VoxEU Column EU institutions

Lisbon Treaty: Democracy vs efficiency?

This column shows that the flow of EU decision-making has slowed. The Lisbon Treaty could bolster decision-making efficiency and democracy by reinforcing the three main elements of representative democracy, namely elected representatives that fight for their constituencies’ interests, compete with other such representatives, and are accountable to voters. But that still leaves open the question of implementation.

The two main ‘selling points’ of the Lisbon Treaty are that it increases democracy and efficiency in the EU. These were not enough for the Irish evidently. Either they were not explained sufficiently clearly, or Irish voters may have voted on the basis of other issues – including some unrelated to the Treaty text itself. Whatever the reasons, many observers have pointed out that the same result would have prevailed elsewhere if other EU populations had also been asked to vote.

EU member state governments now have the consequences of the Irish ‘No’ vote on their hands, and it is high on the political agenda – pushing down other worthy topics such as rising food and fuel prices, challenges to growth and jobs, energy security problems, immigration issues, enlargement, greater involvement in international affairs, etc. There is great reluctance to leave the Lisbon Treaty for dead. The dominant argument – again – is that the institutional changes in the Lisbon Treaty are simply necessary to keep the EU running efficiently and democratically.

But is this claim well-founded? Does the new EU treaty boost both democracy and efficiency? Gideon Rachman already questioned this pairing in a recent article in the Financial Times and concluded that ‘If and when the Lisbon treaty came into force, it would make the EU more efficient. But it would also make it less democratic’.

Efficiency in numbers

There is general agreement that the Lisbon Treaty would increase decision-making efficiency in the EU, especially the part that expands the range of issues decided by qualified majority voting in the Council. Although initial numbers reported shortly after the 2004 enlargement showed that the Brussels institutions did quite well in coping with the ‘big bang’ expansion to 25 and later 27 member states, more recent figures show that – in strictly factual measures – the EU has seen a slight drop in the amount of acts passed in the main legislative body, the Council of the European Union. This drop could of course be caused by various factors, but internal accounts from the institutions repeatedly refer to an increasingly cumbersome decision process. Although a turn to more formalised procedures and meeting schedules has eased negotiations to some degree, calls for reform in the 27-member setting are still widely heard. Difficulties with reaching agreement are – perhaps not surprisingly – most pronounced in areas where unanimity is still the dominant decision rule (Table 1).

Table 1. Legislation passed by the Council, 1999 to 2007.

Pieces of Legislation

Co-Decision with Parliament (%)


Contested legislation (%)*


Note: * Contested legislation refers to legislation where one or more governments recorded their opposition to the adopted act. The high total figure for legislation adopted in 2004 reflects rush to get as many on-going projects finished before the Eastern enlargement.


Democratic legitimacy – in what form?

Accepting the argument that the Lisbon Treaty would help to improve efficiency in the EU, a comment should be made regarding the democratic trade-off. Supporters of the Lisbon Treaty have generally pointed out that the EU would become more ‘democratic’ as national Parliaments would receive (at least some) higher recognition and that the European Parliament would gain increased powers. To my mind, these are important developments, but of course do not improve on democratic legitimacy automatically; they could in fact have the opposite effect depending on the actual implementation.

Nevertheless, the Lisbon Treaty may help the EU’s democratic development on the basis that representative democracy (which is the principle that the EU is essentially build upon) is, broadly speaking, constructed by three main elements:

·      Elected representatives seeking to further their constituencies’ interests;

·      The competition between these representatives;

·      The existence of accountability mechanisms where voters can punish or approve of policy makers.

The content of the Lisbon Treaty would improve on the first two. First, constituencies’ interests (in the form of common EU public goods) could be argued to be better pursued if one accepts the general conclusion that the EU will become more efficient under the rules laid out in the Lisbon Treaty. Second, when different constituencies’ interests are conflicting – and they increasingly are as the EU has gained in competences – an increase in competition between decision-makers is healthy. Contests between interests in the EU are part of the day-to-day negotiations, and as the dynamics between the now 27 governments have settled, such conflicting interests are increasingly voiced. They may be even more so with a further move to qualified majority decisions.

Treaty versus politics

A current dilemma is that with the unanimity requirement, some governments may still wish to oppose a decision but refrain from doing so on issues that are less salient to them in order not to halt negotiations. With a move towards more majority decisions rather than unanimity, these oppositions could become more readily voiced as governments could formally record their opposition while the whole of the EU would not be ‘hostage’ to only a single government’s position. Thus one argument in favour of the Lisbon treaty could be that a change in the decision rules in the Council may not only lead to an improvement in terms of efficiency, but could also give governments the option (or put a pressure on them) to record their positions on legislation. At present, this is not frequently done in the Council.

There are of course instances where it may not be beneficial for governments to have decision records out for public scrutiny or where governments need to send a collective signal of acting in unity and therefore announce decisions based on a unanimous agreement. However, as the scope of day-to-day decision making in the EU goes further than traditional intergovernmental policy areas, it is fair to emphasise the need for decision-makers to have their positions publicly known.

These considerations bring us back to the last of the three democratic ‘principles’ – accountability. In legal terms, the EU is a democratic political system with checks-and-balances. However, the critique of the EU as an elitist and technocratic bubble are no doubt also relevant, as voters’ perceptions of being able to influence EU policies are – at best – limited. Still, in the midst of the current debate on the Lisbon treaty, where frustrations have been voiced quite loudly, it may be relevant to make a similar distinction in the form of ‘Treaty vs Politics’: there is a difference between the legal framework (as laid out in the Treaty base) and how political behaviour is exercised within this framework. On the basis of how daily decision dynamics have developed in the EU over the past years, it appears as if the Lisbon treaty content could indeed enhance efficiency as well as develop the democratic legitimacy of daily day decision-making in the Union, particularly because of the implications of a move to more majority decisions. But that is of course a different matter from the political life that swirls around the treaty.

Please note that the content of this article is the responsibility of the author alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation with which she is affiliated.

Old Rules, New Game: Decision-Making in the Council of the European Union after the 2004 Enlargement, Sara Hagemann and Julia De Clerck-Sachsse, Centre for European Policy Studies, Special Report March 2007.

It is then another question which rules should govern this competition.

See latest Eurobarometer results on http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm

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