THE "DISCURSIVE DEFICIT"
Moravcsik and the European Union
“Sidentrop’s most fundamental error—one he shares with many in the European debate—is his assumption that the EU is a nation-state in the making,” Andrew Moravcsik writes in his “Despotism In Brussels?” However, Moravcsik makes the same error himself, if a bit more circuitously. In his articles “Despotism In Brussels?”, “Federalism in the European Union: Rhetoric and Reality,” and “In Defense of the ‘Democratic Deficit’: Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union,” Moravcsik denies the existence of a “democratic deficit” within the European Union. His claim itself, however, is not legitimate: he attempts to legitimize to the European Union by granting it authority on the basis of state-based democratic standards while simultaneously denying that the EU is, in fact, a democratic entity similar to the modern state.
“The European Union lacks every characteristic that grants a modern European state…its authority,” Moravcsik states. Yet he asserts that “constitutional checks and balances, indirect democratic control via national governments, and the increasing powers of the European Parliament are sufficient to assure that the EU policymaking is, in nearly all cases, clean, transparent, effective, and politically responsive to demands of European citizens.” This assertion relies heavily on what is the most salient characteristic of authority in the “modern European state”—the democratic system—to make any sense at all, and thus the contradiction in Moravcsik’s argument emerges. In order to examine the intricacies of this contradiction, we shall now analyze the three endemically democratic concepts that Moravcsik claims legitimize EU authority, his assertion that each is not part of a state structure as used by the EU, and his contradictory validation of these concepts by state-employed democratic principles.
Constitutional checks and balances. Moravcsik claims that the presence and use of the Treaty of Rome as a “stable, overarching structure of political authority in Europe” should dispel Euroskeptics’ fears about the development of a European “superstate.” He proceeds to assert that while a true Constitution does not (as yet) exist, a relatively firm “de facto constitution for Europe” does indeed exist. That “constitution,” he claims, is characterized by “a set of substantive fiscal, administrative, legal, and procedural constraints on EU policymaking” that serve to limit the EU in its policymaking power. However, even as Moravcsik proves that these elements effectively prevent the creation of a European superstate, he does so by further characterizing the EU as a nation-state. The very concept of a federal constitution is endemic to a democratic governmental structure because it assumes a participatory governed body in which each participant yields a given amount of sovereignty in exchange for governmental order, and patterns legislation after this body’s best interests as determined directly by said participants. If, as Moravcsik maintains in his “Federalism in the European Union: Rhetoric and Reality,” the European Union “does not conform to the principles of fiscal federalism and is unlikely to do so in the future,” one can hardly expect successful use or outgrowth of other federally oriented structures, particularly those like the constitution that allegedly enforce “substantive fiscal” policies. Fiscal policy remains a core issue in federal policymaking of European nations on the national level—quite naturally so, given their fundamentally capitalistic systems. Furthermore, Moravcsik can hardly maintain that this fiscal hole in the EU federal structure leaves little lacking in EU policy, particularly given the recent implementation of common market and common currency unit.
The larger problem with Moravcsik’s arguments holds true regarding his claim about the European Union’s “constitutional checks and balances.” The EU’s “checks and balances” lack efficiency because, while they were designed to function within a democratic structure, their authority does not stem from principles of democracy. Rather, as Moravcsik himself states, the EU derives constitutional authority from an “often-amended” body of treaties that were propose and are altered by, bureaucratic and insulated governmental entities--not by a European popular constituency.
Additionally, regardless of its authorial validity, the three-pillar structure of the EU assures that the actual application of the its “constitutional checks and balances” will hardly merit the term “democratic.” The Commission serves as an excellent example of this non-democratic system of policymaking. Its sole authority to initiate legislation and draft the annual EU budget, its requisite “full association” with all actions taken, its resultant agenda-setting prerogative, its overall responsibility for implementation of EC policy, its status as the prime motor of European integration, its ability to forge alliances among influential interest groups, and its anti-trust regulation all ensure the Commission’s near-autonomy as a non-democratic agent. Commissioners also swear to abandon all national allegiances during their time in office, thereby completely dissolving any semblance of a democratic representation of interests. In short, the wellspring of EC policy is definitively supragovernmental and only negligibly “checked” in its policymaking by the more democratic European Parliament. This structure removes the origins of European Union policy from the European democratic constituency that any claim that “democracy” is upheld by an EU constitution would seem absurd. Any attempt to derive authoritative “legitimacy” from this purportedly “democratic” arrangement more bizarre still.
