the Lisbon Treaty has established new implementing powers through so-called delegated legal acts.
The Commission has also gained strong powers through the so-called six-pack regulations of the Economic and Monetary Union. The Commission must now approve national budgets before they are delivered as proposals for the national parliaments, and the Commission can impose fines against member states breaching the ceilings for public deficits.
These fines can only be changed by a qualified majority in the Council. The elected European Parliament has nothing to say as regards most economic management in the EU.
APPOINTED IN SECRET
These powerful Commissioners are not elected. They are appointed by prime ministers behind closed doors in the European Council. Formally the appointment is through a vote by super qualified majority.
Under the Treaty of Nice the appointment of a Commissioner required the support of 18 of the 27 prime ministers. Under the Lisbon Treaty, from 1 November 2014 it requires the support of 72% - 21 of the 28 - prime ministers and presidents.
In addition, the 72% of the member states must also represent 65% of all EU citizens. Prime ministers and presidents vote in accordance with the number of their citizens from 2014 when the new voting system is introduced.
For law making based on proposals from the Commission only 55% of the member states must vote in favour in addition to the requirement for the governments also to represent 65% of all EU citizens.
The full Commission must also be elected by an absolute majority vote in the European Parliament.
Commissioners cannot be sacked by national governments or parliaments. The non-elected Commission may govern for 5 years. Only in theory, the Commission may be sacked by members of the European Parliament.
This is because that would require a majority of 2/3 and an absolute majority of members. Not a simple majority as in the national parliaments. Minorities in the European Parliament have sometimes threatened the Commission with motions of censure,but even when applied, they never succeeded.
The European Parliament cannot sack an individual Commissioner or insert another Commission. Only prime ministers have the right to propose a new Commission if the European Parliament should reject their first proposal or sack with the 2/3 majority.
ABSOLUTE MAJORITY IN THE EP
The European Parliament has increased its influence dramatically on European laws. In 2013, the European Parliament participated in around 1000 so-called trialogue-meetings about the legislation.
From July 14, 2009 to August 12, 2013, the Parliament participated in 247 first reading agreements, 25 early second reading agreements, 25 second reading agreements and 8 third readings with conciliation committees.
In 2008, it influenced 48 regulations, 53 directives, 30 decisions and 1 recommendation, in total 132 proposals through joint decision making with the Council of Ministers.
In 2005, the total figure was only 61 under the so-called co-decision procedure.
Formally, the elected members of parliament can decide nothing without approval from the non-elected Commission. The elected MEPs can only propose amendments to the decisions taken by the non-elected. The amendments only count in the second reading when the EP is able to assemble an absolute majority of members behind them.
An absolute majority is equal to 376 of 751 MEPs.
Usually around 100 MEPs do not participate in voting at any given time. An absolute majority would usually therefore normally require compromise agreements between the biggest political groups in the European Parliament or the support from at least around 60 % of the MEPs.
This is the reason for the special relationship between the two biggest groups, the Christian-Democrats and Conservatives in the EPP and the Social democrats and socialists in the S&D party, previously PSE. They have normally more than 60% of the seats in the Parliament and coordinate their amendments and votes.
If members would not coordinate across the political spectrum, the elected members of parliament would have no influence at all.
CONCILIATION COMMITTEE AND TRIALOGUE
The Commission only needs to read proposals having an absolute majority of members behind them. Only those proposals can go from the second reading to the third reading in a so-called conciliation committee.
This committee is composed of an equal number of representatives from the member states and the European Parliament appointed after the so-called d`Hondt method (which favors the biggest groups).
They meet to negotiate behind closed doors. In practice, the real negotiations are between civil servants from the different institutions and perhaps the Council President and one or more rapporteurs or group coordinators or shadow rapporteurs. Their assistants and lobbyists often have a real influence on the outcome.
Civil servants from all institutions meet and decide upon most laws behind closed doors, most often without the full insight of the Commissioners, ministers and the elected MEPs in the so-Called trialogue meetings.
THE COUNCIL OF MINISTERS
The representatives of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament may agree on a compromise. There are in reality few cases where the result is put to a formal vote in both the Council and the Parliament in the so-called third reading.
In the Council of Ministers the legal text of ca ompromise law would normally require a qualified majority of members to get through. This is 260 of 352 votes in a vote where e.g., Germany has 29 votes, Sweden 10 votes, Ireland 7 votes, Luxembourg 4 and Malta has three.
The Lisbon Treaty gives more voting power to the biggest member states by introducing a vote according to the size of the population. This gives Germany 80,5 million votes over Ireland’s 4,6 million, from 1 November 2014. It will make it much easier to reach an agreement in the Council corridors. It will not offer a bigger say to the voters.
The ministers in the Council formally represent the governments of the 28 member states. However, only 15 % of the EU laws are negotiated in the Council.
The vast majority of laws – maybe even 85 % - are negotiated and - in reality - decided in 275 secret working groups in the Council. They are prepared in the non-elected Commission with its 3,000 secret working groups where we still do not know who all the advisors are.
ONLY FEW VOTES WITH NO UNANIMITY
Besides the 132 legal acts carried out through co-decision with the Parliament in 2008, the Council of Ministers has also adopted a further 137 regulations, 14 directives, 245 decisions and 8 recommendations on their own - this is not including the many implementing acts from the Commission.
This adds up to 404 acts from the Council on its own after proposal from the Commission, and 536 including the 132 acts adopted in cooperation with the European Parliament.
The Council only published 147 voting reports in 2008. The table from the Council showed 19 votes with different opinions. 128 decisions were unanimous.
