The role of European Parliament


The birth of an extra-nationals organization to the level a nation-state never imagine before is truly a great accomplishment since the organization, in this context the European Union, provide new alternatives  for meeting the need of the citizens of the member states in two levels, national and regional simultaneously. The European Union has also spread it influences in terms of political and ideals around the world so that several regional organizations, ASEAN to be name one of, are expecting the same fruit out of their regionalism process of integration. One of the leading factor why the European Union is quite influential for today’s international politics is the success of economic integration that is marked by the adoption of new-regional currency, the Euro (€). Therefore, the European Union has now transcended the very concept that defines a nation state in the Europe basis.

The transformation of regional politics in the continent has also, at the same time, amplify the area of work and responsibility entrusted under the roof of EU Office in Brussels. In order to meet the new challenges offered, the European Union constructed a system of governance that provides the rule of order in quite a complicated way where a regionally based parts, frankly said the European Commission and the European Parliament, are existing and also functioning aligned with the national minded Council of Ministers. These three main European Union bodies, later on, entrusted the responsibility to make policy for the people across 27 member states which is approximately inhabited by 492 million of citizens of the EU. The three main bodies, externally, have succeed in governing the Europe as the regional organization attain political role and economic role as importance as the United States.

But from the inside, the European Union is challenged by the very concept of good governance and democracy itself as the Euro skepticism and scholars of democracy questioning the way the European Union operates and representing a massive population that is still estranged from their national identities and interest. As in democracy and good governance, legitimacy to rule is one of significant important. It is so because the level of integration met by the EU has put the role of authority beyond the nations and it is taken the spotlight over the good economic integration. The new Europe is now to challenge the idea of nation state that is, also, introduced by the European to the world. If the European Union can function under democracy, it is possible the approach for the nation state also need to be amended.

Furthermore, the EU is always constrained by the way it practices of policy making while the legitimacy of it to do so is remain unsettled. As the history puts it, the whole and non linear process of European integration is the matter of decision by the elite bureaucrats of the nation states, not, to be mention, the will of the population. Since now the EU has brought the citizens to a closer relation with other fellow EU citizens, the population remain not very well represented. When the three main bodies of the EU is to be observed, the European Parliament is in the position that should play essential role to bridge the national interest (European Council of Ministers) and the regional perspective (European Commission), and also at the same time must meet the task to represent the citizens of Europe.

The European Parliament is basically the general assembly of the representatives of the 492 million Union citizens. Since 1979 they have been elected by direct universal suffrage and today total 785, distributed between Member States by reference to their population. As the legislative body of the European Union, the assembly responsible to exercise the power as follows:

  1. legislative power: in most cases Parliament shares the legislative power with the Council, in particular through the co-decision procedure;
  2. budgetary power: Parliament shares budgetary powers with the Council in voting on the annual budget, rendering it enforceable through the President of Parliament’s signature, and overseeing its implementation;
  3. power of control over the Union’s institutions, in particular the Commission. Parliament can give or withhold approval for the designation of Commissioners and has the power to dismiss the Commission as a body by passing a motion of censure. It also exercises a power of control over the Union’s activities through the written and oral questions it can put to the Commission and the Council. And it can set up temporary committees and committees of inquiry whose remit is not necessarily confined to the activities of Community institutions but can extend to action taken by the Member States in implementing Community policies.

The Treaty of Amsterdam (in force since 1999) boosted Parliament’s powers by considerably extending the co-decision procedure. The Treaty of Nice, which entered into force in 2003, also enhanced Parliament’s role as co-legislator by extending the co-decision procedure and granted Parliament a right to bring actions before the Court of Justice of the European Communities.[1]

Research Question

Considering the criticism and facts about European Union, this paper will further elaborate to answer the question:

Is European Parliament able to represent the European population in the EU governance and answer the criticism of deficit democracy?

