Europe’s Democracy Problem

Eurosceptic arguments need to be taken seriously if the EU s to reform and survive

Seán Rainford
9 min readFeb 5, 2021


There may never have been a more pertinent time to discuss the topic of Euroscepticism than the period we are living in. Before 2016, no European Union member state had ever unilaterally chosen to leave. Brexit, although carried by a slim margin, expressed a clear repudiation of the EU and Britain’s membership of it. This essay attempts to outline what I believe to be the most convincing argument articulated by Eurosceptics, namely the EU’sdemocratic deficit’, how that problem affects Europe on the whole, and how it relates to Brexit. I will then argue that Brexit is indicative of a rising Euroscepticism, rather than British exceptionalism, and that it points to a possible disintegration of the EU as the problems that the lack of democracy creates affects all member states.

Euroscepticism considered

Before discussing Euroscepticism in the context of democracy, it is important to recognise the sheer broadness of the ‘Eurosceptic’ label. Two diametrically opposed world-views could both be described as Eurosceptic simply by virtue of the fact that they are both in disagreement with the EU. This is the case with those on the radical ends of both the left and right wings of European politics (van Elsas et al 2016:1181). While both radical leftists and those on the far right are often labelled as Eurosceptic, the basis of their opposition to the EU very rarely comes from the same place; studies seem to show that left-wing opposition is based more around the Union’s policies and institutions whereas right wing opposition is often based on an opposition to European integration in principle. It is therefore difficult to evaluate Eurosceptic arguments in general when they span from calling the EU a socialist empire similar to the Soviet Union to dismissing it as a capitalist cartel for big corporations. In other words, picking out one Eurosceptic complaint as being the most convincing could be problematic as what one Eurosceptic sees as the EU’s vice could be seen to another as its virtue.

That being said, there are common threads throughout most Eurosceptic arguments. One in particular stands out quite clearly. It is a complaint that even committed European federalists have pointed out for decades (Hix 2008:67). That complaint is on the grounds of democracy — that the European Union is lacking in democratic legitimacy. As outlined above, people can be Eurosceptic for a variety of different reasons but opposition to the EU is only exacerbated if citizens don’t feel like they have control over the direction and governance of the Union to begin with.

It is worth acknowledging that while, as I believe, the democracy question permeates much of what Eurosceptics argue, it does not always come explicitly to the fore in the same way that concerns over immigration, austerity, or over-regulation do. Indeed, some academics question whether highlighting the ‘democratic deficit’ is a form of Euroscepticism at all (Leconte 2010:7). However, anti-EU arguments often contain an implicit contention that ordinary people do not have control over European policy, i.e. a lack of democracy. For the purposes of this essay Euroscepticism will apply broadly to positions commonly labelled as Eurosceptic, and don’t have to stem, in principle at least, from an anti-integration basis (van Elsas et al 2016:1182).

The Democracy Problem

European democracies broadly fall into two democratic political systems: parliamentary, where the executive stems from and is accountable to the directly elected legislature; and semi-presidential, where the executive is made up of a directly elected president and a cabinet accountable to a directly elected parliament. In both cases, the executive has clear representation in the elected legislature and is accountable to it. Crucially, with this constitutional set-up, opposition and criticism of the executive branch of government and of the general direction of policy is generally kept within the confines of the political system itself (Leconte 2010:40).

The EU sorely lacks this constitutional arrangement. The Commission — generally accepted as the EU’s executive — does not come from the elected European Parliament, it is not an elected body, and it alone has the explicit power to propose legislation. While reform measures in recent treaties have given the body some level of accountability to the Parliament, these may have come too late to reverse the problem: the lack of in-system opposition — what Peter Mair (2007) highlights as a key feature of functional democracy.

In any political institution, the process of ‘depoliticisation’ often leads to an association of that institution with technocracy, bureaucracy, and elitism. The results of this process in Europe, applied most relevantly to the Commission, are clear to see. Any body that is at once considered an executive, civil service, and ‘guardian’ is ripe for accusations of technocracy (Varoufakis 2016:242). Because of this, and due to the fact that this executive branch has no established opposition within the EU’s institutions, opposition to this institution and others’ actions has to be done from outside EU structures. As a result, opposition became necessarily entangled with opposition to integration as a whole. Euroscepticism was thus born out of the vacuum of debate within the European Union itself (Mair 2007).

The Eurosceptic Movement

The question of Brexit and what it means for the future of the European Union is undoubtedly a complex one. On the one hand, while EU leaders lament the loss of Britain, it does remove what has historically been the Union’s most anti-integration member. Many of them will see an opportunity to build an EU along more integrationist lines, taking the premise that the British are sui generis and that truly committed Europeans can now get along with ever closer Union (Yglesias 2016). This, however, would be a naïve attitude for those wishing to maintain the Union. No doubt, Britain’s circumstances are unique to Britain — but so are the circumstances of every member state. Each nation that joins the EU joins for its own specific reasons. With this in mind, it is important to recognise the similarities of experience that the UK holds with other member states. The socio-economic and socio-cultural challenges that Britain has faced in recent decades are not unique to Britain. Similarly, the problems that the EU’s democratic deficit creates affects all EU nations.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, a wave of anti-Establishment movements has swept the Western world. The details of this wave do not need to be discussed in detail here other than to say that, around the liberal democratic world, faith in established institutions to represent the interests of the public at large has declined rapidly. Old assumptions of a technocratic, triangulating ‘moderate centre ground’ in politics have been undermined. Nowhere is this more evident than in Europe. Radical movements on both the right and the left have grown in popularity since the crash and with this more ‘Eurosceptic’ tendencies have gained representation in at national and European level. Eurosceptic parties now participate in national government in Italy, Austria, and Hungary — with rising Eurosceptic movements notable in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Perceptions and democracy in the European Union

