Democracy-Talk in the European Union: The Need for a Reflexive Approach

9 Colum. J. Eur. L. 411 (2003)

Theodora Kostakopoulou.

The question of democracy in the European Union (EU or EC) has featured centrally in academic literature, as well as in policy related debates, since the 1990s. Issues such as the remaking of the European Union and its transition from technocracy to democracy, the effect of European integration on national democratic institutions and practices, and the “democracy v. efficiency” dilemma have all received much attention and will continue to do so in light of the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference in 2004. However, the flourishing literature on Euro- democracy tends to rely very heavily on the national statist discourse of democracy in assessing and imagining the European polity. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, provided that, on prior reflection, it has been concluded that the paradigms used are the appropriate ones. Owing to their distinctive historical pedigree, national statist paradigms may entail skewed angles of vision and biased frames of reference, which not only distort reality, but can also render democratic deficiencies at the European level invisible.

The aim of this paper is not to set out the main contours of the debate concerning the democratic deficit(s) of the European Union. Others have done this successfully. What I wish to argue is that the question of democracy in the European Union cannot be addressed adequately without first addressing the suitability of existing models of national democracy for the formation of the European polity, and perhaps without radically transforming these models. Because such models are premised on the ideals of consensus and stability, they are ill equipped to capture the dynamics of the construction of a European polity (Sections 1 and 2). By reflecting on the formation and development of the heterogeneous and contested polity of the European Union, I refute the assumption that consensus, be it over a set of shared meanings, civic values or the rules of the game, is a condition or a goal of democracy at either the national or supranational level, and that, in the absence of a basic set of shared assumptions, the web holding a community together will become unstrung (Section 3).

Although neither a constituent, homogeneous, European people nor an “overlapping consensus” on abstract principles, shared values or the rules of the game are necessary for a well-ordered, well-functioning, democratic European polity, it is both desirable and necessary that European institutional actors reflect seriously on the models of national-statist democracy they employ in the European setting and on the tensions, muddles and contradictions generated by co-existence of competing models of democracy even within a single instrument or a policy proposal. Paths for the democratization of the EU might be screened out by the selective use of certain models of democracy or by the contradictions and incoherencies that their unreflective blending may generate. I use a concrete example, the Commission’s White Paper on European Governance (2001) to make my point (Section 4). More promising, I suggest, is the shift of attention from inherited models of democracy to avenues for democratization and to the encouragement of democratic practices. All this leads me to argue that we should, perhaps, rethink the paradigmatic literature on democracy and go “back to basics,” if we wish to devise an adequate theory and practice of democracy for a plural and complex framework of governance, such as the European Union.