Numerous critics of European integration point out at the "democratic deficit" as cause of the indifference of the citizens of the Union, insinuating that the citizens do not participate in the European decision-making process, which is therefore undemocratic and causes the estrangement of the citizens from European institutions. They overlook the fact that the alienation of citizens from politics is not peculiar to the EC/EU, but characterises practically all representative democracies, where a great proportion - in some countries the majority - of citizens abstain from national elections. They also forget the fact that European citizens already have almost the same influence on the shaping of European law as they have on the shaping of national law. They indirectly influence it through the choice of the political parties, which make up the national governments and which therefore are involved in all European decisions adopted by the Council of Ministers. In addition, citizens have a direct say in the election of the members of the European Parliament, which has an important participation in the legislative process, thanks to improvements brought by successive European Treaties [see section 4.1.3].
The fact is that the legislative and control powers of the European Parliament have greatly increased since the early days when it had a purely consultative role in the legislative process and when, as a consequence, the democratic deficit at European level was substantially greater than that at the national level. Now, thanks to the treaty of Lisbon, most decisions are taken jointly by the Council, representing the democratically elected governments of the Union, and by the European Parliament, representing directly the citizens of the Union (Article 10 TEU) [see sections 2.5, 4.1.3 and 4.3]. It follows that the "democratic deficit" is another myth propagated by eurosceptic circles. Paradoxically, these same circles are among the most vehement detractors of the extension of the codecision procedure to the common foreign and security policy, which would practically eliminate the remnants of the democratic deficit.
The Treaty of Lisbon (following the draft Constitutional Treaty) defines, for the first time, the democratic foundations of the Union, which are based on three principles: those of democratic equality, representative democracy and participatory democracy. It declares that in all its activities, the Union shall observe the principle of the equality of its citizens, who shall receive equal attention from its institutions, bodies, offices and agencies (Article 9 TEU). The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy. Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament. Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen (Article 10 TEU). The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society. Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties (Article 11 TEU). A Regulation establishes the procedures and conditions required for a citizens’ initiative [Regulation 211/2011, last amended by Regulation 2015/1070].
The Treaty of Lisbon aims also at the democratisation of the functioning of the Union through the reinforcement of the role of national parliaments, inspired as well by the Constitutional Treaty. As specified in Article 12 of the TEU, national Parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union: (a) through being informed by the institutions of the Union and having draft legislative acts of the Union forwarded to them in accordance with the Protocol on the role of national Parliaments in the European Union (Protocol No 1); (b) by seeing to it that the principle of subsidiarity is respected in accordance with the procedures provided for in Protocol No 2 [see section 3.2]; (c) by taking part, within the framework of the area of freedom, security and justice, in the evaluation mechanisms for the implementation of the Union policies in that area and through being involved in the political monitoring of Europol and the evaluation of Eurojust's activities (Articles 70, 88 and 85 TFEU) [see sections 8.1.4 and 8.1.2]; (d) by taking part in the revision procedures of the Treaties (Article 48 TEU); (e) by being notified of applications for accession to the Union (Article 49 TEU); and (f) by taking part in the interparliamentary cooperation between national Parliaments and with the European Parliament..
Concerning this last point, Article 10 of Protocol No 1 states that a conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs (COSAC) may submit any contribution it deems appropriate for the attention of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. This conference may in addition promote the exchange of information and best practice between national Parliaments and the European Parliament, including their special committees. It may also organise interparliamentary conferences on specific topics, in particular to debate matters of common foreign and security policy, including common security and defence policy. Contributions from the conference do not bind national Parliaments and do not prejudge their positions.
Article 10 of the TEU states that political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union. Article 224 of the TFEU provides for the funding of these parties from the Union budget. A regulation lays down the conditions governing the statute and funding of political parties at European level ('European political parties') and political foundations at European level ('European political foundations') [Regulation 1141/2014]. In accordance with this regulation, a political party at European level must satisfy certain conditions, notably: it must be represented, in at least one quarter of Member States, by Members of the European Parliament or it must have received, in at least one quarter of the Member States, at least three per cent of the votes cast in each of those Member States at the most recent European Parliament elections; and it must observe in its programme and in its activities, the principles on which the European Union is founded, namely the principles of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. The Register of European political parties and foundations is the repository of data, particulars and documents submitted with applications for registration as a European political party or a European political foundation [Regulation 2015/2401].
