Europe’s Democracy Deficit: Putting Some Meat on the Bones of Habermas’ Critique

By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, June 3, 2013

A Blueprint for Redesigning European Democracy

The renowned German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas has been one of the foremost advocates of “more Europe”; he also has been one of the most visible critics of the perceived “democracy deficit” that has resulted from the European Union’s and the eurozone’s ad hoc policy responses to the economic crisis. In a recent address to the University Leuven — introduced by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy – Professor Habermas took a firm stance against euroscepticism, even as he voiced some of his own scepticisms. He mounted a passionate defense of the European “workfare system” as a crucial form of social insurance against the disruptive whirlwinds of globalization; he also reiterated his long-standing support for supra-national institutions like the E.U. as the best hedge for preserving a distinctive “European way” in the face of powerful global forces.

But at the same time, Herr Habermas was sternly critical of the growing gap between these supra-national institutions and the European public. On the one hand, he said, “It is to the credit of the Commission and the Presidency of the Council that they have addressed the actual cause of the crisis —namely, the faulty design of a monetary union that nevertheless holds fast to the political self-understanding of an alliance of sovereign states.”  On the other hand, he was impatient with the pace at which political evolution has kept pace with this economic transformation. “The ultimate democratization,” said Habermas “is presented as a promise like a light at the end of the tunnel. Supranational democracy remains the declared long term goal on paper. But postponing democracy is a rather dangerous move.”

Habermas’ lecture amounted to a plea for a quick evolution toward transnational forms of solidarity and continental democracy that would rebalance the politics of Europe with the economics. But what would a Habermasian design for a European-level democracy look like? Here, the venerable philosopher was disappointingly light on the details. Even when prompted by an audience member to provide some basic elements he declined, saying, “That is not my competence.”

Unfortunately, most of the advocates of “more Europe” who are also critics of the democracy deficit have been similarly vague on the details their proposed institutional redesign. Yet “democracy” is more than a warm, fuzzy, feel-good catchphrase that one can print on a bumper sticker or toss off in a lecture. If it is to amount to more than an academic value or principle, it must be designed and constructed with specific institutions and practices. If ever there was a case in which “the devil is in the details,” this is one of them.

And yet so many of the “more Europe” critics of the democracy deficit never get past their surface critique to the point of rolling up their sleeves and designing what the New Europe might look like. Certainly many ideas have been tossed around in the public sphere, yet to date these have not gone much past the point of parlor discussions and op-ed rants. No leader or organization, for example, has stepped forward with the outlines of their proposed new political redesign for Europe; no serious convenings have even attempted such a task. Yet if Europe is ever to reduce its democracy deficit, then this discussion needs to progress to a much deeper and broader level where a blueprint with specific details begins to emerge.

And it’s urgent that the advocates of “more Europe” address this task, because the opposition that would like to see “less Europe” is organizing and fomenting to enact its own regressive vison. British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently gave a speech in Berlin calling for a new ‘red card’ system that would allow national parliaments to block unwelcome laws from Brussels, which would surely lead to the unraveling of the EU as well as the euro zone. One can imagine what the “United” States of America would have amounted to if each member state had been allowed to cherry pick which federal laws passed by Washington DC to obey. Yet interestingly, Hague and his allies are arguing for their proposal under the guise that it will “restore the democracy deficit.” They argue that only by clawing back greater powers to national MPs, rather than MEPs in the European Parliament, will Europe be able to close the gap between European-level governance and the public. Mats Persson, director of the eurosceptic Open Europe piled on this subterfuge by saying that “Allowing national parliaments to block unwanted EU laws would go a long way to bring back democratic accountability over EU decisions.”

So it’s clear that there is a battle going on over what the “democracy deficit” means, what its causes are, and how to close the gap. Yet the battle has been a fairly one-sided one, because the “less Europe” side is better organized and has more money for its campaign, funded by wealthy elites like Lord Rodney Leach, a Conservative life peer in the British House of Lords, who is a climate change sceptic and opponent of political reform in the UK. And the “less Europe” sceptics have an easier task, since all they have to do is spread “F-U-D” – fear, uncertainty and doubt – to derail the European project.

So proponents of “more Europe” have their work cut out for them. While Professor Habermas enjoys great esteem among many across Europe and Germany, his and others’ lack of details over how to tackle this democracy deficit is ultimately disempowering. His forceful message only serves to add to the general malaise of dissatisfaction, but offers little substance as a solution and therefore allows the likes of William Hague and Open Europe to fill that void.