Theoretical Backgrounds

In order to answer the question, I will focus on two background theories below:

  1. democracy deficit

The European Union define democratic deficit as a concept invoked principally in the argument that the European Union and its various bodies suffer from a lack of democracy and seem inaccessible to the ordinary citizen because their method of operating is so complex. The view is that the Community institutional set-up is dominated by an institution combining legislative and government powers (the Council of the European Union) and an institution that lacks democratic legitimacy (the European Commission).[2] In addition to that, Robert Scruton defines democracy deficit as the absence of popular accountability in an institution that claims to possess the legitimacy to rule the population.[3]

The concept of democracy deficit is so close related to the legitimacy of a government to rule, in this case, the process of power delegation from the people to the government is the key to claim whether a government has legitimacy to make decision or not.

  1. Multilevel Governance

The fact that the European Union is not a state makes the analysis toward the organization is not supposed to be the same way as analyzing the behavior of a nation state. The multilevel factor means adding supplementary layer of abstraction and complexity of the governance concept within which involving the extent to which the ruler has the political and institutional capacity to order and the influence of the state’s role to the interest of other influential actors.[4] According to Hurrelman, to analyze the problem of governance in the European Union, two levels of approaches are needed, that is from national and regional (EU) basis.  


Regarding the facts and related concepts above, I argue that if the European Union is to meet the challenge of democracy by becoming less deficit, it is the role of the European Parliament that has to play a vital importance. This can be observe through the Europe Parliament elections, and how the European political parties aggregating the interest of their constituents.

Less Democratic European Union

A repeated complaint made against the European Union is that it appropriates powers and privileges without being accountable for their exercise, and that it avoids or ignores the votes of those in whose interests it purports to be acting. Hence, the democratic deficit has become a standing issue in discussions of the EU. The key actor under the spotlight of this less democratic Europe is the European Commission that is the executive body of the EU that representing not the interest of the population but the EU itself. Although the notion of democratic deficit has been debated for a long time now, it was not an issue at the very beginning of the EU project. As is well known, the Community was in its foundations conceived as a mere economic enterprise, based on principles of international law and completely in the hands of the high contracting parties. Therefore, so long as the member states were de facto the masters of the founding treaties, “democratic deficit” did not pose a threat. But as the level of integration expands to the political arena, founding treaties originally did not provide for any system of checks and balances that would resemble those at the level of the member states.[5]

The lack of checks and balances among European Union bodies that is lie in the way three main bodies of EU interrelated toward one another. The Commission as the central to the decision making in the European policy, is not directly representatives of the 492 million of citizens of the total 27 EU member states. In the other hand, the European Parliament as the representatives of the people through direct election is merely a symbolic power[6] within the European Union’s way of governance.

According to Christopher Lord, democracy is by nature a form of aggregative choice. Means have to be found of combining the votes of the people or their representatives and those means must themselves conform to democratic standards. There are at least four profound difficulties in meeting such a challenge according to Lord, but I will only mention three of them. The first relates to the political equality conditions for democracy. Whereas the simple rule ‘one person, one vote’ makes it easy to project political equality at the level of the individual citizen, matters become more difficult when it comes to combining votes of people from various background of nations. It is difficult to think of any method of aggregation that does not make the votes of a few crucial to decisions binding on all. Thus, systems that encourage competition for the support of the floating mass voters have the advantage of handing the pivotal role to the actor whose views are the least average distance from all the rest.[7] Second, challenge follows from John Dewey’s famous observation that voting can never be enough in a democracy since the voting mechanism, one of a pivotal important in democracy is general election, do not respect the substantive value of democracy to protect the rights of the minority. Third, when the vote will make no difference to the result of the election and that the preferences are not deliberated and argue respectively, the significant and motivation for the constituents to cast their ballots is less likely.

