Where is European democracy heading?

The RECON project is summing up its five years of research in two outreach conferences, asking the key question: How to strengthen democracy in the EU? The first conference was held in Brussels on the 19th of May  and the other one will be held in Oslo on November 24th.

On 19 May 2011, RECON staged the major outreach conference 'Where is European democracy heading?' in Brussels.  (Photo: colourbox.com)

Can the nation state safeguard democracy in the age of Europeanisation and globalisation? Can democracy as such be reconstituted in Europe, and if so, at what level? How to strengthen democracy in the EU was the key question of the RECON outreach conference May 19.

The conference 'Where is European democracy heading?' presented key findings to policy makers, journalists and civil society actors. An overarching theme of the RECON project has been the future of democracy in Europe. Democracy has historically developed at a national level but, with increasing internationalisation of politics, does the concept need re-working?

Having established three ideal type models of European democracy, RECON evaluates their viability as possible options for the EU - with the aim of identifying strategies to strengthen democracy and rectify deficits. This is undertaken by considering how they would establish democracy institutionally as well as through detailed analysis of a range of important EU policy areas.

Three models

RECON establishes three models of European democracy. Different options for democratic reconstitution in Europe are delineated and assessed.

The first model depicts democracy as directly associated with the nation state, assuming it is only at a national level that trust and solidarity can be fostered. As such, the EU is accountable to the member states who can both authorize and confine EU operations.

The second model establishes the EU as a multinational federal state with a sense of common identity and collective goals among European citizens. With democratic procedures and a common identity, decision-making and legislation would be legitimate at the federal state level.

The third model is described as a European subsystem of a larger cosmopolitan order where citizen-sovereignty has replaced state sovereignty. This is a model for democracy beyond the state where democratic rule is configured in a multi-level structure of government.

RECON assesses which of these approaches to democratisation of the multilevel constellation that makes up the EU that is most viable. The aim is to identify strategies through which democracy can be strengthened and propose measures for rectifying institutional and constitutional defects in various policy areas.

Constitutional issues

The research highlights the political contestation over the many efforts to render the EU’s material constitution democratic. The Lisbon Treaty ratification process contained clearer traits of the first model than had the far more open Constitutional Treaty process.

But in substantive terms, the Lisbon Treaty promises to move the EU closer to the third model. This means that, despite Lisbon, the EU continues to confront the intellectual and political challenge of devising a democratic constitution for a non-state entity.


EU citizens have two channels of democratic representation: through national parliaments and more directly through Members of the European Parliament (the EP).

The EP is most at home in RECON model 3. This also applies to the overall structure of representation in the EU which deviates from the standard two-channel system of federal states because of the distinct features of the EU system: the manner in which national parliaments are linked in with the European Parliament and the increased involvement of national parliaments in EU decision-making.

This structure injects a distinct deliberative dimension but also brings up new and thorny questions of accountability.

Obviously the co-decision procedure (where both the EP and the European Council decide on legislation) is more inclusive than consultation (where the Council only consults the Parliament on legislation) and it also provides more spaces for consultation with stakeholders.

Involvement of civil society representatives in the early stages of legislation ensures greater inclusion of those concerned and assists political equality.

Democracy from below

Civil society and a public sphere is an inherent part of any democratic order. RECON has conducted, among other empirical studies in this field, research on the role of the mass media – an important while far from unique actor in the ‘public sphere’.

A media survey on the EU constitutional debate indicates that the patterns and dynamics of mass media tend to follow model 1, with its focus on national government actors and intergovernmental institutions.

However, there is also evidence of model 3 in terms of overlapping public spheres. The media survey finds little empirical evidence for an unfolding European public sphere that would support a democratic order along the lines of model 2, which would require that the same issues would be debated at the same time under the same criteria of relevance.

Beyond a regulatory regime

RECON finds that the institutional as well as the civic conditions for a legitimate public justification process in the EU are not fully compatible with any one model.

But the EU has been moving beyond model 1, and towards model 3 in some important areas. The EU is clearly more than a regulatory regime but less than a federation.

Consequently, European postnational democracy remains an unrealized possibility. The system of representation is incomplete, although it also contains novel democratic possibilities, and the requirement of a European public sphere has not been met. One possible line of reform would be to bring the EU more in line with the prescriptions of model 3.

Read more about findings on these issues and more here.

Published May 25, 2011 12:00 AM - Last modified Feb. 4, 2022 2:41 PM