In the hopes of putting some meat on the bones of the Habermasian critique, I offer the following basic blueprint for redesigning European-level democracy. This design has to do with the STRUCTURE of government, and less to do with the function and specific powers attached to this structure, which requires a separate but parallel conversation too long for this short article. But as we have seen again and again during this eurozone crisis, function in many ways follows from form, so it’s important to get the structure right.

If you don’t like this structure, or disagree with some elements, what’s yours?  The time for fuzziness is past. To build a proper Social Europe a functioning European democracy is needed that will empower the public to have a say in European affairs.

Europe 2.0 – A Redesign for the Future

As a first step toward outlining the details of a political union, we must place the democracy deficit under a microscope so that we can be clear about what isn’t working. Much vigorous debate, as well as some major steps in response to the eurozone crisis, already have sketched the outline of the necessary foundations for a more integrated economic union. But much less discussion has been devoted to how to redesign European-level political institutions. So it’s important to develop a more precise analysis of the current system.

There’s no doubt that Europe’s political institutions are inadequate. Frankly, they are as messy as a scrambled egg. As one small example, only the most ardent Europhile can tell the difference between the European Council, the Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers, or simply “the Council”) and the Council of Europe. All of them have their own president, as does the European Commission and the European Parliament. Presidents and Councils, everywhere you look, with names so similar that few can tell them apart. Beyond that, lines of authority are vague and esoteric and the public hardly knows who does what. To the public it all looks like a tangled mess of bureaucrats nestled in Brussels. At the most basic level, more imagination needs to put into naming these important bodies and leadership positions with distinctive titles that make them easily distinguishable.

But that’s just the beginning. A huge contributor to the democracy deficit is the fact that the average voter is stupefied by being four times removed from the chief legislative and executive body of the European Union, which is the European Commission. The Commission is a powerful body, increasingly so in reaction to the economic crisis, endowed to be both the enforcement arm as well as the only body that is permitted to initiate European-level legislation. Yet it is not even remotely elected directly by “We the People.”

Instead, voters directly elect their national members of Parliament, who in turn elect the 27 national heads of government, who in turn sit on the European Council; this body then nominates the European Commission and its president, subject to the approval of the European Parliament (whose members at least are directly elected). So national parliaments, which are the closest to the voters in each member state, are reduced to the role of a kind of electoral college while the heads of state who actually select the chief executive of the E.U. comprise an “electorate” of a mere 27 voters. Sorry, but that’s not very democratic.

Despite the recent Lisbon Treaty endowing it with a bit more power, the European Parliament is still less than a full legislature, as it can only pass, amend or reject the Commission’s legislation, not initiate it. So unlike the American model, which has a clear separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, the European Union has invested the functions of both the executive and legislative branches into the hands of the Commission, with the Parliament – the only body that is elected directly – very much a miniature partner.

Another miniature partner in this odd European tricameralism is the Council of Ministers. Similarly restricted to passing, amending or rejecting the Commission’s legislation, this council is composed of 27 national ministers, one for each of the member states. But to confuse the public further, the exact membership of the Council depends upon the topic. When discussing foreign, economic or agricultural policy, for example, the Council is composed of the 27 national ministers who oversee that competence area for their member state. On the one hand, this structure is kind of innovative, or at least different in its quirkiness, compared to how most other representative governments have always been structured. On the other hand, it means this Council has a constantly rotating configuration of “representatives,” each siloed in their respective issue, with connection to only the narrowest of constituencies that cares about their single issue. This further undermines transparency, accountability and coherence across issues, or a focus on the big picture. Nice try, but this is a deeply flawed design if the goal is to reduce the democracy deficit.

From the time of Montesquieu and Madison, the theory of democratic governance has been grounded in noble values that often conflict, such as separation of powers, authentic representation, transparency, accountability and efficiency of outcomes. U.S. economist Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel Prize for proving that a well-designed government could attain many of these values, but never all of them. The problem with the European political system is that, in trying to prevent a strong centralized government that could undermine member state sovereignty, it leans so far toward an enshrinement of a hyper separation of powers that it has given too short shrift to the other democratic values.  Confusion and incoherence can’t help but result, tragically so. Students of U.S. history will recognize the similarities to America’s Articles of Confederation era, which eventually gave way by necessity to the drafting of a new structure of federal government.