Indirect democratic control via national governments. Moravcsik’s claim rests on two assumptions: first, that national governments do indeed exercise individual democratic control within the European Union and secondly, that these national governments themselves are inherently democratic, or at least sufficiently so to maintain the standards of peace and prosperity (as measured by GDP) required EU members. Moravcsik insists that the EU derives its legitimacy from its existence and operation as a fundamentally democratic body. He arrives at this conclusion, however, from a series of negative conclusions about what the EU is not and does not engage in, stating that “the EU will not become a despotic “superstate,” and that “democratic procedures…prevent the EU from becoming an arbitrary and unaccountable technocracy.” He also claims that there exist “underlying social reasons why political participation in the EU cannot be radically expanded.” While the first two reasons count as justification for currently utilized procedures of the European Union, they fail to account for any source of the EU’s authority as a democracy, and the third statement outright contradicts any vestige of democratic principle which might have supported the first two. Furthermore, it frankly resembles an elitist point of view that implies that assessment of these “social reasons,” as well as “political participation,” is only effectively justified in the hands of the few who control European discourse regarding democratic participation. Just because a political system’s policymaking restraints and structure appear on the surface to be democratically modeled that does not mean that the polity itself is a democracy. The aforementioned prerogatives of the Commission; the extensive use of qualified majority voting; and the essential separation of the Commission, the European Court of Justice, and even the European Parliament from national governments all work to ensure that the “technocracy” which Moravcsik abhors in fact already exists within the present-day EU.
Another problem exists with Moravcsik’s attempt to justify the European Union’s legitimacy by citing its “indirect democratic control via national governments." The claim itself, as it applies to the EU, negates the very principles of democracy. Since authority granted via democracy is definitively derived from the will of a given people, and not from convoluted and insufficient representation of given systems of representation of several peoples “systems,” Moravcsik’s point is rendered moot.
This point is further validated by the increasing federalization of European states, a fact that Moravcsik points to as proof of European Union’s legitimacy as a democratic body insofar as the face of European democracy is changing to reflect a more centralized model. The opposite, however, is true; European nations’ increasing federalization further removes European national constituencies from their national governments, and in turn from any intergovernmental structure inherent in the EU. The increasing federalization of the European state increases the representative gap between the interests of the individual European and their representation in her own national government, and so the same process on an intergovernmental level—even assuming perfectly “democratic” —adds yet another tier to this disparate construct. “The late twentieth century,” Moravcsik writes, “has been a period of the ‘decline of parliaments’ and the rise of courts, public administration, and the ‘core executive.’ Increasingly, accountability is imposed not through direct systems but through systems of indirect representation, selection of representatives, professional socialization, ex post review, and balances between branches of governments.” If the definition of democracy is changing, and the best form of democracy includes more indirect methods of representation, as Moravcsik maintains, then why does he cite the growing powers of the European Parliament as proof of the European Union’s legitimacy derived from democracy? “It is now the EP that, late in the legislative process, rejects or amends legislation in a manner more difficult for the Council to reject than to accept—a prerogative traditionally afforded the Commission,” Moravcsik writes. “The EP is directly elected by proportional representation…and often acts independently of ruling parties. Whereas one might criticize the absence of clear programmatic elections, the EP nonetheless has an effective system of party cooperation.” The validity of this “cooperation” as a basis of assessing the EU’s democratic legitimacy seems nonexistent in light of Moravcsik’s concept of the evolution of true modern democracy.
Moravcsik acknowledges that the EU’s specialization in the areas of indirect representation, selection of representatives, professional socialization, ex post review, and balances between branches of governments render its functioning seemingly “undemocratic.” But he attempts to justify the European Union’s resultant political insulation in a fundamentally democratic light, by citing three needs met by insulated polities: the need for greater specialization, efficiency, and expertise in little-known or unexplored policy areas; the need for impartial dispensation of justice, equality and rights for minorities and individuals; and the need to provide majorities with unbiased representation. While these are valid and legitimate needs that arise out of any polity, the responsive formation of the EU’s “undemocratic” bodies to rectify them out right negates Moravcsik’s claim that the European Union parallels European states in its utilization of indirectly accountable governing systems. The EU, as he writes, “specializes” in these areas and thus far surpasses nations’ usage of them. These agencies also further deprive national governments of their role in his originally presupposed “indirect democratic control.”