With the neoliberal turn in the 1980s, the security provided by the welfare state has been eroded to a large degree. Globalisation, financialisation, and increasing insecurity at the workplace undoubtedly contributed to growing populism in Europe (Varoufakis 2016:207). At the same time as this shift occurred, so too did a socio-cultural shift. Immigration levels increased, the place of religion declined, and traditional cultural assumptions were challenged by socially liberal attitudes which led some members of coping classes to feel even more insecure (Calhoun 2016). And as both of these shifts occurred, European integration accelerated — transforming an Economic Community into a political Union. More competences were ceded to the EU, and with that, European populations felt increasingly powerless as their elected governments gave more and more of their powers away.

2002 and 2009 saw the Irish public vote for a second time on EU treaties they had previously rejected. In 2007, the Lisbon Treaty was signed — a treaty that many believed to be the repackaged Constitutional Treaty rejected by French and Dutch electorates (Kenealy et al 2018: 9). 2011 and 2012 saw the fall and replacement of governments in Italy and Greece respectively as a result of what many deduced as undue pressure from high ranking EU leaders (Varoufakis 2016:169). 2015 saw the ECB cutting off of liquidity to Greek banks after the anti-austerity Greek government announced a referendum on Greece’s third bailout package. All of these instances occurred at the national level, where democracy is most firmly established. The perception that the EU can override national democracies when they don’t give an answer that they like is hard to avoid when looking at this record.

These simple narratives may be valid or not — in many ways, that is irrelevant. What is important is that these narratives make sense to many European citizens. The EU may be more or less democratic than it is perceived to be, but it is perceived as undemocratic (Grant 2013). A famous British case in the early 20th century affirmed the importance to the legitimacy of the legal system of justice ‘not only being done but being seen to be done’. A similar principle could be applied to democracy — democracy must not only be done but be seen to be done. Whether or not the EU has done the former (and there is good evidence that it has not), it certainly has not done the latter. Recent political developments, particularly in relation to the Eurocrisis, have given the impression to many austerity-laden peoples that the EU is an undemocratic and bureaucratic monstrosity crushing democratically elected governments when they dare disagree with them.

The future of the Union

Brexit is the culmination of a growing Eurosceptic movement in Europe. It is not sufficient to argue that the British were simply not always on board with integration or that the British are simply exceptional; to argue that is to ignore the factors that led to the referendum result in the first place. The Union’s democracy problem is a systemic one and it affects all member states. Euroscepticism is a consequence of this systemic problem and it can therefore be expected to come to the fore across the EU; this has been seen in many member states — the German AfD, the French Front National, the Italian Lega Nord, the Dutch PVV. Brexit is the clearest expression of the Eurosceptic movement thus far; continental Eurosceptic parties have often embraced it enthusiastically. It is therefore naïve to separate Brexit from a burgeoning anti-EU wave and dismiss it as simply an expression of Britain’s uniqueness (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2018). Consequently, it is only logical to leave open the possibilities of other member states following in the UK’s path in the future, and/or the disintegration of the European Union as a consequence of this cannot be ruled out.


It would be wrong to attribute the Brexit vote simply to the EU’s democratic deficit — that is not the object of this essay. Rather, it is more accurate to say that as a consequence of European political structures, British concerns with the European project were not able to get their necessary Union-based outlet of expression. The European Union’s systemic lack of democratic legitimacy is a huge threat to its future. The rise of Euroscepticism is perhaps the biggest indication of this. If Brexit is culmination of anti-EU politics, as I believe it to be, the consequences for the European Union are dangerous. The possibility of other member states following Britain’s lead out, coupled with other ongoing existential crises, brings the future of the European Union into serious question. As Hix (2011) points out, without more directly democratic structures, EU leaders have no incentive to tackle the very serious problems that the Union faces. Those wishing to prevent further exits and the EU’s possible collapse would do well to ask how European structures could be made more accountable to those they are intended to serve.


Calhoun, C. (summer 2016) ‘Brexit is a Mutiny Against the Cosmopolitan Elite’, New Perspectives Quarterly,

Hix, Simon, and Høyland, Bjørn, (2011) The Political System of the European Union. 2nd ed., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Hix, Simon, (2008) What’s Wrong with the European Union & How to Fix It. Cambridge: Polity Press

Grant, C. (2013) ‘How to reduce the EU’s democratic deficit’, The Guardian, 10 June 2013 <> [Accessed 26/11/2018]

Kenealy, Daniel, Peterson, John, and Corbett, Richard, (2018) The European Union: How does it work? Oxford: Oxford University Press

Leconte, Cécile, (2010) Understanding Euroscepticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Mair, P. (2007) ‘Political Opposition and the European Union’, Government and Opposition, 42(1): 1–17.

Taggart, P. and Szczerbiak, A. ‘Putting Brexit into perspective: the effect of the Eurozone and migration crises and Brexit on Euroscepticism in European states’, Journal of European Public Policy, 25:8, 1194–1214 (2018)

van Elsas, E.J., Hakhverdian, A., and van der Brug, W. (2016) ‘United against a common foe? The nature and origins of Euroscepticism among leftwing and rightwing citizens’, West European Politics. 39:6, 1181–1204,

Varoufakis, Yanis, (2016) And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability. London: Vintage

Yglesias, M. (2016) ‘The case that Brexit is — and isn’t — the end of the European project’, Vox, 24 June 2016 <> [Accessed 26/11/2018]



Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.