11/08/2011 09:14 EST | Updated 01/08/2012 05:12 EST

Europe's Greatest Deficit Is its Democracy

Though his actions quickly descended into farce, soon-to-be-former Greek Prime Minister Papandreou had the right instinct calling for a referendum on the austerity package that European negotiators are imposing on his country. There has been a long-stranding "democratic deficit" within the European Union, with major decisions being made without the input of the Union's citizens. The latest crisis is only increasing this deficit.

For a while, some European leaders seemed to be aware of the problem. In December of 2001 at the Laeken Castle in Brussels, European leaders declared that, "Within the Union, the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens... More importantly, however, they feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny."

That declaration called for a convention which in turn produced a draft constitutional treaty. That treaty was rejected by French and Dutch voters.

After that start, little real progress has been made on this front, just feints toward accountability.

Now a byzantine maze of executive and legislative powers prevents real democracy from being exercised. To see an example of this, consider the Lisbon Treaty's treatment of the force of popular initiatives. Title II, Article 8 B(4) reads:

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 appropriateproposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.

That is, the Commission itself can decide if the number is "significant" and whether the proposal is "appropriate" before it even considers itself "invite[d]" to submit the subject for consideration to the legislative organs of the Union. And that is after a successful effort to get one million citizens to officially opine on a Union matter in several countries, which would be no mean feat.

It has a democratic feel, but the Commission's effective veto reduces concerted popular action to mere suggestion. One might as well just write the Commission a letter, which would have the same effect.

The most significant lack of democratic accountability has been the failure of at least two Commissions and others to enforce the existing Stability and Growth Pact within the eurozone. Enforcing the agreement would not have prevented Greece's current crisis, but it would have stemmed the crisis of popular legitimacy the Union is currently facing in Greece.

The Commission has failed to administer the rules of the eurozone, but despite their inaction, their sinecures are completely secure. Greater legal capabilities wrought in this crisis are very unlikely to improve this democratic deficit even if they can be made consonant with current treaties (assuming the negotiators will even try to make them such).

There is no sign that the Union plans to change its current lack of democratic accountability. Oxford political theorist Larry Siedentop has argued that state formation requires that leaders must pass through "a more or less despotic phase" in their governance. Time will tell if this European anti-democratic governance is just a phase.

This post originally appeared on