Political representation in the European Union

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by Stijn Smismans



The issue of political representation within the European Union raises important questions for political and legal theory. The current conceptualisation of political representation has been framed in the context of the nation-state. What are the conceptual tools to address the question of political representation in a supranational polity that is neither a mere international organisation nor a nation-state?

What are the normative criteria to conceptualise the legitimacy of law-making processes beyond the nation-state? The question of political representation was already posed at the outset of the process of European integration, and it has routinely returned to the top of the agenda each time integration has advanced further. Despite the dynamism of this debate amongst decision-makers and politicians, the scholarly debate amongst political and legal theorists has gained momentum only recently and their reflections have been voiced mainly post factum after a new political structure had emerged rather than as a coherent inspiration for it (Bellamy and Castiglione 2003). One can identify three main lines of thought that have inspired the reflections on political representation in the European Union, namely functional representation, territorial (parliamentary) representation, and deliberative democracy. Each of these ideas has been stressed with different intensity at various moments in time but none of them has ever become the single framework to conceptualise political representation in the European polity.

Functional representation

When six European countries formed in 1952 the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) they provided for an institutional structure that had no parallel in any other international organisation. As well illustrated by Berthold Rittberger (2009), different opinions about political representation inspired the institutional design that is still the basis of the current European Union. The ‘Monnet method’ (Featherstone 1994) aimed to overcome division in Europe by delegating competences in particular policy sectors, such as coal and steel, to a supranational body composed of technical experts. The High Authority of the ECSC had to be a body of independent experts with real decision-making powers. However, Belgium and the Netherlands insisted that the delegation to the High Authority should be strictly defined and that a Council of Ministers would be created representing the Member States and thus introducing territorial representation on an intergovernmental basis as would normally be the case in an international organisation. The German delegation, on the other hand, stressed the need to ensure the democratic accountability of the High Authority, and influenced by federalist ideas favoured a strong parliamentary assembly that would be a supranational, directly elected body and would generate public debate and a direct relation between the citizen and the supranational organisation (Rittberger 2009:56). However, the ECSC Treaty only provided for a  Parliamentary Assembly that was composed of representatives from the national parliaments and had a merely advisory function.

The ECSC had thus a clearly ‘functional’ imprint: it was a supranational organisation with a strong technical body at its core (the High Authority) to which the Member States had delegated competences in well-defined functional areas, with the citizens only indirectly represented by way of national ministers in the Council or by national parliamentarians with an advisory function in the Assembly. The functional character was reinforced by the creation of an advisory body having the explicit objective of functional representation, namely the Consultative Committee, which represented employers, employees, traders and consumers in the sector, as this would ensure both expertise and support for the European integration process. This institutional design was copied in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. While the Council has final decision-making power, it is the European Commission, composed of ‘independent’ Commissioners to represent the general interest of the Community, that is in the driving seat with its exclusive right of initiative and central role as the executive body. Again the indirectly elected Parliamentary Assembly was not given particularly more weight than the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), composed of representatives from national interest groups and stakeholders in the areas of EEC competence.

In fact, the involvement of ‘functional actors’ had a central place in the sector-by-sector approach to European integration. The ‘Monnet method’ was based on a strong (technical) European Commission  and the involvement of the economic elites, including organised labour, of the particular sector in which integration should be realized. The idea of ‘functional representation’ also found a central place in the first important theory explaining the European integration process, namely ‘neo-functionalism’, as developed by Ernst Haas (1958). Although Haas did not focus on political representation as such but attempted to explain the dynamics of the integration process, he identified the important role of engaging key economic elites in building transnational coalitions in support of European policies in particular sectors, which in turn would spill over to ‘neighbouring’ policy areas thus stirring further integration.

While functional actors play a central role in the institutional design and in the first theories about European integration, the normative democratic aspects of such representation have never been really developed. Although one can trace such theorization back to ideas developed by British pluralist, British Guild Socialists, and continental (neo-)corporatists (Smismans 2004: 42-48), the experience with authoritarian corporatism in the 1940s made any normative theorization of functional representation a taboo topic for most of the second half of the twentieth century. However, by the mid of the 1990s, the idea of functional representation re-emerges strongly in the European debate, although under different forms and banners. Two main and very different lines of thought dominate this debate.

Firstly, the idea that European policy-making can be delegated to independent experts has been revived by Giandomenico Majone (1996) who, inspired by the American experience, has argued in favour of policy-making through independent agencies which would insulate the resolution of technical regulatory issues from the vagaries of day-to-day politics. The legitimacy of such policy-making is built above all on ‘accountability by result’, whereby ‘reliance upon qualities such as expertise, credibility, fairness or independence has always been considered more important than reliance upon direct political accountability’ (Majone 1996: 294), although he would stress the need for some procedural requirements, in particular to ensure the agency respects the delegated mandate. In broad terms, this reasoning implies that the European Union is well-placed to be delegated technical regulatory policies away from daily national politics, as opposed to redistributive policies. In institutional terms, Majone argues in favour of European agencies besides the European Commission, which is considered still too politically influenced. Since the 1990s many European agencies have indeed been created, but they have not been given real regulatory or executive decision-making power. Rather than ensuring decision-making by ‘peer review’ and ‘expertise’, the European agencies have an information task and aim at involving ‘the relevant stakeholders’.

