Democratic legitimacy of the European Union (EU). Actors, legal-institutional structures and processes

Essay, 2022

21 Pages



1 Introduction

2 What is the “EU”?

3 Characterization of the EU

4 Fundamental Values and Principles of the EU

5 Institutional Structure and Actors of the EU

6 Decision-Making Process of the EU

7 Influence of EU Citizens on European Politics

8 Democratic Legitimacy of the EU

9 Conclusion

List of Abbreviations

Art. Article

BVerfGE Bundesverfassungsgericht [Federal Constitutional Court of Germany]

cf. compare

CFSP Common Foreign and Security Policy

CJEU Court of Justice of the European Union

CoR Committee of the Regions

EAS European Administration School

EC European Community

ECA European Court of Auditors

ECB European Central Bank

ECJ European Court of Justice

ed. Edition

EDPS European Data Protection Supervisor

EEAS European External Action Service

EEC European Economic Community [Treaty of Rom]

EESC European Economic and Social Committee

EIB European Investment Bank

EP European Parliament

EPSO European Personnel Selection Office

EU European Union

GDP grossdomesticproduct

i.a. inter alia[among others]

i.e. id est [that is to say]

margin no. marginal number [law]

MEPs Members of the European Parliament

pp. pages

RRF Recovery and Resilience Facility

TEU Treaty on the European Union

TFEU Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

UK United Kingdom

UN United Nations

UNO United Nations Organizations

USA United States of America

1 Introduction

Corona, the rule of law, migration, the economy, relations with the USA and China: The European Union (EU), which is far from always being united itself, faces a multitude of challenges. The EU is often criticized in the system of international relations for showing a “democratic deficit”. In this essay, the foundations, institutions, and procedures of the EU system are discussed with a view to the central question of whether this criticism is correct and whether there are ways to give it democratic legitimacy or to increase it.

The EU is a remarkable achievement. It is the result of a process of voluntary integration between the nation-states of Europe. The Nobel Peace Prize “for over six decades of contribution to the promotion of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” was awarded to the EU in 2012. The success and the uniqueness of the European peace project are undisputed. Nevertheless, the legal-institutional constellation and the democratic legitimacy of the EU system are often criticized at the European and international level.

You can hear critical voices repeatedly in numerous political media and political centers or polls every day – sometimes right, sometimes less: The EU is too undemocratic, too bureaucratic, too liberal, too conservative, too powerful, or too weak, that is, complicated and impossible to understand. The more tangible the “Project Europe” or the perspectives of the European idea, the higher and more intensive the demands and the discussions. Since the beginning of the euro crisis in autumn 2009 the EU debate has been a constant companion within the EU on all questions that affect Europe. With the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic crisis in spring 2020, the European question stretched across all social classes within the EU zone. The main questions of this study are:

- What the EU is actually,
- how the EU system works at all,
- which goals and values the EU is pursuing,
- how the EU is institutionally structured,
- who the main actors are in the EU,
- how the EU makes decisions and acts,
- how the EU is democratic.

In view of these initial questions, the fundamentals, central institutions, and procedures of the EU are discussed within the scope of the present study to better understand the complex relationships and the controversial position. This makes it possible to find answers to important problem areas about the democratic legitimacy of the EU. The aim is to make an objective and scientific as possible contribution to the debate on the “EU Project” whose finality is unknown.

