Democratic Deficit Claim in the EU. A Myth?

Scientific Study, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents


Partyism of the European Commission: a case of power grabs?

Parliamentarization or Personalization?

Representation and Accountability

The European Commission and Accountability

The European Parliament and Accountability

Who Checks the European Council?

The Council of the European Union under Public Scrutiny

Agenda Setting and Policy Making Arena in the EU




The European Union has always been alleged of institutional democratic deficit with the claim that the main institutions of the Union suffer from democratic accountability. The debate on democratic deficit in the EU led to the Spitzenkandidaten system in 2014 in which European political parties nominated candidates for the president of the European Commission. The nomination of the candidates for the position of president of the Commission is considered as one of the important ways to make the institution accountable to EU voters through their representatives in the European Parliament. This paper examines the extent at which the introduction of Spitzenkandidaten influences voting behavior of the EU citizens in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, especially in the Member States of the two leading candidates nominated by the two major or largest, in terms of number of MEPs, European political parties in the EP. On the other hand, the paper critiques the claim on democratic deficit which largely borders on lack of accountability in the institutional framework of the EU in relation to decision making by adopting a teleological interpretation of the Treaties.

Keywords: democratic deficit, Parliamentarization of the European Commission, accountability, agenda setting, EU Treaties


The European Union is considered by many as a less democratic political system. Some formed the perception that the Commission, which is not the only main institution of the EU whose president is not elected by EU citizens, is less democratic, therefore, leading to the notion of democratic deficit which harbingered the promotion of party nomination of candidates for the post of president of the Commission in the 2014 EP elections. Given the fact that the Commission possesses output legitimacy via effective and efficient decision making towards the general prosperity and development of the EU (Nugent & Rhinard, 2015:256), and the believe that the European Commission is in a weaker position under codecision because of the possibilities of getting its proposals amended by the EP or the Council (Costello & Thomson, 2013:1027), many still see the European Commission as the most undemocratic of EU institutions since the president of the Commission is appointed by the Member States and not nominated by European political parties and selected by EU voters in the EP elections.

The argument over the democratic nature of the EU as a political system gives way to the different interpretation of what the EU represents as a political system. The EU is a Union of democracies (i.e. Member States) but not a democracy in itself in the wider context of state political and democratic structure. The origin of the Union in 1951 was not about democracy but about cooperation and political and economic dialogue aim at proffering solutions to the lingering Franco-German hostility. Suffice to say that the EU was found on the premise of economic cooperation other than political and collective security paradigm. Although the EU is a form of polity that is less than a state, but far more than what could be called an international organization, therefore democracy may apply to it (Borragan, 2013:340), hence the argument that in the EU, unlike in parliamentary systems of democracy, there is no clear link between party choice of candidate in European Parliamentary elections and the emerged president of the European Commission (Schmitt, Hobolt & Popa, 2015: 349). The question to ask, however, is what form of political system does the EU operate?

The notion that the EU operates a quasi-parliamentary system amplified the call for the parliamentarization of the European Commission in 2013 and forward to 2014 European parliamentary elections. The call was further propelled by the view that the EU, through the European Commission is powerful and often dictates decisions or policies in the European Union. This has always been one of the arguments by the United Kingdom ever before the activation of Brexit. The media framing of the EU decision as "Brussels has decided" portrays the EU as an "autonomous bureaucratic monster producing and implementing binding rules" on and for the Member States (Versluis, van Keulen & Stephenson, 2011:154). Therefore, ‘policy gridlock' in the process of decision making which involves the three main decision making institutions emerges with the declining power of the EP and the "democratically unaccountability" of the European Commission and the Council (Fabbrini, 2013:4).

The aim of this paper is in three folds, first, to analyze the result of the 2014 parliamentary election turnout (with special attention on the countries of the two leading candidates proposed by the political parties for the president of the Commission) with the introduction of Spitzenkandidaten. Second, to examine representation and accountability among the three main decision making EU institutions with respect to Treaties' provisions in other to provide answers to the questions bordering on democratic unaccountability raised in many studies. And third, to adopt the intertwined responsibilities and competences enshrined in the foundation of the Union (i.e. the Treaties) to explain the reason for multiple and sometimes, overlapping agenda-setting processes in the European Union.

Then, I will conclude that the democratic deficit claim in the European Union is a myth as the EU is constructed in such a way that allows for checks and balances amongst the main decision-making institutions which make them accountable to one another with the extensive powers of National Parliaments of Member States, as well as EU citizens, to exercise control over the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council.

Partyism of the European Commission: a case of power grabs?

The selection of the candidate for the president of the Commission took a new dimension in the 2014 European parliamentary elections as European parties played a major role in putting forward, candidates for the job. The candidates, therefore, participated in the parliamentary electoral campaigns in the EU. Until 2014, the candidate for the post of president of the Commission was nominated by the European Council and elected on the floor of the European Parliament by the MEPs in accordance with Art.17 (7) TEU.

