Talk Recap: EU Democratic Deficit and COVID with Dr. Muireann O'Dwyer

By Sophie Lazzaroli, Warwick European Society Vice President

On the 26th of January, the European Society had the honor of welcoming Dr. Muireann O’Dwyer – lecturer at the University of St Andrews and expert on European Integration. Dr. O’Dwyer gave an insightful talk on the EU demographic deficit and how it applied in the context of the EU’s pandemic recovery policies – particularly the NExtGenEU recovery funding.

Event Banner. By the European Society marketing officer Presiana Dimitrova.


The answer to whether the EU suffers from a democratic deficit or not is not as simple as it may sound. Dr. O’Dwyer explained the question can be strongly argued both ways and laid out two main arguments for each side of the debate.

Firstly, with regard to why the EU may not have a democratic deficit, she noted that the EU is not a nation state, but rather should better be understood as a regulatory body. This would imply that perhaps we should not use the standard of democracy that we use at a national level to evaluate democracy at the EU level but instead, the comparison should be with non-majoritarian bodies such as courts or, increasingly central banks. The idea behind this argument is that by taking things away from democratic contestation, you may actually end up with a better outcome for everyone and it is hence worth the loss of input legitimacy. Furthermore, Dr. O’Dwyer explained that those who may make this argument may argue that the EU is not distributive; it is not making decisions around things such as taxation or welfare spending.

The other argument raised against the idea that the EU has a democratic deficit was that although not done through traditional means, the EU does represent democratic interests. In other words, if one were to imagine a total democratic EU and ask themselves what kind of policies, they would expect to come out of it, one would quickly see that these policies are indeed very similar to policies we do currently witness. This argument is particularly favored by those who perceive Member States as being central to the functioning of the EU and, it will often be claimed that EU institutions, such as the Commission, simply act as agents of the Member States whilst not actually have much discretion themselves. It therefore doesn’t matter that they have not been elected per se because they are simply carrying out tasks that they are being told to do by those who instead have been elected.

The European Commission Building. Image from Pixabay,

Dr. O’Dwyer however noted that although the arguments mentioned above may have been of greater importance in the past, it is hard to argue that the European Union of today is not a distributive actor and that the institutions lack from discretion. She explained this by emphasizing on two key points.

Firstly, Dr. O’Dwyer noted that the enlargement of the EU has brought an increase in diversity within the EU. Consequently, by having to take into account such a wide range of opinions, this has resulted with a greater number of Member States not being able to get their way on certain matters.

Secondly, over the past years, we have witnessed a deepening in integration. The EU now finds itself more heavily involved in various policy areas implying that the idea that the EU is merely a regulatory body no longer holds. The EU institutions do have a range of discretion and this was seen in various occasions, notably in the past decade by the ECB’s response to the economic crisis and pandemic and, by the impacts the court’s rulings have had not only towards European integration but also on the lives of individual citizens living within the European Union. The European Commission as well is beginning to see an increase in it’s discretion; it no longer only acts as a secretarial body to the other institutions but rather, it now has the ability to set the agenda, to take important decisions and, to make distinctions between different policy auctions.

Protests tend to have an essential place in a democratic society. Image from Pixabay.

Moreover, the last decade has really pushed away the argument that the EU is not a distributive actor. Dr. O’Dwyer noted that although in terms of distribution, the EU’s budget has historically been very small in relation to overall GDP of the EU or even compared to national budgets, this does not mean that EU policies haven’t had any significant distributional consequences. Actually, as a response to the economic crisis, the EU pushed through a series of policies and reforms that constrained the distributional decisions of Member State governments for things such as wealth accumulation, inequality and poverty. All of these are questions one traditionally associates with national state distributions and this is precisely what the first argument against the EU having democratic deficit said we should not use as a comparison.

To conclude, Dr. O’Dwyer remarked that although it might not be impossible to reach a totally democratic EU there are some challenges for improving democratic legitimacy that we must take into account. One of the main challenges arises from the question of apathy versus politicization. On the one hand, democratic legitimacy finds itself at risk when faced with mass apathy where people don’t pay attention to what is going on. However, on the other hand, the EU has also seen an increase in politicization which makes it more difficult to develop reforms and can hence slow down the process of policy making, therefore making it very difficult to find the right balance between apathy and politicization. Also, connected to apathy is the issue of complexity. The EU is famously known to be a complex political system and it can therefore at times make it difficult to have accountability if people don’t fully understand what’s happening or how things within the system work.

Finally, another point raised was whether with all the different political debates and different systems of democratic accountability across the various different Member States, it would even be possible to establish a European demos.

The European Society would like to thank Dr Muireann O’Dwyer for her time and truly insightful talk and we hope our members enjoyed the talk as much as we did!

By Sophie Lazzaroli, Third Year Law and Business Student & Warwick European Society Vice President

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