2 What is the “EU”?

What is the EU actually? It is “a political system but not state.”1 First, it should be articulated that the EU is a European project, namely an association of states. The EU system is based on supranational integration, intergovernmental cooperation, and international cooperation in a multilateral world order system.2 This project is a unique economic and political partnership between 27 independent European states.3 In this context, the EU can be described as a family of liberal-democratic countries that act collectively through a legal and institutionalized system of decision-making. The central founding motives for the European unification can be cited as the reaction to the world wars and the desire for peace, security against the emerging Soviet (now Russian) threat, political readiness, and economic development.4

Next, it can be established that the EU's political system has largely evolved during the European integration.5 It is currently based on two core functional treaties, the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The European Union is based on the rule of law.6 This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU member countries.7 These treaties are a binding agreement between EU member countries. They set out EU objectives, rules for EU institutions, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its member countries. The aim of the EU treaties is to make the EU more efficient and transparent, to prepare for new member countries and to introduce new areas of cooperation – such as the single currency.8

It can be also seen that the EU is not a federal state like the USA, nor is it just an international organization like the UN organization, which is just an institution for better cooperation between governments.9 The EU is such a unique political entity sui generis (“of its own kind”). This political system includes both supranational and intergovernmental elements. The member states of the EU give up part of their sovereignty to the common institutions of the EU to gain power and international influence together.10 These important joint bodies of the EU play a significant role as the central actors in the political decision-making process of the Union. They are primary: The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU (“Council of Ministers”) and the European Council. In addition, there is the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for legal disputes based in Luxembourg, which consists of one judge per member state and who acts as the final instance.11

It is also important to emphasize that the population of the EU is about 447 million people (2021), after the UK left the EU in 2020 (“Brexit”12 ). The EU internal market knows no borders and is the largest common economic area in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). The total GDP of the EU-27 was around 13.39 trillion euros in 2020.13 Even after the Brexit, the Union generated a higher GDP than China (around 13.0 trillion euros in 2020), while the GDP of the USA reached around 20.94 trillion US dollars in 2020.14 The EU remains the world's largest donor of humanitarian aid, too. With the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU has had its own legal personality since 2009, which gives it the right to speak and inspect at the United Nations (UN). This increases the international weight of the EU in the system of international relations.15

Overall, it can be said that the EU sought not only deep integration, but also deep reforms when new members joined the community. That is characteristic of the EU, and probably even constitutive. The EU system has deepened itself through the reforms and treaties and was always ready to accept new members to expand the community. The Expansion and the deepening are not a contradiction, but complementary processes in the EU system. However, it is questionable, however, how far the European enlargement and deepening process can go without the Union losing its ability to act and function. It is also questionable what the goal of European integration, namely the question of finality. After all, Europe is a relatively paradoxical phenomenon.16

In summary, the EU is an integral part of Europe. Ultimately, Europe is a mosaic of different, rich cultures and thus forms a bridge between tradition and modernity, between the West and the rest of the world. Europe thus expresses an open project, namely “the EU”, whose finality is unknown.

3 Characterization of the EU

In political science and in constitutional literature, there are various terms, explanations, and attempts, some of which are controversial, to characterize the EEC/EC/EU.17 The European Union is a political system that shares the power and the competences with its member states.

How exactly this division between takes place at European and national level but is difficult to grasp.18 On the one hand, the EU increasingly appears as a political system that is superior to the nation states. On the other hand, the Union has no authority over its member states, but is dependent on them.

On the one hand, the EU has i.a. striking features of an international organization, a federal state, an association of states or a confederation of states, on the other hand characteristics of an international regime, a multi-level system.19 What is certain, however, is that the EU primarily represents a continental unification of unprecedented global historical proportions between tradition and modernity.20 European unification is characterized by two different concepts of cooperation between European states, namely cooperation and integration.21 The EU countries with common goals, traditions, however different developments, and with a partly different historical origin, jointly decide in significant policy areas.22 In this way, a modern human space of unity, freedom, lasting peace, social justice, and security is to be fulfilled in Europe.

