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Democracy in the EU

Democracy in the European Union

There are different ways in which democracy functions in the EU. These are either direct, through elections of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) or indirect, through national government representation in the Council of the European Union and in the European Council. Citizens also have the chance of direct involvement in proposing laws.

The European Parliament is the elected legislative body of the EU. It is made up of 751 MEPs who are directly elected by the EU citizens every five years. A system of proportional representation is used to elect MEPs in all member states. MEPs are held accountable to EU citizens, who can choose not to re-elect them if they are not happy after the five-year term. The UK currently has 73 MEPs with the last elections held in 2014.

The Council of the European Union is composed of ministers from each EU country who represent the democratically elected national governments. The council meets to discuss, amend and adopt laws, and coordinate policies. At each meeting the national governments are represented by the most relevant minister.

The European Council usually takes the form of summit meetings and brings together the leaders of EU countries to set the EU’s agenda.  As national governments are democratically elected the leaders are indirectly representing their citizens at the EU level. By voting to change their national governments, citizens are also changing the way their views are represented in the EU, and so the Council of the European Union and the European Council are also indirectly accountable to European citizens.

The President of the European Commission, currently Jean-Claude Juncker, is also indirectly elected by the European Council and the European Parliament. The candidate for President of the European Commission is proposed by the European Council and then must be elected by a majority vote in the European Parliament.

Democracy in the Lisbon Treaty

In 2007, the Lisbon Treaty introduced a procedure called the Citizens’ Initiative whereby citizens of the EU can invite the European Commission to propose legislation. At least one million citizens from a majority of the member states need to sign an initiative for it to be considered by the European Commission. In this way the citizens are able to become directly involved with decision-making at the EU level.

The Lisbon Treaty also increased the powers of the European Parliament, so that the elected representatives of the citizens get a greater say in decision-making, and increased the role of national parliaments in law-making. National parliaments now have the power to consider and to challenge any EU laws that they think should be made at a national rather than at the EU level.

There remains dispute over whether the EU is a truly democratic organisation or whether it has a democratic deficit.