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Solving the EU’s democratic deficit through direct democratic veto rights? A critical assessment of Heidrun Abromeit’s concept

Seminararbeit 2005 20 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Europäische Union


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Abromeit’s theoretical assumptions
2.1. Democracy
2.2. Contractualism
2.3. Euroscepticism

3. Regional and Sectoral Direct-Democratic Veto Rights
3.1. The general concept of direct-democratic veto rights
3.2. Regional veto rights
3.3. Sectoral Veto Rights

4. A First Assessment of the Model
4.1. Contractarian definition of democracy
4.2. The problem of equality in regional veto rights
4.3. The role of the nation state
4.4. Stabilization of the status quo
4.5. Positive effects of direct-democratic veto rights

5. Comparing Scharpf and Abromeit
5.1. Scepticism concerning European democracy
5.2. Effective problem solving matters
5.3. The need for positive integration

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

At a time of enlargement and public discussion about the European Union’s proposed constitutional treaty, there is a growing concern about the democratic legitimacy of the union’s institutions and decisions. In fact, most scholars agree that there is a democratic deficit in the European Union. However, there is no consensus in what exactly consists this deficit or how it might be overcome.

Some possible solutions are widely debated, especially a strengthening of the European Parliament. As a prerequisite for democratisation, many also demand steps towards the creation of a common European space for debate, a European public, maybe even a common European identity, a European demos. Heidrun Abromeit, a German political scientist, has proposed a solution that is different. Based on specific theoretical assumptions about democracy and the democratic deficit, she has developed the model of “regional and sectoral direct-democratic veto rights”. This model was sketched in several articles (Abromeit 1998b, Abromeit 1998c) and is further elaborated in her book “Democracy in Europe” (Abromeit 1998a)

In this paper, I will present and asses this model. I would like to find out whether the model is an appropriate solution to the European democratic deficit. This critical assessment will have to be twofold: In a first step, the assessment has to consider the model itself: Are the model and the assumptions it is based on theoretically convincing or are there inherent contradictions?

The second step, then, will be to check whether the model is the right solution for the present situation, i.e. the actual democratic deficit of the European Union. What effects would an implementation of the model have? Would it overcome the democratic deficit?

The answers in this second step have to be based on a coherent concept which defines democracy, explains what democracy on the European level should look like and what are the reasons for the present deficit. Furthermore, as Majone rightly notices “arguments about Europe’s democratic deficits are really arguments about the nature and ultimate goals of the integration process” (Majone 1998: 5). As I mentioned before, there a numerous concepts on this matter which are partly contradictory. Obviously, I cannot develop my own coherent concept of European democracy in this short paper. I will therefore base my judgement on the concept developed by Fritz W. Scharpf.

I have chosen Scharpf’s ideas as a point of reference because they take into consideration that integration as well as democracy are to be considered in a differentiated way: By introducing the notions of input legitimacy and output legitimacy, positive and negative introduction, Scharpf has developed a concept that is differentiated enough to deal with the complex issues of the European integration process. Another strong point about Scharpf’s concept is that he does not only consider institutions, but also their larger – especially economic –context and the policy content: democracy for him is not only about how but also about which decisions are taken.

Methodologically, an important part of this paper will therefore be based on a comparison between Abromeit and Scharpf. This implies that the paper will not come to a definitive conclusion on the appropriateness of Abromeit’s ideas but will only show how Abromeit’s ideas can be judged if one accepts Scharpf’s perspective.

My hypothesis is that, from this perspective, Abromeit does not present an appropriate solution to the democratic deficit because

a) her model focuses too much on input legitimacy and
b) her model favours negative integration and renders positive integration increasingly difficult.

This paper has four main parts: I will first present a short overview about Abromeit’s theoretical assumptions on democracy. Then, I am going to present her model in more detail. In the third and fourth part, I am going to asses the model: I will first discuss the model itself and then compare it with Scharpf’s concept of European democracy.

2. Abromeit’s theoretical assumptions

2.1. Democracy

In order to understand Heidrun Abromeit’s model, it is important to briefly discuss her definition of democracy. She stresses that democracy not only means democratic participation but also democratic control. Therefore, a constitutional order has to ensure transparency and clarify responsibilities. Such a transparent order also defines intervention points for citizen participation. (Abromeit 1998c: 112f.). Democratic decision making has to fulfil the following criteria: it depicts relevant conflicts, is effective and allows for participation.

It has to be assured that all those who are concerned by a decision can participate in this decision. Abromeit refers to this idea as the democratic principle of “congruence” (Abromeit 1998b: 81)

It has to be noted here that other definitions of democracy exist, some of which are much more ambiguous[1]. For example, Abromeit only states that some form of participation is needed without clarifying how much and which form of participation would be desirable. It is also less ambiguous to demand for the depiction of “relevant conflicts” rather than the representation of the people in all its diversity.

2.2. Contractualism

Abromeit’s deliberations on European democracy are based on a contractarian definition of democracy which follows the basic ideas of contract theorists such as Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau: The democratic system is based on a social contract. It is assumed that the decision making rules were agreed upon in a contract between the members of society. According to Abromeit, this gives participants in the contract the “right to give or withhold consent”. As far as European integration is concerned, the contract is not fixed yet, it is an “initial contract in being” (Abromeit 1998a). In Abromeit’s interpretation of contract theory, the right to give or withhold consent therefore not only applies if the contract (i.e. the basic decision making rules) is changed (Abromeit 1998c: 115).

The idea that all people have agreed upon the contract implies some protection for minorities. Abromeit states that minorities should not be outvoted and should have the right to revoke consent. The greater the heterogeneity among the people living in a polity, the greater is the need for unanimity. (ibid.) Thus, in a diverse polity like the EU, democracy cannot simply mean majority decision making. Also, “democracy is not identical […] with parliamentarism” (ibid.: 113)

2.3. Euroscepticism

Abromeit writes that genuine European majorities do not exist. “What ever de facto (e.g. in the European Parliament) appears as a majority, is in general nothing else than a more or less artificial and arbitrary coalition of minorities. “ (Abromeit 1998b: 81, translation L.W.) Generally speaking, Abromeit is quite “Eurosceptical”. She has serious doubts about the way Europe works at present and about the perspectives for further integration. This becomes clear from her wording when she writes about the “(mostly misunderstood) principle of subsidiarity”, the “shifting [of] unnecessarily detailed regulation to the European level” (Abromeit 1998c: 114) or merely attributes “symbolic value” to the European Parliament (ibid: 116).

3. Regional and Sectoral Direct-Democratic Veto Rights

3.1. The general concept of direct-democratic veto rights

The European Union is a multilevel and multisectoral polity. It is very different from the nation-state. Therefore, democracy cannot be the same as in the nation-state. Abromeit stresses the multisectoral dimension of the European Union. While some sectors are not concerned by European regulation, others are almost exclusively regulated on the European level. Decision making in these sectors takes place in a formal-informal setting: sectoral policy networks composed of commission officials as well as representatives of lobby group shape European legislation with no “active role for the people” (Abromeit 1998c: 112, see also 116).


[1] see for example Cohen and Sabel’s ideas on directly-deliberative polyarchy discussed in Gerstenberg 1997


ISBN (eBook)
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Institution / Hochschule
Freie Universität Berlin – Otto-Suhr-Institut für Politikwissenschaft
Solving EU’s Heidrun Abromeit’s Proseminar Constitutionalism Federalism Democracy European Union




Titel: Solving the EU’s democratic deficit through direct democratic veto rights? A critical assessment of Heidrun Abromeit’s concept