The wording of Art.17 (7) is ambiguous and thus, creates the basis for different interpretation (Gonzalez-Orus, 2014:84; Christiansen, 2016:994). However, despite laying claims to the ambiguous nature of Art.17 (7) TEU, the objective of the article does not lead to vacillation over who has the prerogative to propose a candidate for president of the Commission to the European Parliament for election by the MEPs. Hix (2008) proposes a different form of nomination of candidates for the leadership position of the Commission leading to a de facto change in treaty provision that allows “a majority in the European Parliament to nominate, and the European Council to then approve by qualified majority” (Fabbrini, 2013). The delegated function under contestation in Art.17 (7) is clear both in object and purpose. The relevant article stresses and puts certain obligations on the European Council in proposing a candidate for president of the Commission such as, holding appropriate consultation; acting by qualified majority; taking the elections of the European Parliament into account when nominating a candidate.

The parliamentary power of the European Parliament is considered insufficient if the EP is prevented from paying a decisive role in who becomes the president of the European Commission, in such situation, therefore, to some extent, represents the source of the alleged democratic deficit in the EU (Fabbrini, 2013:2). To a great extent, this argument disregards the provision of Art. 17 (3) par.3 TEU which emphasizes the complete independence of the Commission from any institutions, bodies, or governments[1], and therefore, supports the notion that partyism or politicization of the Commission by a way of candidates' nomination for president of the European Commission in the European parliamentary elections by European political parties will address the alleged deficit in policy-formation and decision-making process in the EU.

Another arguments suggest that a politicized European Commission will translate into a clear representation and support of the majority in the European Parliament, after the elections, which had earlier supported the candidate that emerged as the president of the Commission (Gonzalez-Orus, 2014:90), and lead to greater independence of the Commission from the Member States[2]. In the history of the European Commission, the nominated candidate for the president of the Commission had always been elected by the European Parliament using qualified majority. The provision of Art.17 TEU does not automatically lead to spitzenkandidaten but stresses certain factors of importance as the EP already possessed the power to elect the Commission president after being nominated by the European Council which could lead to the same outcome with the introduction of Spitzenkandidaten (Christiansen, 2016:994). The introduction of party candidacy of the president of the Commission does not change the fact that the emerged candidate will and must be elected by the EP via QM. In fact, the new process of party nomination of candidates for president of the Commission creates the likelihood of future conflict.

Parliamentarization or Personalization?

The introduction of party nomination of candidates for president of the Commission and further participation of the candidates in the electioneering campaigns (direct “personal campaign for office’ and indirect "for national parties") in the parliamentary elections did not alter the historically low turnout in EP elections via an increase. The process of nominating candidates for the president of the Commission by European parties in the parliamentary elections is famously coined as “parliamentarization of the European Commission”. It may be more appropriate, instead, to coin it “personalization of the Commission” as candidates under spitzenkandidaten in 2014 were chosen mainly on their public office pedigree and not on broad electoral appeal (Schmitt, Hobolt, & Popa, 2015:351).

The candidates were nominated by five major political parties in the EU. The EPP (Centre-right wing) proposed Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister of Luxembourg; the Social Democratic Party (Centre-left wing) nominated Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for European Party (ALDE) nominated Guy Verhofstadt, Alex Tsipras was proposed by the European Left Party (EL), and the European Green Party nominated Jose Bove and Ska Keller.

What has changed?

The total EU turnout in the European parliamentary elections did not suggest that the party nominees represent the choice and view of EU citizens. This view becomes more apparent in the Member States of the two leading candidates of the two most prominent European political parties. Despite a monumental increase in the powers of the EP, the parliamentary elections of the European Parliament are yet to provide a true electoral link between votes and expected EU policy-making process (Hobolt, 2014:1530). With a low turnout in the Member State of the candidate who emerged as the president of the Commission, there is a tendency of future legitimacy question as regard: voters’ choices, electoral participation, and the result of the elections. What would legitimate Spitzenkandidaten if no clear majority is achieved between parties in the EP elections? Who wades in to interpret the outcome of the election and nominate a single candidate for the post of president of the Commission? These are some of the questions likely to crystallize the future of Spitzenkandidaten.


[1] Art.17 (3), par.3. “In carrying out its responsibilities, the Commission shall be completely independent. Without prejudice to Article 18(2), the members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or other institution, body, office or entity. They shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties or the performance of their tasks.”

[2] Thomas Christiansen (2016), “After the Spitzenkandidaten: fundamental change in the EU’s political system.” The nomination of candidates for the post of the president of the European Commission by European political parties leads to independence of the Commission from national governments, p. 1000.

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Democratic Deficit Claim in the EU. A Myth?
University of Catania
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Sesan Adeolu Odunuga (Author), 2018, Democratic Deficit Claim in the EU. A Myth?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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