The future of European democracy

Democracy has historically developed at a national level but, with the increasing internationalisation of politics, does the concept need re-working? This is the question posed by the RECON research project. Having established three ideal type models of European democracy, the project is evaluating their viability as possible options for the EU - with the aim of identifying strategies to strengthen democracy and rectify deficits.

  • The first model depicts democracy as directly associated with the nation state, assuming it is only at a national level that trust and solidarity can be fostered. As such, the EU is accountable to the Member States who can both authorise and confine EU operations.
  • The second model establishes the EU as a multinational federal state with a sense of common identity and collective goals among European citizens. With democratic procedures and a common identity, decision-making and legislation would be legitimate at the federal state level.
  • The third model is described as a European subsystem of a larger cosmopolitan order where citizen-sovereignty has replaced state sovereignty. This is a model for democracy beyond the state where democratic rule is configured in a multi-level structure of government.

Using a network of more than 100 researchers from 21 partner institutions the project is analysing the feasibility of these models. This is undertaken by considering how they would establish democracy institutionally as well as through detailed analysis of a range of important EU policy areas. The interdisciplinary project draws on primary and secondary data, and uses a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods, including interviews, surveys, single and comparative case study analysis, discourse and media analysis, process tracing, focus groups and legal analysis.

Some of the project’s findings to date are reported here:

  • Constitutional issues - The research highlights the political contestation over the many efforts to render the EU’s material constitution democratic. The Lisbon Treaty’s ratification process contained clearer traits of RECON’s first model than did the far more open Constitutional Treaty process. But in substantive terms, the Lisbon Treaty promises to move the EU closer to the third model. This means that, despite Lisbon, the EU continues to confront the intellectual and political challenge of devising a democratic constitution for a non-state entity.
  • Representation and institutional make-up - EU citizens have two channels of democratic representation: through national parliaments and more directly through MEPs in the European Parliament. The European Parliament is most at home in the RECON model 3. This also applies to the overall structure of representation in the EU which deviates from the standard two-channel system of federal states because the EU system has distinct features: the manner in which national parliaments are linked in with the European Parliament and the increased involvement of national parliaments in EU decision-making. This structure injects a distinct deliberative dimension but also brings up new and thorny questions of accountability.
  • Gender and equality is an important democratic issue. RECON ’s analysis of two pieces of relevant legislation – the Equal Treatment in the Provision of Goods and Services Directive1 and the Equal Treatment and Equal Opportunities Directive2 – has indicated that different EU institutions and processes incorporate democratic principles to different extents. Obviously the co-decision procedure (where both the European Parliament and the European Council decide on legislation) is more inclusive than consultation (where the Council only consults the Parliament on legislation) and it also provides more spaces for consultation with stakeholders. Involvement of civil society representatives in the early stages of legislation ensures greater inclusion of those concerned and assists political equality - this applies, for instance, to the involvement of women’s organisations and organisations focused on gender issues. Civil society involvement and a greater use of the co-decision procedure are, therefore, desirable steps to increase political equality. Equal treatment will also require socio-economic redistribution within and across nations. These points fit with models 2 and 3, but socio-economic redistribution in periods of economic crisis may strengthen the national level.
  • Civil society and the development of a public sphere is an inherent part of any democratic order. RECON has conducted, among other empirical studies in this field, research on the role of the mass media – an important while far from unique actor in the 'public sphere'. A media survey on the EU constitutional ratification and reflection debates (May 2005 - June 20073) indicates that the patterns and dynamics of mass media tend to follow model 1, with its focus on national government actors and intergovernmental institutions. However, there is also evidence of model 3 in terms of overlapping public spheres. The media survey finds little empirical evidence for an unfolding European public sphere that would support a democratic order along the lines of model 2, which would require the same issues to be debated at the same time under the same criteria of relevance.
  • Foreign and security policy is mainly conducted according to the first model through intergovernmental agreements and instruments. However, there are pockets in which practice deviates from this norm, and there is a particular manner in which a move beyond intergovernmentalism is taking place. For example, the results of a study of the EU’s COREU/CORTESY network4, demonstrates how the EU Member States have become embedded in a system of information exchange that has developed far beyond what was intended at the outset. COREU is now also used as a forum for decision-making. It has contributed to eroding the barriers between national and European levels of foreign policy making. Other developments might be leading in the same direction. The International Criminal Court – strongly supported by the EU - is often referred to as an example of cosmopolitan law.
  • Enlargement policies - Research in Poland, Turkey and Hungary shows how democracy depends on the strength and nature of tensions between different levels of identification: local, national and European. For example, research on Polish young people indicates that European identification could reinforce local identification, resulting in a weakening of national identity and indicating a move towards model 3. However, research involving focus groups in Hungary suggested that model 1 is most frequently adopted in this context, possibly due to unfulfilled expectations of EU accession.
  • Socio-economic policies reflect the dominant role retained by Member States in this area. An analysis of the case law of the European Court of Justice indicates that there is little Europeanization regarding labour law and taxation, in terms of defining welfare benefits and in terms of state liability.

The project’s preliminary findings suggest that the institutional, as well as civic conditions, for a legitimate public justification process in the EU are not fully compatible with any one model. But it is important to underline that the EU has been moving beyond model 1, and towards model 3 in some important areas. However, from the perspective of model 3, European post-national democracy remains an unrealised possibility. The system of representation is incomplete (although it also contains novel democratic possibilities), and the requirement of a European public sphere has not been met. One possible line of reform would be to bring the EU more in line with the prescriptions in this model. Elaborating on what this generic statement specifically entails is part of the ongoing final stage of the RECON project.

Snapshots of selected findings can be accessed through the project’s website - see:


1 See:

2 See:

3 See:

4 See:

RECON – Reconstituting Democracy in Europe (duration: 1/1/2007 - 31/12/2011) is an Integrated Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7: Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Erik Oddvar Eriksen,; John Erik Fossum,