European Parliament and its Role in European Union

At every stage of the European integration process, the question of democratic legitimacy has become increasingly sensitive. The Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice Treaties have triggered the inclusion of the principle of democratic legitimacy within the institutional system by reinforcing the powers of Parliament with regard to the appointment and control of the Commission and successively extending the scope of the co-decision procedure. Following the Nice European Council (December 2000), a broad public debate on the future of the Union started, in which citizens could take part, and a European Convention was asked to examine various ways of improving democratic legitimacy.[8]

In order to balance the power of the Commission, Maastricht Treaty ensures the procedure of co-decision to the legislative body of the EU (the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union) on a wide range of areas, for example, transport, the environment and consumer protection, to gives the same weight to the power already possess by the Commission. Besides, the Parliament also meant for the power over budget, legislative, and supervisory over the activities of the EU.[9]

Then, the Lisbon Treaty noted the importance of making the more democratic and transparent Europe viable, with a strengthened role for the European Parliament and national parliaments, more opportunities for citizens to  have  their voices heard and a clearer sense of who does what at European and national level. The treaty provides several parameters in order to make the EU can no longer be categorized as a democracy deficit, there are:

  1. A strengthened role for the European Parliament: the European Parliament, directly elected by EU citizens, will see important new powers emerge over the EU legislation, the EU budget and international agreements. In particular, the increase of co-decision procedure in policy-making will ensure the European Parliament is placed on an equal footing with the Council, representing Member States, for the vast bulk of EU legislation.
  2. A greater involvement of national parliaments: national parliaments will have greater opportunities to be involved in the work of the EU, in particular thanks to a new mechanism to monitor that the Union only acts where results can be better attained at EU level (subsidiarity). Together with the strengthened role for the European Parliament, it will enhance democracy and increase legitimacy in the functioning of the Union.
  3. A stronger voice for citizens: thanks to the Citizens’ Initiative, one million citizens from a number of Member States will have the possibility to call on the Commission to bring forward new policy proposals.
  4. Who does what: the relationship between the Member States and the European Union will become clearer with the categorization of competences.
  5. Withdrawal from the Union: the Treaty of Lisbon explicitly recognizes for the first time the possibility for a Member State to withdraw from the Union.[10]

The new development from the Lisbon Treaty, provide more channels for the people to aggregate their interest in three levels: regional (European Parliament), national parliaments, and individual organizations. These parameters, as mentioned above, seem to be the answer for more democratic European Union. But the nature of the Lisbon Treaty itself is still debatable: the Lisbon Treaty basically another name for the European Union Constitution that was established in 2004 but rejected by the people of France and Netherlands in 2004 and 2005 election in both countries respectively.[11]

European Parliament Elections

As mentioned above, the voting mechanism is not a key to determine whether or not a system democratic. But, as empirical observation, general election—as another type of mass voting—can represent comprehensive facts regarding democracy. One key points of general election, in the context of European Parliament, is we can measure the public support for the EU mechanism of democracy in order to judge the level of legitimacy of European governance system. Hurrelman, provide a typology to measure the public support for analyzed the legitimacy of governance in the European Union countries through the public support.

Source: Achim Hurrelmann, Multilevel Legitimacy: Conceptualizing Legitimacy Relationships between the EU and National Democracies[12]

Hurrelman noted that only the type of zero-sum and positive-sum relationships can in principle form the basis for affirmative legitimacy assessments regarding the European Union.[13] It is so since on state or regional (EU) basis, or both entities subject to a legitimate judge by the population.  As the positive sum relationship, the public support both the state and EU and thus create an integrative citizen orientation. The indicator to this support is high political participation in both election and protest regarding the policies from the integrative minded citizens. This high participation occurs in the regional and state level implies that the citizens are actively engaged in the political process in their home state and toward Brussels.

In the other hands, the zero-sum relation creates two kinds of orientations among citizens: ‘escapist’ and ‘statist’. Citizen escapists are those who favor more for the European Union mechanism of governance for it is better compare to their nationals. While the statists are those who trust their voice to the national governments only and think that the European Union is not legitimate.

