European Integration and the Welfare State

Democracy - Sovereignity - EU-Social Policy

Democracy, Sovereignity and Popular Choice in the EU Social Dialogue

Is it Democratic or simply the Tyranny of Experts?
How can it be Justified?

by Shirley Hixson


Europeans often have only a vague understanding of what occurs within EU institutions. This is understandable because, until very recently, these institutions have operated largely outside or above the lives of citizens. The European Parliament (EP) is the sole EU institution where citizens directly vote for elected representatives. While the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam have implemented measures that increase the power and influence of the EP, the Council of Ministers and Commission retain a disproportionate voice in decision-making. The functions of these institutions are administered via the direct representation of national governments or through their appointment powers. For this reason, one must conclude that democracy within the EU exits mostly through indirect means.

In the early-1990s, national elections throughout Europe resulted in dramatic shifts in political power. This was significant in regards to social policy because the social democratic parties -- traditionally the protectors of the national welfare state -- suffered huge electoral defeats in many EU member nations. While it has been difficult to interpret these results, it is important to note that even though electoral forces can bring about political change, certain programmatic pressures -- such as the Euro, economic reforms, strained budgets for social programs -- remain consistent regardless of which political party controls government.

Citizens may have been voicing annoyance over poor management at home, economic austerity packages and public perceptions of institutional irrelevance, inefficiency and corruption. Polarization has also increased on the national level over the role of the EU and its perceived encroachment on national sovereignty, which is often encouraged by political parties who seek to manipulate public perceptions to fit their specific agenda. In addition, the competing voices of the ECJ, the Commission and powerful business interests are increasingly drowning out the voice of the citizenry.


Since decision-making within EU institutions seldom includes input from European citizens, one must conclude that the system is not based on traditional representative democracy. The Commission -- made up of Europeans who are required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Union upon approval of their appointment to the institution -- pursues what is called a "Russian Doll" strategy where policy initiatives are deliberately designed to have a cascading influence that encourages new policy implementation in incremental stages. As one initiative is expanded upon and accepted by the member states, it inexorably leads to the next stage of expansion, thus, subtly changing the system while encountering the least possible resistance.

The ECJ can also serve as an example of how the EU may be perceived as a tyranny of experts that overrides the principles of European democracy. As discussed above, the European Council is made up of representatives of the fifteen member states and they reserve the authority to rule on the majority of issues regarding social policy. However, because in many areas a unanimous vote is required to create or modify existing policies, debate stalls as conflicting national interests surface and create an atmosphere that is not conducive to an effective and efficient resolution to the pressing problems before the Council. Indeed, mediation efforts within the Council often fail because a single member government can hold an issue hostage in an effort to gain the advantage which, in turn, often prompts a similar reaction from other members and a stalemate ensues.


The propensity to gridlock enables the Commission to place issues before the ECJ for action, as authorized under Section 3b of the Maastricht Treaty, while restricting the sovereignty of the EU-15 and also negating whatever indirect influence citizens had voiced to their respective national governments. Thus, it is in this way that the interlocking competencies of EU institutions fragment democracy. The Council, representing national interests, must often resort to compromise at the lowest common denominator, or resort to expensive log-rolling, in order to reach consensus -- neither of which place fairness and democracy high on their list of priorities.

Another EU body entrusted with making decisions that will impact the lives of EU citizens is the ECJ, who are even less likely to represent democratic principles. The non-elected judges of the ECJ, regardless of their expertise, share a common professional background and legal culture. Their decision-making ability is enhanced by rules that allow the passage of law based on a simple majority, unlike that in the European Council. In addition, their debate and rulings are performed in secrecy and individual opinions and votes are not available to member governments or other EU institutions. This shelters the judges' decisions from member states and popular pressures, releasing them to perform their single-minded duty, which is to resolve the issue, regardless of any attempts by territorial or sectoral actors to influence their decision-making. And, because ECJ judges have consistently maintained the view that their role -- and the EU's, by default -- toward social policy should be an expansive one, their decisions will likely continue to reflect this tendency.

Finally, member states and citizens find themselves competing with powerful business interests for the control of social policy. Because the EU exercises its greatest decision-making power within the economic arena, business has gradually assumed increased political influence while, under economic integration, the position of labor and left-of-center political parties -- traditionally supporters of a strong social system -- have begun to erode. Thus, with business assuming a more influential role in deciding the future direction of the European welfare state, the sovereign voice of member states and their citizens must often struggle to be heard.


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See also:
SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT - General points
SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT - Article 130A - 130E
SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT - Articles 118a and b
DIRECTIVE 96/71/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 1996 concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services