It can be stated that the EU is characteristically neither a federal state like the USA nor just an international organization, i.e. (only) an institution of better cooperation between governments, like the UNO. As already mentioned, it is a unique political entity or a political system sui generis [lat. of a special, own, peculiar kind.]. This political system includes both supranational and intergovernmental elements (see chapter 2). Finally, the EU is historically, politically, and legally unique and cannot be compared to any other existing state or international association.23

Furthermore, it is important to point out what is characteristic and probably even constitutive of the EU, that it is not only about deep integration, but also about at the same time attempting far-reaching reforms when new members joined the community.24 When deepened by a reform treaty, the EU was relatively ready to accept new members to enlarge the community. Expansion and deepening were and are not a contradiction in terms, but rather complementary processes.25 However, it is questionable how far the European expansion and deepening process should go and what the final goal of European integration is, namely the question of finality.26

In this constellation, it can be said that the EU presents itself in a completely renewed political costume after the Lisbon Reform Treaty came into force in 2009.27 The European Community no longer exists. The EU, which has been expanded from the temple to the European house, now has – like a federal state – a kind of foreign minister with her own foreign service, in addition to a council president, who holds several positions united in one person.28 The new EU has European citizens' initiatives and a state-of-the-art charter of fundamental rights. Both the European Parliament and national parliaments have become reinforced actors. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) has made great strides forward. In addition, important policy areas, especially in European domestic politics and justice, supra-nationalized.29 In this way, the EU is gradually taking significant steps towards stronger joint action on the international stage.

4 Fundamental Values and Principles of the EU

First, it should be noted that the members of the EU not only sign the entirety of the EU treaties, legal provisions, and standards when they join the EU. At the same time, they also accept several common values and principles based on democracy, human rights, and principles of social justice, which are compatible with the principles of the UN Charter. In this way, its member states and institutions emphasize the diversity of the Union – most clearly in cultural and linguistic terms.30

In this context it can be said that the 27 democratic and autonomous EU states have committed themselves to pursue specific, constitutive goals under the umbrella of the unique European, economic, and political unification.31 The EU's catalog of objectives primarily includes – against the background of the two world wars with devastating consequences – collective security, the maintenance of peace and stability in Europe as well as the principles of the UN Charter and international law (cf. Art. 3 TEU).

Against this background, in its 70-year history of the economic integration, the EU has consistently pursued the goal of expanding geographically on the one hand and deepening its legal and institutional structure parallel to political events and developments on the other.32 The EU wants to achieve these goals primarily by improving prosperity and creating mutual dependency, as well as ultimately through cooperation with the rest of the world, the multilateral global institutions, in particular the UN organization. To do this, however, it must primarily redesign its foreign policy and the allocation of competencies.

The EU members of the unique European community differ considerably in history, culture, language, mentality, economic strength, and national legal systems. Therefore, the EU is based on clear core principles and certain values:33

- Firstly, the EU sees itself as a modern community of values based on common, free, and democratic basic values.
- Second, it follows the principle of subsidiarity. That is why only what is better there is regulated at EU level.
- Third, the EU is a law community and based on the rule of law. Therefore, the principle of compliance with the law applies in the EU system. The principle requires compliance with resolutions and regulations as well as European legal norms.
- Fourth, the EU system is based on the principle of degressive proportionality. This principle requires that the smaller ones be given enough space.34

For this purpose, the EU member states have finally committed themselves both legally, institutionally, and politically to work together in certain European policy areas. For this reason, they are obliged:

- To act exclusively collectively in certain policy areas.
- To work closely together in specific policy areas and to coordinate decisions to a large extent.
- To consider largely the interests and priorities of the other partners, in all other policy areas.35

In general, it can be said that the unique European project primarily expresses a political unity.36 Therefore, the principles of the EU are characteristically based mostly on elements of political culture. The political criteria include respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, the exercise of human rights and the protection of minorities, education, development, and innovation.37 These values and principles are common to all EU member states - for a society that is characterized by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men. Therefore, they form the foundation of the EU according to Article 2 EU Treaty.

