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From the Citizens to the European Union – A deficit of (participatory) democracy?

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12 May 2020
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From the Citizens to the European Union – A deficit of (participatory) democracy? - © Unsplash/Florian Olivo

A few years back, I was doing my Bachelor’s degree in ‘Public management’ with a specialisation in the German ‘Bundesland’ Baden-Württemberg. Part of this program was about getting to know the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany and the place the Bundesländer takes within it.

There, I learnt that, up to 80 percent (the number varies a little among different sources) of the laws applied at the local level are influenced by European Union (EU) policy.

Seeing the significant impact the EU has at the local level, I decided to dedicate my Bachelor Thesis to “Factors for improving the acceptance and performance of European municipal work within a municipal organisational structure.”

Even though not directly connected to my research, one thing became very obvious: while there is a lot of ‘information’ trickling down, from the EU to the local level, there was barely any information flowing back from the bottom, up. To me, that seemed very odd. Especially considering that the local level is the one working closest to its citizens; providing services and implementing the law. Moreover, the local level is confronted directly with questions and concerns of its citizens. This seemed very intriguing, as this, in my opinion, would be an easy and efficient way to increase the acceptance and decrease the perceived distance of the EU (European Committee of the Regions 2018, p. 34). I started to ask myself why there was this lack of information continuously flowing from the bottom, up and what other ways might be feasible for citizens to get in touch with the EU if the local level was not capable of conveying the citizens’ voice.

One problem I see in a missing direct chain of legitimacy from the local level to the EU. The legitimation chain theory is one that attributes the democratic legitimation of sovereign and non-sovereign actions in an unbroken chain to the expression of the will of the people in the election (Böckenförde 2004, p. 429ff.). A direct chain of legitimacy would enable the local level to pass on its experiences and feedback (both from the citizens and also the viewpoint of the local civil servants that are implementing the laws) in a formal and meaningful way.

Within Germany’s political system, each level has a direct legitimation chain to the EU. Well, every level besides the local level (Szyszko 2014, p. 160). This can be seen in the graphic below, which showcases this problem.

While there is no direct chain of legitimacy, there are other ways for the local level to get engaged in the EU more directly. In Brussels, you are able to find local offices, representing municipalities and counties, as well as representations of the Bundesländer to the EU.

There are, however, limits to the accessibility and also to the effectiveness of these possible channels. When it comes to the representations, they have a rather ‘lobbying’ character to approach the EU policymaking by hosting events representing the interests of the respective municipality, county or Bundesland (Trobbiani 2016, p. 24).

And there is also the ‘Committee of the Regions’ (CoR). The CoR aims to serve as a platform for the local level to be represented in the policymaking process. Nevertheless, even the CoR has its problems that prevent the local level from being represented in such a way that it would be able to influence EU policymaking sufficiently. This is due to several factors. ¬The whole local level is not represented (Germany, for example, only has 24 representatives while it has 11.014 municipalities), members are not necessarily elected locally and are also not bound to instructions made by the entity they are representing (European Parliament 2020a). However, here is another issue – even though the CoR is an EU institution, the recommendations given by it are in no way binding.

Therefore, the question arises, how the local level and especially the people within it can communicate their needs and ideas to the EU anyway?

Possibly, formal solutions would be to introduce a direct chain of legitimacy and to strengthen the role and power of the CoR. Another idea would be to put a focus on direct and participatory democracy to enable the citizens to influence EU policymaking directly. This does not seem too far-fetched as participatory democracy was already a part of the failed Constitution of the European Union in 2005 (under “the democratic life of the Union” (European Communities 2005)) and became a (less prevalent) part of the ‘Treaty of Lisbon.’ Evidence of this direct and participatory approach can be found in European citizenship (EUR-Lex 2016), for example, the European Parliament elections, petitions to the European Parliament, complaints to the European Commission, consultation, the ‘Ombudsman’ and the ‘European Citizens Initiative’ (ECI).

The ECI, launched in 2012, aimed to strengthen the EU’s legitimacy through an input-oriented approach. However, the European Commission is only obligated to examine the initiative but, again, not bound to it. Moreover, it is not surprising that there have only been five successful initiatives since the ECI’s beginning when one looks at the conditions applying. To start an initiative, for example, one has to find at least seven EU citizens from seven EU member states, backing the proposal. After that, it does not get easier, as there have to be one million signatures from at least one-fourth of EU member states (with each member state having a specific threshold that has to be reached to count into the one-fourth states) collected within twelve months (European Parliament 2020b).

Concluding, one could say that there are ways for the local level and its citizens to make their voices heard. However, these ways are quite insignificant and not easy to follow. The latter, especially accounting for the ECI, while it is a well-meant idea, the local level and its needs are very diverse. Therefore, it seems questionable if it actually can help citizens with their individual concerns.

If all of this leaves you with more questions than answers on how local problems can reach the European level of government, you are not alone! Even after the end of my Bachelor Thesis, this topic has been very present with me, pushed me towards continuing my studies to try to identify problems and look at possible solutions.

After graduating from Kehl University of Applied Sciences (Germany) with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Management, Uwe Fromm is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Political Science (European Studies) at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden). His primary areas of interest are federal systems, the local level within them, and possible drivers for integration. He has moved close to Strasbourg, to Brussels, Gothenburg, and Bolzano during his studies mainly to broaden his horizon and gain valuable experiences. But he equally loves to ‘dive’ into the local culture and especially the local food.

Bacon, C. (2016). Europa im Rathaus. Region – Nation – Europa ; 77. Berlin, LIT.

Böckenförde, E.-W. (2004). Demokratie als Verfassungsprinzip (§ 24), insbes. Rn 11-25. Handbuch des Staatsrechts der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Band II: Verfassungsstaat, 3. Heidelberg, Isensee, Josef

Kirchhof, Paul. 2: 429ff.

EUR-Lex (2016). “EU citizenship.” Retrieved March, 16th, 2020, from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM%3Aa12000.

European Committee of the Regions (2018). REFLECTING on Europe – How Europe is perceived by people in regions and cities. Directorate for Communication of the European Committee of the Regions. Brussels.

European Committee of the Regions (n.a.). “About”. from https://cor.europa.eu/en/about.

European Communities (2005). TREATY ESTABLISHING A CONSTITUTION FOR EUROPE. Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

European Parliament (2020a). “Fact Sheets on the European Union – The Committee of the Regions.” Retrieved March, 17th, 2020, from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/16/the-committee-of-the-regions.

European Parliament (2020b). “European Citizens’ Initiative.” from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/149/european-citizens-initiative.

Kese, V., et al. (2018). Steigerung der Europafähigkeit der Landkreise. Notwendigkeit strategischer Steuerung. Ludwigsburg, Institut für Anpassungsherausforderungen durch europäische Politiken und weltweite Migration. 19: 34.

Rühle, H. (2003). “Die Bedeutung Europas für die Kommunen – Ein Diskussionsleitfaden für die Kommunal- und Europawahlen 2004.” Retrieved April, 15th 2020, from http://www.heide-ruehle.de/heide2007/media/doc/1184838895453.pdf.

Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis) (2019) Statistisches Jahrbuch 2019 – Deutschland und Internationales. Statistisches Jahrbuch 715

Szyszko, I. A. (2014). Bürgergemeinschaft oder postnationale Bürokratie?: Legitimationsprobleme in der Europäischen Union – Demokratie, politische Kultur, Zivilgesellschaft, LIT-Verlag.

Trobbiani, R. (2016). European regions in Brussels: towards functional interest representation? Department of European Political and Administrative Studies. Brugge, Belgium College of Europe.

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