In the 19 files we could find there were 8 countries voting against and 32 abstentions. Of 3,544 possible votes by the 27 member states only 40 were not unanimous, and only 8 countries voted against a file put for an official vote.
Disagreements between the member states are settled behind closed doors. The public are not informed.
The figures prove that only a very little tiny tip of the iceberg of disagreements are being shown to the public.
The Lisbon Treaty has not changed the secrecy in law making, but disagreements with Parliament can now find their ways to the medias.
Around 2-3% of all EU rules under the ordinary legislative procedure are actually decided in the third reading where it is necessary for the European Parliament to positively approve.
The vast majority of EU legal acts are never seen by an elected member of parliament before being adopted.
Thereafter it can never be amended by the European Parliament unless the Commission decides so and puts forward a proposal for an amendment and has it approved by a normal qualified majority in the Council of Ministers.
This is true for the 1,263 regulations, directives, decisions and recommendations decided on by the Commission alone during 2008.
It is also true for the 404 similar decisions decided by the Council on their own. 132 files were opened for co-decision among 1799 different rules (not including 2,125 implementing rules decided in comitology).
DEMOCRACY IN THE TREATIES
The principle of parliamentary democracy is included in the Lisbon Treaty as a principle - but it is not yet implemented.
Proponents of the Lisbon Treaty argued that it would increase the powers of the European Parliament. This is partly true. Members of the European Parliament have gained a lot of influence through the Lisbon Treaty.
There are 19 existing areas in which the European Parliament gained a bigger say. There are 49 new areas where the European Parliament also have gained influence through the ordinary legislative procedure.
This is very good for the MEPs.
The problem is that voters and national parliaments have lost more power than what is gained by the MEPs. In the 49 areas voters could go for elections in their member states and change the law.
Under the Lisbon Treaty voters can still go for elections but cannot change the law unless they can convince the non-elected Commisison and a qualified majority in the Council.
THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT
This paradox is called the “democratic deficit”. It increases every time a decision is moved from the parliamentary democracies of the 28 member states to Brussels.
There are different democratic solutions to this deficit. Federalists prefer to give the full legislative power to the European Parliament and give the European Parliament the right to insert the government – the Commission – as should happen in a national democracy.
This model could exist as a parliamentary democracy at EU level. The argument against is that the European Parliament may not (yet) have the same legitimacy as the national parliaments.
The turnout in European elections has fallen in each of the first eight subsequent elections, from 63% in the first direct elections in 1979 to 45% in 2004, 43% in 2009 and 42.54% in 2014..
Another model might be to give more powers to the national parliaments to control their ministers and combine it with a requirement that all EU laws also must be approved by a simple majority in the European Parliament. Why not?
All laws ought to have a majority among elected members of parliament, here, there or both places.
Both models could be combined with the principle of true subsidiarity where EU institutions only govern on topics where the national parliaments cannot efficiently govern themselves.
If the EU limited it is governing to those areas no one can govern, on its own, no democracy would be lost but everything could be gained by having a co-influence where voters would otherwise have no influence.
For these areas we could then establish a true European democracy with pan-European parties and European elections for the selection of the EU Prime Minister – the Commission President. He/she could then pick his government and have it approved by a majority in the European Parliament.
For those who do not believe in a common European people participating enthusiastically in the elections of a “foreigner” as prime minister we could eventually create direct elections of the national Commissioner together with the European elections. Then different parties could put forward their candidates and programs and the one with the most votes would be elected.
He or she could then visit the national parliament on Fridays when there are no meetings taking place in Brussels in order to represent the voters in the Commission when they are adopting proposals for new laws.
In the administration of the European portfolios the then elected Commissioners could still be independent of their national voters and here be accountable to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
Under Barrosos two Commissions from 2004-14 not one single vote has been taken in the college of Commissioners. A presidential system has been established. The debates in the college of Commissioners are rather formal. The Commission President often reads a text from his civil servants. There is not always real debate on the policies to which they add their names.
Before Barrosos time, a Commissioner’s cabinet spent perhaps 80% of their time establishing alliances with other cabinets. Now they may use 80% of the time to convince the cabinet of the President.
Only a few of the decisions are actually taken in the college of Commissioners. In 2008, 269 files were decided upon through oral procedure, 3,067 in writing, and 2,227 through the so-called empowerment procedure and 4,008 in delegation or sub-delegation procedures.
Of 9,571 decisions only 2,8% were decided upon after oral discussions in the Commission.
The major part of Commission decisions are taken by unknown and unelected civil servants after delegation – and further delegation - or in written procedures between the cabinets of the Commissioners.
We have got a President for Europe but he is not elected in the way, for example, Barack Obama was. Also, we cannot see and control who rules the Commission or if Barroso is also ruled by the civil servants and some subtle direction from certain prime ministers and a German chancellor.
In addition, we then have another unelected President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.
84% OF GERMAN LAWS FROM BRUSSELS
The former German president, Roman Herzog, who also served as president of the German Constitutional Court and President of the first Constitutional Convention establishing the Charter of fundamental rights for the EU wrote in Die Welt on t21/01/2007 that 84 % of all German laws now originate from Brussels.
“It raises the question of whether one unreservedly can call the Federal Republic of Germany a parliamentary democracy at all”, he wrote and added:
“EU policies suffer to an alarming degree from a lack of democracy and a de facto suspension of the separation of powers", he wrote.
Herzog is right. In the European Union the vast majority of laws are still being prepared and decided by un-elected civil servants behind closed doors. Democracy has become a derogation in all 28 member states.
CO-DECISION BY NUMBERS