This brings us to the second line of thought that has arisen in the 1990’s, namely the discourse on ‘civil society’. Not surprisingly this discourse has been promoted by the two European institutions with a more ‘functional character’, namely the European Commission and the EESC (Smismans 2003). As the debate on Europe’s democratic deficit intensified and increased reliance on the idea of territorial parliamentary representation (see below) had not neutralised the problem, the Commission and the EESC stressed their particular interaction with civil society organisations as a source of legitimacy for European policy-making. While the EESC had clearly been set up in 1957 with this particular role of functional representation, the Commission argued that its role to represent ‘the Community interest’ was realised via a wide consultation system with stakeholders prior to any of its action. The European concept of civil society is thus mainly one of ‘functional representation’ to the detriment of interpretations that stress the independence of civil society from political authority (Smismans 2006).

Territorial (parliamentary) representation

The functionalist approach to the question of political participation was possible as long as there was a ‘permissive consensus’ (Lindberg and Scheingold 1970: 41), i.e. little popular interest in an elite-driven and technocratic project coincided with a diffuse support for the idea of European integration. However, as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) defined more clearly the features of the European legal order, and the Community increasingly intervened in more policy areas, the merely functionalist approach appeared insufficient to address the legitimacy of the European construction. The jurisprudence of the ECJ in the 1960s and 1970s had made clear that EU law is not merely international law but, due to principles such as supremacy and direct effect, constitutes a new legal order in which the European citizen stands in direct relation to the European polity. Political representation in such a polity could not be limited to the idea that Member States have delegated a limited amount of competences to a ‘functional’ international organisation in which the functional actors concerned would be involved.

Hence the normative framework that has dominated our thinking about political representation at the nation-state level, namely the idea of parliamentary representation becomes also a dominant frame of reference at the European level. The ‘democratic deficit’ is before all addressed by increasing the role of the Parliamentary Assembly, renamed European Parliament (EP). Direct elections of the European Parliament were introduced in 1979, and subsequent changes increased its budgetary and legislative powers (until making it co-legislator with the Council), and control over the Commission, making the latter no longer a mere ‘functional body’ but partially politicising it by giving the Parliament a more important say in its appointment. The parliamentary model also inspired the decision in 1992 to create a Committee of the Regions, representing regional and local authorities, although with a merely advisory function, and attempts to strengthen the involvement of national parliaments in European decision-making, mainly by providing them with better information so that they could control the action of their national government at the European level. Yet, these repeated attempts to constitutionalise the European polity on the parliamentary model through different Treaty revisions since the mid 1980s did not relieve the EU from the concerns about its democratic deficit. A key explanation has been provided by the ‘no demos’ thesis (Weiler 1999) which argues that  the peoples of Europe do not share the social unity and common identity of a demos required to ensure that the majoritarian decisions expressed in parliament are accepted by the minority. Weiler, though, also argues that the European polity could be based on a commitment to the shared values of the Union as expressed in its constituent documents and that a cardinal value of the European demos could precisely be that there will not be a drive towards, or and acceptance of, an overarching organic-cultural national identity displacing those of the Member States (Weiler 1999: 346).

However, he does not clearly translate this reasoning into a system for political representation in the EU.

Deliberative democracy

As political and public debate on the EU’s democratic credentials intensified during the 1990s, the issue of political representation became also more intensively discussed in the academic literature.

While the initial scholarly debate on the EU had focused on why and how the integration process had developed (Wiener and Diez 2003) the so-called normative turn in European Integration Studies in the 1990s placed questions of legitimate governance, political representation and democratic accountability centre-stage (Bellamy and Castiglione 2003). Most legal and political theorists have referred to ideas of deliberative democracy in this context.

Jurgen Habermas (1995; 2006) engaged in the debate mainly by advocating for ‘constitutional patriotism’ at the European level. Based on his broader theory of deliberative democracy, in which democracy is based on the rational deliberation amongst equal citizens and the translation of debate from civil society into debate in the deliberative political institutions, Habermas argues that participation in rational and public debate on the rules of the common European project would create European citizens’ loyalty to the constitutional norms. This would strengthen European civil society and the European public sphere which would ultimately legitimate the parliamentary model at the European level. In more recent work , Habermas (2006) argues that such constitutional patriotism is not pure formalism but is only possible when there is a certain level of cultural common ground, which he believes is the case in Europe

However, even if one could identify such cultural common ground, the creation of constitutional patriotism that can underpin political representation in the EU seems to emerge very slowly. There is no European ‘public sphere’ in which citizens are informed about, and take part in, political discussions. There is no European media, communication on European issues is nationally coloured and split into different languages. Interest groups may shift their action to the European level as well, but they remain mostly national interest groups, the European ones being very loose federations. European political parties are weak, and turnout in EP elections is uneven and low. The failed attempt to draft a European Constitutional Treaty illustrates how difficult it is to foster a European civil society and public sphere that would justify parliamentary representation under Habermas’ idea of deliberative democracy.

