Democratic deficit and public opinion in the EU: A trust issue?

By Rose Lemardeley | 4 February 2013

To quote this document: Rose Lemardeley, “Democratic deficit and public opinion in the EU: A trust issue?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 4 February 2013,, displayed on 02 June 2023


The rejection of the constitutional treaty by referendum in France and in the Netherlands in 2005, as well as the current threat of an in/out referendum on the EU in Great Britain, has cast light on the enduring debate about the democratic deficit and the crisis of legitimacy in the EU. What is at stake and are there possible ways out of this doom and gloom?


A History of Democratic Deficit: Introducing the European Citizens

2013 is the Year of European Citizens, but it is unlikely that it sets a timeframe in which the issue of the democratic deficit would either be solved or fade away. The recent – and pending – setbacks for the European integration process have revealed contrasted views on the role of European citizens. Except for Andrew Moravcsik (2008) and Giandomenico Majone (2010), the idea that the EU is suffering from a democratic deficit and a lack of legitimacy is widely shared by academics (Føllesdal and Hix, 2006).

Looking back at the evolution of the role of citizens in the integration process, many agree that a shift from a “permissive consensus” to a “constraining dissensus” has occurred along the way and that now jeopardizes “the EU’s substantive legitimacy” (Schmidt, 2010: 26). The concept of “permissive consensus” relied on the rather thin involvement demonstrated by Europeans, translated in the ever-low and decreasing turnout in European elections throughout the years, from 63% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. As the legitimacy of a political system can be defined as a virtue justifying political power (Weber, 1964), the democratic deficit in the EU entails a lack of both input and output legitimacy (Schmidt, 2010): European citizens don’t engage with the EU, as few of them actually participate in the elections, while many doubt that the European Commission’s agenda will benefit them. This alarming democratic diagnosis even led the EU to be seen as a “form of enlightened despotism” (Hix, 2008: 85).

To tackle this lack of democratic legitimacy, institutional reforms have endowed the European Parliament with more power over the years, and yet they have not managed to increase the EU’s authority as a whole. Many agree that the democratic deficit also lies in a lack of accountability in the EU. Not only can’t citizens hold their supranational leaders accountable, but Eurobarometer polls also show that they know little about the EU, and that they do not care much more. So, the recent setbacks in the integration process have imposed citizens as “new” actors on the European stage. The idea of “constraining dissensus” thus emerged as a new setting for European democracy, highlighting the role of public opinion.  

Public Opinion and European “Disintegration”

Analysing the evolution of academic research on the role of citizens and public opinion, Céline Belot and Bruno Cautres identify three stages. It first emerged in the 1960s with Ronald Inglehart’s work on the socialisation of Europeans (1967), then a critical juncture happened in the early 1990s, quantitatively and qualitatively, with the development of coherent controversies among scholars dedicating most of their work to this issue (see Franklin, Marsh and McLaren, 1994), until a third phase started in the late 1990s when the debate consequently matured. One central finding in the literature – and which seems empirically justified by the British case, for instance – is that “nationality has always been and remains the most decisive factor in determining attitudes towards the EU and the integration process” (Belot and Cautres: 161).

But other factors shape public opinion. In a recent study, Sara Hobolt analysed the “blame game”, i. e. “when and why citizens, the media, and national governments blame the European Union for policy failures”, and its “consequences for democracy in Europe” (2012b). She argues against the myth that the EU is blamed by national governments, and she highlights that media coverage is less biased that one could think – considering that between 2010 and 2012 British newspapers tended to blame the EU for economic problems less than the French ones, for instance. And yet, David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum allegedly relied on a recent poll showing that a majority of British citizens would support leaving the EU. So, as public opinions tend to reveal an increasing rise in Euroscepticism and to consider that previous efforts to solve the democratic deficit have had a limited success, what can still be done?

It seems unlikely that the democratic deficit could be solved before things draw to a close with the next EP elections in 2014. The idea of an electoral reform consisting in the introduction of transnational lists in the European elections, discussed by the Constitutional Committee of the EP, was rejected, as well as that to elect the President of the European Commission. Nevertheless, the implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative in 2012, allowing one million citizens to invite the EC to make a legislative proposal, may be seen as a stepping-stone towards the acknowledgement of the role of EU citizens and more means to bridge the democratic deficit.

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To read

  • Belot, C. and B. Cautres (2008). Opinion publique, Science politique de l'Union européenne. Edited by C. Belot, P. Magnette and S. Saurugger, Paris: Economica.
  • Føllesdal, A. and S. Hix (2006). “Why There is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: A Response to Majone and Moravcsik”. Journal of Common Market Studies 44(3): 533-562.
  • Franklin, M., M. Marsh and L. Mclaren (1994). ‘The European Question: Opposition to Unification in the Wake of Maastricht’, Journal of Common Market Studies 32: 455–72.
  • Hobolt, S.B., J-J. Spoon and J. Tilley (2009). A vote against Europe? Explaining defection at the 1999 and 2004 European Parliament elections, British Journal of Political Science 39(1): 93-115.
  • Hobolt, S. (2012a). “L'intégration politique de l'UE est un moyen pas une fin”, Le Monde, 02/10/2012.
  • Inglehart, R. (1967). The Socialization of Europeans, University of Michigan.
  • Hooghe, L. And G. Marks (2006). Europe's Blues: Theoretical Soul-Searching after the Rejection of the European Constitution. PS: Political Science & Politics, 39: 247-250.
  • Majone, G. (2010). Transaction-Cost Efficiency and the Democratic Deficit. Journal of European Public Policy 17(2): 150-175.
  • Moravcsik, A. (2008). “The Myth of Europe's Democratic Deficit”. Intereconomics (November): 331-340.
  • Schmidt, Vivien A. (2006). Democracy in Europe: The EU and National Polities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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