Democracy is the idea that a society can be governed by its voters. The idea was born in Athens in Greece 2,500 years ago. The word contain of two concepts. Demos means “people”. Kratos means “ruling”. Democracy therefore means government by the people.

Democracy is the governing form in all 27 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 where rich people decide instead of the voters. It can be a meritocracy where rulers are picked for their wisdom. It can be a dictatorship where one or a few persons or a party decide without giving real influence to the citizens.

Democracy is also in opposition to fascism where corporations shall govern instead of the voters and marxism where the working class shall govern by a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Democracy can have the form of direct democracy where voters decide directly in referendums. It can be indirect democracy where voters elect an assembly to represent them.

How is it with EU and democracy?  


Democracy and the EU

By Jens-Peter Bonde, member of the European Parliament from 1979 – 2008 – other comments are welcome

The core of democracy everywhere is that the voters have the last word on the government and the laws of the country. Voters can participate in elections, have a new majority and then create both a new government and new laws.

This idea unites the peoples of Europe. It can also be found in the Lisbon Treaty Art. 10 TEU stating: "The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy".

The Nice Treaty stated in Art. 6 TEU::

“The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States”.

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. It 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 it must disappear 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 for the voters.

There is a judicial body, an independent Court deciding on concrete conflicts on the interpretation of the law.

In all 27 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 a support in a second chamber representing the participating states.

The core belief everywhere is the same: There is no one above or besides the voters. We, the voters decide. That is democracy.



In the European Union we have institutions with similar names to those governing the national democracies. But they have rather different functions.

The European Parliament does not decide the laws in the same way as the 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 Art. 294 TEU. It offers MEPs an increased influence on 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 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.



From 1999 – 2004, 135 proposals were adopted in the first reading, 192 in second reading and 86 in third reading. This is 33, 46 and only 21 % in the third reading.

Since then there have been many more agreements in first reading and “early second agreements” in order to avoid finalising on the more formal second reading.

From 2004 – 2009, 341 co-decisions were concluded in the first reading, 110 in second reading and 23 in the third reading. This is 72, 23 and only 5% in the third reading where the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers are more equal and where the power of the European Parliament looks like a real parliament.

In 2009 there were 79 co-decisions - 51 first readings, 20 second readings and 8 third readings.

In 2008 there were 138 co-decisions -  116 were taken in first reading, 21 in second reading and only one in the third reading.

In 2007 there were 107 co-decisions - 85 taken in first reading, 17 in second reading and 5 in third reading.



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. This is 23, 60 and only 1 % not being accepted at all.

These figures show an important influence of the elected members of parliament. An efficient MEP can influence more laws than national MPs. But it is mainly working as a lobbyist convincing the non-elected. 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.



The European Commission functions like most national governments in terms of its role in preparing new laws and their implementation. Yet the 27 Commissioners do much more than serving the elected. They decide most EU rules on their own.  Not the most important ones, but most of them.

In 2008 the Commission adopted 574 regulations, 53 directives, 612 decisions and 24 recommendations, in total 1,263 legal acts. In these figures (provided by the European Commission) they have excluded all acts not published in the Official Journal and all routine management acts valid for a limited period only.

In fact the total number of Commission decisions is much higher. In 2008 the Commission decided 269 files through oral procedure, 3,067 in written procedure, 2,227 in empowerment procedure and 4,008 in delegation or sub-delegation.

This gives a total number of 9,571 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 2,125.



Commissioners are not elected. They are SECRETLY appointed by prime ministers. They always meet 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 2014 it will require the support of 72% - 20 of the 27 - prime ministers.

In addition the 72% of the member states must also represent 65% of all EU citizens. Prime ministers will vote 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 governements also to represent 65% of all EU citizens.

The full Commission is approved by a 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 can the Commission be sacked by members of the European Parliament.

It 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 been threatening with motions of censure. 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.



The European Parliament has increased its influence on European laws. In 2008 it “adopted” 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.  Yet even under this procedure the non-elected commissioners have the monopoly to propose new laws or amendments to existing laws.

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 378 of 754 MEPs. (Until 2014 where it changes to 376 of 751 unless amended in new treaties).

Usually around 100 MEPs don’t 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, preveously PSE. They have more than 60% of the seats in the existing 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.



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 27 representatives from the member states and 27 members of the European Parliament appointed after the so-called d`Hondt method (which favours 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 – their assistants often have an influence.

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.



The representatives of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament may agree on a compromise. There are in reality few cases where this is then put to a formal vote in both the Council and the Parliament where this is called the third reading.  

In the Council of Ministers the legal text of compromise law would normally require a qualified majority of members to get through. This is 255 of 345 votes in a vote where e.g. Germany has 29 votes, Sweden 10 votes, Ireland 7 votes, Luxembourg 4 and Malta has 3.

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 82 million votes over Ireland’s 4.4 million, from 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 27 member states. 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 300 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 the many advisors are.



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 proposals from the Commission. This adds up to 404, and 536 including the 132 acts adopted together with the parliament.

The Council published 147 voting reports in 2008. The table from the Council showed only 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.

Only a tiny tip of the iceberg is being shown to the public.



Less than 1% of all EU rules are actually decided in the third reading where it is necessary for the European Parliament to positively approve. It is still in as little as 10% of the rules where Parliament can influence the laws in first and second readings.

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).



The principle of parliamentary democracy is included in the Lisbon Treaty as a principle - but it is not yet implemented in any decision making procedures.

Proponents of the Lisbon Treaty argued that it increases the powers of the European Parliament. This is true. There are 19 areas in which the European Parliament has gained a bigger influence than today. There are 49 new areas where the European Parliament will have a co-decision they did not have before. This is 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.



This paradox is called the “democratic deficit”. It increases every time a decision is moved from the parliamentary democracies of the 27 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 that is that the European Parliament does not have the same legitimacy as the national parliaments.

The turnout in European elections has fallen in each subsequent election, from 63% in the first direct elections in 1979 to 45% in 2004 and 43% in 2009. 

Another model might be to give more powers to the national parliaments under the control of their ministers and combine it with a requirement that all EU laws also have to be approved by a simple majority in the European Parliament.

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 its 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 we 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 Barroso’s Commission 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 no real debate on the policies to which they add their names.

Before Barroso’s 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 if he rules the Commission or if he is also ruled by the civil servants and some subtle direction from certain prime ministers.



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 21/01/2007 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 27 member states.

This is in clear breach of the democracy principle as enshrined in the treaties. This principle calls for reforming the EU with democracy, accountability and transparency. How and When?