5 Institutional Structure and Actors of the EU

The EU member states constitute the political architecture of the EU. As already mentioned, they surrender part of their sovereign rights to the common institutions of the EU to gain more power and international influence together. These important EU institutions are the EU Commission, the EU Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the European Council, and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). These central bodies form the institutional structure of the EU and are the central actors in the EU's political system. They play a crucial role in the Union's political decision-making process.38

The central EU organs are supplemented by other relevant institutions with special tasks. These other specialist actors are the European Court of Auditors (ECA) for financial management and control in the EU, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the Committee of the Regions (CoR), the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), the Publications Office of the EU, the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), the European Administration School (EAS), the agencies of the EU and other EU specialist bodies. There is also the European External Action Service (EEAS) for foreign affairs, which supports the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). There is also an ombudsman, namely the European Ombudsman, who investigates complaints about maladministration or conflicts in the institutions and other bodies of the Union.39

Most of the daily administrative work is done by the European Commission. It consists of 27 European Commissioners, each from a Member State, and has around 35,000 European civil servants.40 The commissioners are independent and have the sole right of initiative to introduce legislative proposals. This makes them the "engine" of European integration. The EU Commission manages the budget and monitors compliance with the EU treaties. This makes the Commission the “guardian of the treaties”.41 The Commission has specialist committees to advise on detailed technical issues and drafts guidelines and other decisions. These drafts then go to the Council of Ministers for decision. After its approval, they go back to the Commission, which now acts as the executive body.42 The Commission can either take the initiative and prepare proposals for decisions by the Council of Ministers, or the Council of Ministers can instruct the Commission to prepare certain decisions. The final decisions are taken in the commission with a majority decision.


1 Hix/Hoyland (2011), p. 12.

2 Phinnemore (2016), p. 11.

3 [01.02.2022].

4 Foster (2014), p. 5 ff.

5 Fröhlich (2014), p. 39.

6 How the European Union works, PDF, p. 3: more_info/eu_publications/how_the_european_union_works_en.pdf [01.02.2022].

7 Hix/Hoyland (2011), p. 12 f.

8 EU Treaties, EU Law: [01.02.2022].

9 [01.02.2022].

10 Bekmezci (2021), p. 22 f.

11 [02.02.2022].

12 Young (2021), p. 109.

13 [02.02.2022].

14 [02.02.2022].

15 EU Legi Editions (2019): Treaty of Lisbon, p. 105 ff.

16 Tömmel (2014), p. 1.

17 Pollack (2021), p. 13 ff.

18 Tömmel (2014), p. 1.

19 Furtak (2005), p. 52.

20 Craig, Paul/Búrca (2015), p. 2 f.

21 Borchardt (2015), § 1, margin no. 69 (p. 66).

22 Foster (2015), p. 3.

23 [03.02.2022].

24 Craig/Búrca (2015), p. 4.

25 Wallace (2021), p. 67 f.

26 Weidendfeld (2021), p. 29 ff.

27 Craig/Búrca (2015), p. 163 ff.

28 Piepenschneider (2015), p. 340 ff.

29 [03.02.2022].

30 Cini/Borraga (2016), p. 3.

31 [04.02.2022].

32 Pollak/Slominski (2012), p. 13 ff.

33 [05.02.2022].

34 [05.02.2022].

35 [05.02.2022].

36 Kaiser (2009), p. 197.

37 Maus (2015), p.9 ff.

38 Die EU. Was sie ist und was sie tut, Amt für Veröffentlichungen der EU, Luxemburg, Februar 2020, p. 51 ff.

39 profiles_en [06.02.2022].

40 [06.02.2022].

41 Kreutz/Leinen (2011), p. 35.

42 Egeberg (2019), p. 143.

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Democratic legitimacy of the European Union (EU). Actors, legal-institutional structures and processes
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ISBN (Book)
EU, European Union, European law, EUs function, EU democratic defizit, EU essay, EU actors, EU institutions, EU structures, EU processes, EU decision-making, EU legtimacy, EU treaty, EU rules, EU goals, EU values, EU basics, EU priorities
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Ibrahim Bekmezci (Author), 2022, Democratic legitimacy of the European Union (EU). Actors, legal-institutional structures and processes, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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