On 4 March, we posted the first of a  three part blog series on the theme of the EU referendum, considering the main arguments being put forward by the campaigns for and against the UK’s continued membership in the EU, in light of the referendum that shall take place on 23 June.

The first blog addressed economy and trade whilst this post shall focus on the idea of the democratic deficit in Europe. The third and final piece shall consider immigration. The term ‘democratic deficit’ is used in the context of the EU to express the notion that the EU and its governance model lacks democratic legitimacy.

The term was first employed in reference to the transfer of legislative powers from the domestic Member State governments to EU institutions, which were given the authority to make supranational decisions on a range of policy areas.

This criticism in part spurred the formation of an elected European Parliament which exercises legislative power on behalf of EU constituents.

However, many commentators maintain that the opaque and complex nature of governance within the EU creates an aura of inaccessibility to citizens which perpetuates the perception of democratic deficit.

This perception may account for the mere 36% of the UK electorate that participated in the 2014 European elections, in contrast to the average Member State turnout of 42%.

Furthermore, as the European Parliament (the only directly elected EU institution) arguably holds the least power amongst the EU law-making institutions, the EU is often perceived as deficient in democracy.

Nevertheless, a prime example raised by those who assert the idea of the EU’s democratic legitimacy is the right of every adult national of the EU to participate in European elections.

Those supporters also assert that the nature of the division of labour between the EU and its Member States, where commonly delegated functions are allocated to the EU, whilst those which require direct political participation remain largely national simply perpetuate the impression that the EU wields more power than it, in fact, has.

In addition, the indirect democracy of national parliament influence and the increasing powers of the European Parliament following the Lisbon Treaty can be perceived as effective in ensuring that EU policy making is both transparent and responsive to the demands of its citizens, therefore democratic. 

We can only speculate as to how much leaving the EU would reduce its effects (undemocratic or otherwise) on the UK as this would depend entirely on the nature of the relationship that the UK forged after its departure.

Learn more about Gemma Hyslop and our London office.