The Democratic Dilemma of European Integration
European integration and international institutions more generally generate a democratic dilemma. They harbour functional, normative, and democratic potentials, whilst, at the same time, imposing costs on the institutions, practices, and social foundations of representative democracy.
What exactly are the potentials, and what are the costs? It is only relevant to think about international institutions and their effects in the context of international interdependence, be it in political (for example, security interdependence) or social and economic terms (for example, cross-border trade, communication, and mobility). In this context, functional theories of institutions suggest that states enter into cooperation to realize gains by regulating detrimental interdependence or making beneficial interdependence possible, and they create common institutions to deal with commitment problems (e.g. Koremenos etal. 2001). Highlighting the specific advantages, such as trade expansion, climate protection, security or the successful combat of organized crime is the conventional defence of international institutions. As Keohane and colleagues (2009: 4) note: 'Delegation and pooling of sovereignty, [supporters of multilateralism] assert, allows democratic polities to achieve policy goals together that none could realize alone.'
Prominent theories of European integration follow this line of thinking, stressing that the EU is an exercise in intense international policy coordination, ultimately geared towards reaping mutual benefits that no country could achieve individually (Moravcsik 1998, 2002). The broad portfolio of competences that the EU has acquired until today, in this view, is an expression of the high levels of economic and security interdependence among European states. The Union's decision-making and enforcement procedures, which are exceptional in the world of international organizations (Hooghe and Marks 2015), stem from conscious member state choices. They are necessary so that member states will actually put the agreements struck in EU treaties into policy, and subsequently comply with the agreed rules.
The benefits of international institutions are not only functional, however. Beyond helping states to find answers to pressing policy problems, they speak to a democratic problem that arises in a world of international and transnational interaction and interdependence. Under these conditions, the choices of policy-makers in one place are relevant for other societies that, however, are unlikely to have been heard, not to speak of having had a say.
Yet, if states create arrangements for common decision-making, they also grant each other influence over their domestic affairs. Thus, they help to address the problem that what one state decides or fails to decide may affect the citizens of another state. In more abstract terms, international institutions tackle problems of incongruence between the makers and takers of political decisions (Held 2006: 290-311; Zurn 2000: 186-90). 'Problems...arise because many of the decisions of "a majority" or, more accurately, its representatives, affect (or potentially affect) not only their communities but citizens in other communities as well' (Held 2006: 291). Consequently, Zurn (2000: 190) contends that 'international institutions are not the problem, but part of the solution to the problems of modern democracy'.
International institutions are also a manifestation of the legalization of international politics (Abbott etal. 2000). Although the extent to which a legalized international environment really matters for the way international politics works is debated, many observers would accept that it creates constraints on pure power politics forcing powerful states in some cases to justify what they do and to consider whether upholding existing rules is more beneficial in the long-term than violating them in a particular moment. International rules and organizations also have the potential to expand individual rights and freedoms, for instance, by making it more difficult for state authorities to ignore basic human rights, by reducing discrimination in economic activities, by raising transnational social rights and entitlements, and even by creating international bodies that allow individuals to claim rights violations against their state of origin or other states.
The EU, from its very beginning, has also been an integration project designed to tie powerful states, Germany in particular, into a regional system based on rules and norms. It is, for instance, because of the opportunities to shape regional policies and to constrain more powerful neighbours that small member states of the EU are typically said to prefer strong supranational rules and procedures, such as majority voting, detailed monitoring of compliance, and judicial enforcement (e.g. Thorhallsson and Wivel 2006). European integration forces the member states to play by common rules. It provides influence, procedural rights, and safeguards to those that would otherwise suffer from the externalities of the decisions of the powerful, or at the very least depend on their goodwill.
Despite all advantages international institutions and European integration may have, their democratic shortcomings are widely lamented. According to Moravcsik (2004), 'one is hard-pressed to think of a single application of democratic standards to an international organization... that does not conclude with a serious criticism of the organization'. The problem, on the surface, is that, although expanding the range of matters which states and their agents can affect, international institutions simultaneously limit domestic freedoms to make autonomous decisions according to their established practices and procedures (e.g. Held 2006: 291-2). The great distance, geographic and cognitive, of the national political sphere from international political arenas makes it difficult for citizens, organized civil society, and elected representatives to understand and monitor, let alone influence, decisionmaking or hold decision-makers accountable (Dahl 1989, 1994). If anything, the participants in international policy-making, mainly diplomats and other executives as well as resourceful organizations, obtain the opportunity to exploit informational and strategic advantages to expand their discretion visa-vis the domestic realm (Putnam 1988; Moravcsik 1994).
Studies of the EU suggest a wide range of more specific formulations of the kind of democratic costs that integration produces. As Follesdal and Hix (2006) summarize, some argue that the EU produces policy drift towards market-friendly policies. Others criticize that the Union lacks the social foundations, and intermediary institutions necessary for democratic competition to work, such as competitive elections and system-wide parties, but also a common public sphere and media. Yet others see the fundamental challenge, and perhaps insurmountable obstacle, in the lack of a European identity that might be a pre-condition for re-distributive social policies, but also for the formation of a European public sphere or European parties.
While reviewing the far-flung debate on the democratic deficit in detail is not necessary here, it is important to note that many of the different perspectives agree, for their own reasons, on the need to protect the rights and capacities of national parliaments in the process of European integration. Even scholars that are highly suspicious of the claim that the EU has a democratic deficit point out that member state governments draw democratic legitimacy from being accountable to elected national officials and would, therefore, concede that the erosion of these lines of accountability through the weakening of parliamentary rights and capacities to exercise oversight is the most likely source of a democratic deficit (Moravcsik 2002; see also Keohane etal. 2009: 8-9).
Others that put more emphasis on the problems arising from the lack of a European identity, public sphere, and European-wide intermediary institutions also stress the importance of national parliaments (e.g. Cheneval and Schimmelfennig 2013; Bellamy and Castiglione 2013). For some, national parliamentary rights and capacities in EU affairs are important because the parliamentary arena is where the national interest is constructed through political competition and its representation through governments thus rendered legitimate. Others may see national parliaments simply as the only viable way currently available to ensure a degree of publicly visible and relevant political contestation over European policies in the absence of functioning Europe-wide democratic politics. Either way, for these perspectives, the weakening of national parliaments in the process of European integration bears the risk of a disconnection between national democratic processes and European-level policy-making.