That’s not to say that the track record of European governance has all been one of bungling and miscues. Until the American-instigated economic collapse in 2008, followed by the eurozone crisis of 2010, the Commission and other governance bodies had displayed competent leadership, and the European Union had progressed along its expected trajectory, including adding twelve new member states from 2004-2007 and becoming a global force in a short time following its “birthquake.” When European governance works well it’s like a majestic flock of birds, diving and swooping in colorful blue-and-gold unison; when it’s not working well, it’s a flock of birds flying off in too many directions. The eurozone crisis has stretched E.U. governance capacities to its limits because the EU’s current political institutions are mostly adequate for a loose confederation of member states — but a loose confederation is inadequate for a monetary union.

As more and more powers have been transferred to the Commission, giving it unprecedented ability to intervene in national economic policies, these structural defects matter more. Electorates are used to voting directly for or against their national government and its policy proposals, playing a decisive role in national politics. But when it comes to European governance they can only vote to change the electors which themselves only nominate the members of the Commission. Contrary to what its harshest critics say, the Commission actually is accountable to lots of bodies and people — but it’s not directly accountable to “We the Voters.” There are too many degrees of separation between the governed and those doing the governing. And that must change.

At this point Europe’s political institutions are looking like a strange, mangled beast that has emerged after being tossed in a clothes dryer. If you compare European political institutions to those of most national governments the problem is plain to see. Whether the nation is Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Brazil or the United States, there is a directly elected legislature and a more or less popularly declared and in some cases directly elected chief executive. It’s fairly simple, structure-wise. And simpler is better, as a foundation for fulfilling the goals of transparency, accountability and representation.

Yet simplicity has proven to be elusive at the European level. And now with the euro zone crisis and the prospect of a “two speed Europe,” where the eurozone appears to be carving out its own governance separate from the E.U., things have become even more complex.

A New Parliament for a New Europe

So here’s my back-of-the-napkin proposal for redesigning European-level political institutions. As a starting point, Europe can learn something from the political and economic structures that America originally designed at the federal level, and how they evolved over two centuries.

Initially America empowered member states’ legislatures as well as individual voters, both because each member state was sufficiently diverse to have legitimate state-based interests, but also because they needed buy-in from the political elites of each member state (and many political elites, like Washington, Jay and Hamilton, truly didn’t trust the average voter, much more so than European elites today). So while voters directly elected the federal House of Representatives, the member states’ legislatures were given the mandate to elect the powerful upper chamber of the Senate, as well as to elect presidential electors that chose the national president. For decades after the first government in 1789, both the member states and the elites played a significant role in selecting the political leadership of the federal government.

Eventually, America amended its constitutional structures to empower individual voters over the state legislatures, both with popular direct election of U.S. Senators (starting in 1916, a full 127 years after the founding) and with state legislatures agreeing to abide by each state’s popular vote in selecting presidential electors who now are mostly bound by custom (and in some cases state law) to vote for their state’s winning candidate.

So in drafting a more federalized political structure for Europe, it would be wise if initially both a direct popular vote as well as member states’ legislatures were empowered in the European legislature. German statesman Joschka Fischer and others have sensibly proposed such a design. This structure also has the virtue of turning on its head the proposal from William Hague to close the democracy gap by giving greater powers to national MPs over MEPs.

How would this look in practice? A more democratic European governance would have a parliament with two chambers, one directly elected like the current European Parliament by voters using a system of proportional representation, with the number of representatives per member state a close reflection of each state’s population (so the more populous member states would have more representatives). The second chamber would be selected by member state legislatures (as the European Council and Council of Ministers sort of are now), with the number of representatives being mostly proportional to the population of each member state, but with a few additional representatives granted to the low population states so that they are not easily overrun by bigger member states (WARNING: do not make the mistake that the U.S. made by granting equal representation per member state in this second chamber; that has allowed conservative, low-population American states to strangle legislation supported by popular majorities in the Senate and created perverse incentives for minority rule). It would be additionally wise to establish a process for amendment that would allow the second chamber to evolve over time into direct popular election as a pan-European political consciousness and culture takes root.

The lower chamber of this European legislature would then select a Prime Minister of Europe, who would in turn nominate her or his cabinet, with one cabinet member each from a member state (similar to the current selection process for the Commission), to be approved by the upper  legislative chamber. In addition, a largely ceremonial post of President of Europe would be directly elected on a continent-wide basis (as German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have jointly proposed). At some point down the road, this directly elected president could be invested with more power via the amendment process if that better matched the zeitgeist.