The records of the 2004 European Parliament General Elections show that turnout voters tend to be low across 25 member states. It instigates that, in one perspective, the trust or support, and participation of Europeans in the EU political process is low. Thus, since the participation and support are low, the legitimacy of the European Union is at stake. But, the reason why the turnout voters tend to be short could also because in the European Parliamentary elections differ from national elections is that it remains unclear what is being contested in them.[14] And the parameter to determine the public support is not merely the turnout voters in the election.

Assessment of the nation state as…

Assessment of EU as… Legitimate Illegitimate
Legitimate Positive-sum relationship (resulting in ‘integrative’ citizen orientation) Zero-sum relationship (resulting in ‘innovative/ escapist’ citizen orientation)
Illegitimate Zero-sum relationship (resulting in ‘nation-statist’ citizen orientation) Negative-sum relationship (resulting in ‘alienated’ citizen orientation)

Source: European Parliament, International IDEA[15]


Therefore, the European Parliament can hardly avoid the notion that the EU is in democracy deficit (up until 2004 election) since its role in the European Union not really representing the whole population in a good manner. But, that is not the end for the European Parliament. The critical factor that in the future may shift the public support toward the Parliament is the way political parties in the Parliament approach to the public and then maximizing their aggregating function within. In addition to that, the task of members of the European Parliament is to bridge the national constituents and the policy of the European Union is one important point that will influence the orientation of the Europeans toward the European Union.


Joan DeBardeleben and Achim Hurrelmann, Democratic Dilemmas of Multilevel Governance: Legitimacy, Representation andAccountability in the European Union, Palgrave Macmilan, New York, 2007

Larry Neal, The Economics of the European Union, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007

Robert Scruton, The Palgrave and Macmilan Dictionary of Political Thoughts 3rd Edition, Palgrave Macmilan, London, 2007


Christopher J. Lord, The aggregating function of political parties in EU decision-making, University of Reading, Department of Politics and International Relations, 2006 <;

Matej Avbelj, Can the New European Constitution Remedy the EU “Democratic Deficit”?, accessed through <>, accessed in June 12, 2009


[1] Official Website of the European Union, <;, accessed June 12, 2009

[2] Ibid, <;, accessed June 12, 2009

[3] Robert Scruton, The Palgrave and Macmilan Dictionary of Political Thoughts 3rd Edition, Palgrave Macmilan, London, 2007, p.171

[4] Joan DeBardeleben and Achim Hurrelmann, Democratic Dilemmas of Multilevel Governance: Legitimacy, Representation andAccountability in the European Union, Palgrave Macmilan, New York, 2007, p.1

[5] Matej Avbelj, Can the New European Constitution Remedy the EU “Democratic Deficit”?, accessed through <>, accessed in June 12, 2009

[6] Larry Neal, The Economics of the European Union, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, p.7

[7] Cited by Lord in ‘The Aggregating Function of Political Party in EU Decision’ from Powell, G. Bingham, 1989, “Constitutional Design and Electoral Control”, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 1(2): 107–130

[8] Official Website of the European Union <;

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quoted from Official Website of the European Union <;, accessed June 12, 2009

[11] Daniel Petz, Lecture of European Governance 2009, May 2009, Gadjah Mada University

[12] Joan DeBardeleben and Achim Hurrelmann, Democratic Dilemmas of Multilevel Governance: Legitimacy, Representation andAccountability in the European Union, Palgrave Macmilan, New York, 2007, p.20-21

[13] Achim Hurrelmann, ‘Multilevel Legitimacy: Conceptualizing Legitimacy Relationships between the EU and National Democracies’ in Joan DeBardeleben and Achim Hurrelmann, Democratic Dilemmas of Multilevel Governance: Legitimacy, Representation andAccountability in the European Union, Palgrave Macmilan, New York, 2007

[14] Hurrelman p.142

[15] The picture accessed from <;, June 12, 2009


4 thoughts on “The role of European Parliament

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