The European Parliament. The European Parliament, though growing in comparative legislative authority, hardly provides any validation of the EU’s legitimacy via either traditional democratic standards or Moravcsik’s “modern democratic” standards. Despite his insistence that the EU is a “regulatory polity,” Moravcsik cites the European Parliament’s role as sole majoritarian entity of the EU to evidence the EU’s democratic legitimacy. He attempts to employ majoritarian democratic standards as a valid measurement of legitimacy, a tactic which functions in contradiction to his earlier arguments that majoritarian democratic standards do not apply to the EU and therefore cannot be used as a basis upon which to assess its legitimacy. Moravcsik vaunts the EP’s allegedly increasing influence in the EU, stating that “for over a decade, the EP has been progressively usurping the role of the Commission as the primary agenda-setter vis-ŕ-vis the Council in the EU legislative process. It is now the EP that, late in the legislative process, accepts, rejects, or amends legislation in a manner more difficult for the Council to reject than to accept—a prerogative officially afforded the Commission.” Moravcsik goes on to emphasize the democratically representative nature of the European Parliament. But again, the reader must ask why, amidst arguments attempting to validate delegation, insulation, and increasing federalization as the evolving standard of European democracy, he cites the directly elected EP as a positive source of democratically derived power. Moravcsik fails to provide reasoning for this logic. Since the notion of democracy upheld by the European Parliament and the notion of democracy upheld by the remainder of the EU structure differ markedly, one can only assume that the standards by which he deems the EP a “form of democratic accountability” are those same standards that Moravcsik elsewhere refers to as “ancient,” “Westminster-style,” “frankly utopian,” and “idealistic.”
Even if one ignores the ambiguity and inconsistency of Moravcsik’s democratic standards, one cannot overlook direct contradiction. “Voting rules make it difficult for the EP to act decisively,” Moravcsik writes. “Its ability to shape the agenda of European politics remains modest.” Through his citation of the European Parliament as proof of the EU’s federal “democracy” and as proof of the European Union’s identity as “a polity…more confederal than federal…[whose] cumbersome decision-making process is constrained by super-majoritarian and unanimous decision-making,” Moravcsik reveals several important aspects about the structure of and academic culture surrounding the European Union. First, if Moravcsik can point in academic discourse to the EP as an example of two contradictory political systems, the European Parliament may indeed function somewhat ambiguously as a political body and therefore deserves a level of analysis completely separated from any democracy-related applications. Secondly, if Moravcsik can do so without correction from the academic and/or political communities, he illustrates himself the danger of the EU’s “multi-level political body” and its consequent insulation and removal from direct, “utopian” democratic principle. He proves unknowingly that the difference between “rhetoric and reality” in discourse concerning the European Union is not distinguishable for the vast majority of the literate public, even within those circles allegedly well informed and familiar with European Union structure and policy.
Moravcsik accuses current critics of “judg[ing] the European Union against an abstract standard of democratic participation rather than assessing it as a second-best constitutional compromise designed to cope pragmatically with concrete problems.” But in fact, Moravcsik’s own conception of the EU is bound similarly to a not only abstract but contradictory conception of “democratic participation” that is insufficient in itself as a guarantor of legitimacy. His ideal of the “current institutional form of the EU” as “democratically legitimate” is abstract in the extreme, as is the idea of a European “constitutional compromise.” This abstraction relies too heavily upon democracy’s application to legitimatize the EU, and also upon Moravcsik’s contradictory theories regarding the very nature of democratic standards. “The EU [is] the first postmodern institution in world politics and a possible harbinger of future global political structures,” Moravcsik concludes in his article “Despotism in Brussels?”. If these “future global political structures” to come prove as ill-defined and elusive of theoretical explanation as Moravcsik proves the European Union to be, then the world of international politics is forever destined to inhabit the realm of the “second-best.”