Joerges and Neyer (1997) have been inspired by deliberative democracy in a very different way to define what they call ‘deliberative supranationalism’. They do not provide a comprehensive framework for political representation in the EU but focus on one, although very important, aspect of European governance, namely ‘comitology’ by which committees composed of representatives from national administrations control the European Commission in the adoption of delegated legislation. Such supranational deliberative structures would ensure on the one hand that risk regulation in a multi-level polity takes into account ‘national interests’, and, on the other hand, strips the defence of national sectarian interests by replacing negotiation with a process of persuasion and argument. Contrary to Habermas who stresses the importance of civil society and the public sphere, Joerges and Neyer argue that the legitimacy of comitology would be based on national territorial representation through the comitology committees and the importance of scientific argument.

Finally, Charles Sabel, writing with different co-authors (Cohen 1997; Zeitlin 2008), has proposed ‘directly deliberatively polyarchy’ (DDP) as a normative model for European governance. DDP decentralises political decision-making into lower-level units, where citizens deliberate and review their choices; information from these local experiments is pooled at a more central level, which will ensure monitoring and encourage mutual influence and learning, as well as the revisability of objectives and norms. However, while their model fits well the multi-level and polyarchic character of European governance, there is no evidence that European governance can guarantee the decentralised direct citizen deliberation their model is based on. More recently, they analyze European governance rather in terms of ‘democratic experimentalism’ in which peer review in a polyarchic setting stands out as normative justification, but in which both direct citizen involvement and political representation seem to have lost out.


Both territorial and functional representation have always been part of the European institutional design. While initially the functional dimension of the European structure was stressed, the framework of parliamentary representation took centre stage as the European Union developed into a polity. More recently, the functional dimension has arisen again as the institutional design and debate on the parliamentary model has not diminished the EU’s perceived legitimacy deficit, hence the tendency to emphasize legitimacy by output through delegation to independent experts, or to focus on the functional representation of civil society actors. Recent academic reflections have been inspired by deliberative democracy. Habermas has to face the strong difficulties in realising a European civil society and public sphere needed to accomplish his democratic ideal ultimately based on parliamentary representation.

Ideas of ‘deliberative supranationalism’ and ‘directly deliberative polyarchy’ do stress the deliberative dimension of European governance but they do not ask the question ‘who should deliberate?’ ultimately confirming the critique that theories of deliberative democracy do not address adequately the question of political representation.


- Bellamy, Richard and Castiglione, Dario (2003), ‘Legitimizing the Euro-“polity” and its “Regime”: The Normative Turn in EU Studies’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 2, No.1, p.7-34.

- Cohen, Joshua and Sabel, Charles (1997), ‘Directly-deliberative polyarchy’, European Law Journal, Vol.3, No.4, p.313-342.

- Featherstone, K. (1994), ‘Jean Monnet and the “Democratic Deficit” in the European Union’, 32 Journal of Common Market Studies, 149-170.

- Haas, Ernst B. (1958), The Uniting of Europe, Stanford: Stanford University Press.- Habermas, J. (1995), ‘Remarks on Dieter Grimm’s “Does Europe Need a Constitution?”’, European Law Journal, Vol.1, No.2, p.301-306.

- Habermas, J. (2006), Time of Transitions, Polity Press.

- Joerges, Christian and Neyer, Jurgen (1997), ‘From Intergovernmental Bargaining to Deliberative Political Processes: The Constitutionalisation of Comitology’, European Law Journal, vol. 3, No. 3, p.273-299.

- Lindberg, L.N. and Scheingold, S.A (1970), Europe’s Would-Be Polity: Patterns of Change in the European Community, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

- Majone, Giandomenico (1996), Regulating Europe, London: Routledge.

- Rittberger, Berthold (2009), ‘The historical origins of the EU’s system of representation’, Journal of European Public Policy, Vol.16, No.1, 43-61.

- Sabel, Charles F. and Zeitlin, Jonathan (2008), ‘Learning from Difference: The New Architecture of Experimentalist Governance in the EU’, European Law Journal, Vol. 14, No.3, p.271-327.

- Smismans, Stijn (2003), ‘European civil society: shaped by discourses and institutional interests’, European Law Journal, Vol.9, No.4, pp.482-504.

- Smismans, Stijn (2004), Law, Legitimacy and European Governance : Functional Participation in  Social Regulation,  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- Smismans, Stijn (ed) (2006) Civil Society and Legitimate European Governance, Cheltenham UK/Northampton USA: Edward Elgar

- Weiler, Joseph H.H. (1999), The Constitution of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

- Wiener, Antje and Thomas Diez, eds (2003) Theories of European Integration: Past, Present and Future, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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