The infamous democratic deficit of Europe. A weak European Parliament without legitimacy, a Council of Ministers with a lack of transparency and accountability, euro commissioners who can't be sacked if they make a hash of things. For Europhobes these are strong arguments for being against the Union, while Europhiles seize upon them as grounds for further integration. But does such a democratic deficit indeed insist? And if so, how big or bad is it?

In short: European democracy is an indirect democracy. Not one like we are used to, it is indeed “different”. But not by definition worse or undemocratic. “The EU as a whole is of course not one state with one parliament that controls one government. It is an interplay of 27 national democracies and a piece of European democracy,” explains Luuk van Middelaar, author of The passage to Europe and member of the Cabinet of EU President Herman Van Rompuy.

Much of the criticism stems from this structure. While it is true that the European Parliament has increasing powers and participates in decision-making on practically all laws, it does not function as a national parliament that can remove individual ministers from office. Similarly, the European Commission is not a government, but an apolitical collection of technocrats, led by appointed commissioners. But would we, experts ask, want it to be otherwise? We don't want a European government do we? No. Exactly.

“Decisions are not taken, rather they come into being”

And that is why things are arranged indirectly. The Council of Ministers, which takes the important decisions, is accountable to national parliaments. Thus no direct European representation, but instead national control, which is, at least in theory, firmly anchored.

Of course, that too can give rise to criticism. The fact that the elected European Parliament must work with a Council of Ministers consisting of 27 countries logically means that decision-making is a process involving many steps. “Decisions are not taken, rather they come into being,” says Sebastiaan Princen, senior lecturer on European Administration. That makes exercising control more difficult. What's more, voters' influence is diluted by the multiple layers involved: up to now there has been very little relationship between the outcome of national elections and decisions in Brussels. That may change now that “Europe” has become an electoral theme.

But these are not the old objections that fed the myth of the “democratic deficit” in Europe. Those concerned the weak European Parliament and lack of transparency. Objections that have since been largely addressed. “The real democratic deficit can now be found in national parliaments,” says Professor of Political Science Rinus van Schendelen. “They have failed to keep pace with ongoing Europeanisation.” In other words: the democratic deficit is a lot smaller than often alleged, if the national parliaments performed their control function properly.