This kind of streamlined structure – a two chamber parliament that provides direct representation to voters as well as to member states, and empowers an executive branch selected by both types of representatives, as well as a directly-elected figurehead – would do much to simplify continental governance for European citizens, as well as to clarify lines of authority, make decision-making more efficient and transparent, and better connect the public with their continental government.

The Reality of Two-Speed Europe

In addition to the inherent challenges of such an evolution, we have to deal with the current realities of a two-speed Europe. It seems most likely that a 17 (or so) member core would be the entity that adopts this sort of federal structure initially, as the momentum of monetary union drives the need for a more streamlined political union. This more federalized entity—whether it’s called a United States of Europe or some other name—would have its own set of laws, political institutions, budgetary agreements, banking union and tax policies. It also would institutionalize economic assistance flowing from better off member states to the more struggling states—much like California, New York and Illinois today annually subsidize Mississippi, Alabama and Alaska—through an ongoing federal appropriations process. This core would have merged their political economies and bound their destinies together in a way that is irreversible. Clearly, that is a big step, especially considering Europe’s bitter history between current member states, still not that distant in the rearview mirror. Yet at this point it’s clear that the demands of a monetary union require it.

But an additional advantage is that this eurozone-based entity could co-exist with a more loosely confederated European Union of the current 27 (soon to be 28) member states. This structure would allow the EU to retain its present governance, with the European Commission continuing as the executive of the EU along with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The EU would be able to retain its degree of confederation but operate under much less pressure to integrate more than its disparate members are capable or willing. And those who want to use the euro currency would be able to forge ahead not only with a fiscal and monetary union but also with the political institutions that are necessary to properly regulate a monetary union and to maintain democratic legitimacy. They could do this without being slowed down by reluctant foot-draggers like the U.K. Just as important, this two-tiered structure should be constructed so there is the possibility of individual member states migrating from the EU into the eurozone when it made sense.

There are historical precedents for such an inside-outside arrangement, such as the early British Commonwealth or even the current United Kingdom, where there is a core Great Britain and other “members” (like Northern Ireland and some islands) that are more loosely confederated.

Europeans, whether they realize it or not, have passed only the first few bends in the road of a years-long journey to overhaul their key economic and political institutions. It is important to understand that Europe today is in its own Articles of Confederation stage, entangled by many contradictions and tensions as it tries to fashion its union and decide how integrated it wants to be. This process took decades for a young United States of America, which fought a civil war over not just slavery but states’ rights and member states’ sovereignty a full 70 years after its founding. The tensions pulling at Europe are not nearly as severe as those America faced, and it might not take as long to resolve them given the reach and power of modern communications. But the road toward union is a long and winding one because it takes time for people and cultures to adapt. It may take a change of generations, at least.

Many of the “less Europe” critics of the democracy deficit are scared to death that European governance actually might become more democratic, since that would confer greater legitimacy, and what they really want is for each European country to retreat further inside its own castle walls. This would be a mistake, given the economic rise of population behemoths like China and India that are increasingly assertive in global markets and putting pressure on Europe’s much smaller member states to band together or become less relevant and secure. Nevertheless, many of the criticisms advanced by the sceptics are correct, and those who want “more Europe” should respond in a way that makes European-level governance more democratic, representative, transparent, accountable, responsive, and effective.

The advocates of “more Europe” should engage with their opponents on the rhetorical battlefield armed with a clear blueprint for political-economic governance that will allow the European audience to envision what a New Europe will look like. During the first few years of the euro zone crisis, it was understandable that advocates would remain vague in their institutional remedies. But the opponents are using this vagueness now to spread their pernicious brand of F-U-D. It’s time to put some meat on the bones of the Habermasian “more Europe” critique of the democracy deficit in order to counter the Hagueian “less Europe” critique. The time for vagueness and abstraction is over. A more Social Europe needs a functioning democracy, so let the debate begin about what that should look like.

Steven Hill

About The Author

Steven Hill is a political writer whose latest books are "Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve" (www.ExpandSocialSecurity.net) and "Raw Deal: How the 'Uber Economy' and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers" (www.RawDealBook.com). His previous books include "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" and "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy." Follow him at www.Steven-Hill.com and on Twitter @StevenHill1776