A common criticism of the European Union is that it suffers from a democratic deficit. Francis Cheneval and Frank Schimmelfennig argue that much of this criticism stems from applying standards of democracy relevant to individual nation-states, rather than a community of states like the EU. The fact that the EU brings together multiple different electorates ensures that a different model of democracy is required: what they term ‘demoicracy’, based on the plural of ‘demos’, or citizenry. When judged by this standard the EU stands up fairly well, although the uneven application of democratic principles at the national level, such as the variety of different treaty ratification measures used by member states, presents some problems.

Too often, research on the European Union’s “democracy deficit” extrapolates nation-state models of democracy to the EU, which presuppose a single demos (citizenry) characterized by a resilient collective identity, a common public sphere, and a developed political infrastructure of associations and parties as the social underpinnings of legitimate and well-functioning democracy. Such a demos is strong at the national level but weak in the EU and unlikely to develop in the foreseeable future.

Credit: Matt Sephton (Creative Commons BY NC ND)

This basic fact about the EU needs to be reflected in the way we think about democracy in the EU.  Contributions to the debate on democracy in the EU seek to overcome the no-demos problem in three ways: by seeking to bring about a European demos through Europe-wide political competition and contestation; by protecting the national demoi (the plural form of demos); and by compensating for the absence of a European demos through deliberative procedures. We find all three alternatives partly problematic. The competitive strategy proposes a kind of democracy, for which the EU is not ready. The protective strategy maintains that the EU is not ready for any kind of democracy beyond the member states. The deliberative strategy overestimates the potential for transnational deliberation and consensus and underestimates the need for constitutional rights and limits.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Common Market Studies, we argue that a rethinking of the appropriate model and criteria of democracy for the EU is required. We follow the thesis that the EU is a ‘demoicracy’ – a polity of multiple demoi – and has to be evaluated as such. In any democratic polity beyond the nation-state, multiple demoi therefore need to play an indispensable part as bearers of negative and positive rights of protection and participation.

Demoicracy is a specific political order that takes into account the two fundamental normative references of liberal democracy, citizens and statespeoples (political authorities). It does not compromise on core fundamental rights of individuals but it balances the political rights of individuals and statespeoples. Democratic statespeoples ought to recognise each other’s institutions of freedom, most of all each other’s popular sovereignty. However, as decent statespeoples they should also take into consideration the negative externalities their democratic decisions have on each other and on the fundamental rights of citizens of other states. Hence, they ought to coordinate their decisions and decision-making bodies accordingly. Furthermore, liberal democracies ought to respect the individual rights of citizens. It is inadequate to disregard individuals as the normative references of a theory of coexistence of liberal democratic statespeoples, but it is equally inadequate to disregard fundamental political rights of statespeoples.

Four main principles of demoicracy follow from this general consideration. First, in a demoicracy, the statespeoples remain sovereign regarding entry, exit, and the basic rules of the political order. Demoicracy cannot presuppose a common political demos as its basis; it has to constitute the framework of decision making by agreement of the participating demoi and accept that the demoi may exit the political order or veto its further development. Second, demoicracy is based on non-discrimination and, third, on equal legislative rights of citizens and statespeoples. Both citizens and statespeoples need to be represented at the supranational level, and neither a dominant status of the body of representation of citizens nor of statespeoples is acceptable. In the case of substantive disagreement, the two bodies need to engage in a compromise procedure. If this procedure fails, a legislative proposal cannot be adopted. Differences in the number of individual members cannot infringe upon the equal status of statespeoples. Finally, whereas demoicracy requires the supremacy of multilateral law and jurisdiction, the composition of this highest court and the decision making procedures concerning constitutional jurisdiction have to follow the principle of co-decision making and of equal representation of statespeoples and citizens.

We find that the EU heeds the core principles of demoicracy quite well. First, no statespeoples are forced into membership, exit is possible, and every state has a right to veto new treaty rules. In addition, the EU has established a comprehensive non-discrimination regime and a bicameral legislature representing both statespeoples  (in the Council) and citizens (in the European Parliament) and deciding predominantly by co-decision. Finally, the supremacy of supranational law is a fundamental principle of the EU but regarding the sovereignty of statespeoples, there is de facto constitutional co-jurisdiction exercised by the European Court of Justice and the constitutional courts of the member states.

It is, however, an important insight of the demoicracy approach that the democratic quality of the EU is to be assessed on the systemic level of interaction of all demoi in connection with the EU. It is not enough to look at the EU as such. Its democratic quality is established by the institutional dispositions of the EU and of all the member states. In this perspective, some of the most problematic deficits of demoicracy in the EU result from deficits at the national level (or the relationship between the EU and the national level) rather than the supranational level.

First, the uneven and uncoordinated ratification procedures in the member states, their phased timing and the unequal application of representative or direct democracy distort an adequate representation of the will of national electorates. National demoicracy deficits further result from the uneven and partly deficient implementation of non-discrimination and transnational rights. Furthermore, if the governments deciding in the Council are to represent the statespeoples, it must be ensured that they follow the preferences of the national demoi. Comparative research shows, however, that the competences of national parliaments regarding EU legislation vary vastly across the member states and tend to be weak in a majority of member states. Finally, co-jurisdiction is exercised to a varying degree by the courts of the member states. Few national constitutional courts take the guardianship of the popular sovereignty of their people as seriously as the German Federal Constitutional Court. As a consequence, when the EU is properly understood as a demoicracy, calls for democratic reform should not be addressed exclusively or predominantly to the supranational level.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Authors

Francis Cheneval  – Universität Zürich
Francis Cheneval is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Zürich. His research interests include the history of political thought, global justice, normative problems of European integration and property rights. His most recent book is The Government of the Peoples. On the Idea and Principles of Multilateral Democracy (Palgrave, 2011).


Frank SchimmelfennigETH Zürich
Frank Schimmelfennig is Professor of European Politics at ETH Zürich. His main research interests are in the theory of international institutions and European integration and, more specifically, in EU enlargement, democracy promotion, and democratisation. His most recent book is Differentiated Integration. Explaining Variation in the European Union (co-authored with Dirk Leuffen and Berthold Rittberger; Palgrave, forthcoming).

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