Far from being detached from the European integration process, national parliaments and the political parties, which dominate them, are instrumental in its launching, development and monitoring. Since the advancement of common policies means less liberty of action for national policies, some parties may refuse this loss of independence of action and may, therefore, block or try to block further common action. They may even, when in government, remove their state from the integration process. The latter option becomes more difficult at more advanced stages of integration, when economic actors and the citizens in general would, in case of isolation, lose the facilities and freedoms of action to which they have been accustomed inside the integrated market [see section 1.1.2]. The experience to date proves that practically all major parties in the great majority of the Member States are in favour of the general objectives of European integration. This is demonstrated by the fact that there is little or no change of national behaviour towards European policies when there is a change of a parliamentary majority and, therefore, of a government in a Member State. Instead of showing public misgivings about the democratic legitimacy of European integration, the overall evidence brings out an extraordinary political consensus on the main elements of the common policies that determine it.
It should be highlighted that according to the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, annexed to the Treaty of Lisbon (as to the Constitutional Treaty), if reasoned opinions on a draft legislative act's non-compliance with the principle of subsidiarity represent at least one third of all the votes allocated to the national Parliaments (or only a quarter in the case of a draft legislative act concerning the area of freedom, security and justice), the Commission or the institution from which the proposal originates must review it and may decide to maintain, amend or withdraw it. If it chooses to maintain the proposal, the Commission will have, in a reasoned opinion, to justify why it considers that it complies with the principle of subsidiarity and it will be up to the legislator (the European Parliament and the Council) to decide whether the legislative proposal is compatible with the principle of subsidiarity or not.
There are, however, certain limits to the democratisation of the functioning of the Union that should not be surpassed, in order to avoid the populist traps drawn up by Eurosceptics. This is the case in particular of referendums concerning the ratification of European treaties. As strange as this may seem, the way such referendums were organised in the past was undemocratic on several accounts. First of all, it is highly unusual that a treaty, be it called constitutional, be subject to a referendum for its ratification. Treaties are negotiated and signed by governments and they are ratified by them after the assent of their parliaments. This is the case because treaties are very complicated legal instruments that cannot be well understood by ordinary citizens. European treaties are even more complicated than average international treaties. They contain not only new elements, necessary for bringing the integration process forward [see section 2.6], but also all the previous provisions on which the construction of the existing stages of the integration process was based, notably customs union, the common market and economic and monetary union [see Part II]. It is absurd to ask citizens to approve or reject a new treaty that contains, in addition to some new measures promoting the integration process, all the pre-existing measures on which this process has been based since half a century.
The referendum on a new treaty should either concern exclusively the new provisions of this treaty (assuming that all other provisions are already agreed) or, if it also concerned the provisions in force, it should give the option to the citizens of a Member State to vote for the withdrawal of their country from the Union, if they were not satisfied with its objectives or its results. If the subject of the referendum was not made that clear, it would give the opportunity to demagogues at both extremes of the political spectrum to deprecate not just the new elements of the integration process, but also elements of the acquis communautaire, like the European social model or the competition rules, which function satisfactorily in the opinion of the majority of the Member States. With the information deficit that prevails, media tycoons and other non elected demagogues are free to disseminate all sorts of lies on the European Union and to exert a negative influence on public opinion. It is contrary to the concept of democracy to have the citizens decide on the basis of lies, which thanks to eurosceptic propaganda, they have accepted as truths.
Moreover, it is highly undemocratic to ask only the citizens of some Member States to express themselves directly by referendum, whereas the citizens from the other Member States should be contented with the normal procedure of the ratification approved by the representatives of their national parliaments. This is discrimination between citizens of the Member States, condemned explicitly by the Treaty itself (Article 18 TFEU, Article 12 TEC). Democratic considerations and the principle of the equality of the citizens of the Union require that they all express themselves on the ratification of a new treaty in the same way: either indirectly through their representatives or directly through referenda held the same day in all countries, so that the results in one country do not influence the citizens of the others. If the second alternative was preferred, the governments and the common institutions should make a greater effort at informing the citizens about the issues at stake.
Instead of submitting a complex legal instrument to the approval or disapproval of the citizens, it would be more logical to separate the new elements of the treaty, describe them in a non legalistic language, explain why the responsible governments have agreed to them by signing the treaty and ask the citizens if they want this new treaty to be ratified and be brought into force or if they want to leave things as they are with the existing treaty. All the governments concerned should agree to such a straightforward paper at the same time as they sign the Treaty, so that the citizens of all Member States have the same explanations and reasons for the new elements of the common enterprise and are asked the same questions about its progress or standstill. It would, indeed, be hypocritical and improper for a government to put its signature on a draft treaty (which is in fact a draft contract with its partners) and present it in a different way from its partners, knowing or hoping that its citizens will reject it [see section 1.5.3].