Multilateralism and Democracy

Most contemporary commentators posit a tension between multilateralism and democracy.1 Global and regional cooperation are often pragmatically beneficial but nonetheless degrade domestic democracy. The resulting erosion of democratic legitimacy is often blamed for contemporary public malaise and lack of trust in politics and politicians. Yet this widespread critique of multilateralism rests on three basic fallacies: it assumes that domestic democracy requires sovereignty, current domestic democracies are ideal, and domestic democracies maximize political accountability and participation to the exclusion of all other values. This paper questions these assumptions from a “constitutional democratic” perspective: a set of standards accepted in deed (if not always in word) across modern democracies. A constitutional democrat views entry into an international institution as analogous to a domestic constitutional commitment. It is designed to maintain or enhance democracy along a number of dimensions, of which accountability is only one. Other dimensions include individual and minority rights protection, suppression of special interests and faction, and improving the epistemic quality of deliberation. Judged by this multidimensional constitutional democratic standard, rather than the maximization of populist participation, multilateralism need not threaten domestic democracy. Indeed, it can be democracy-enhancing. To illustrate how this works in practice, the paper goes on to consider the European Union, the world’s most ambitious and successful international organization, along these four dimensions: those of libertarian democracy (rights and limited government), pluralist democracy (accountability and representation), social democracy (equality and faction control), and deliberative democracy (transparency and epistemic quality). The empirical result is that along each of these dimensions, the EU is democracy-maintaining and often democracy-enhancing in most major policy areas, with the important and instructive exception of the Euro. This suggests that multilateralism’s democratic status is better than its reputation, but that multilateral institutions do pose some dangers to domestic democracy at the margins. This form of “democratic auditing” can be employed to evaluate and criticize the impact of multilateralism on domestic democracy more generally.

Multilateralism vs. Democracy: A Skeptical Consensus

Do multilateral institutions threaten domestic democracy? Many analysts believe so. Global governance may realize important goals, says political scientist Robert Dahl, but its bureaucratic character, separation from domestic democratic institutions, and lack of everyday participation by ordinary citizens undermine democratic accountability and deliberation.2 Typical also is Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, who contrasts international organizations that are “bureaucratic, diplomatic, technocratic—everything but democratic” with the U.S. Constitution, enacted through a uniquely democratic “process of popular deliberation and consent.3 Public law scholar Jeremy Rabkin speaks for many conservatives when he argues that multilateral institutions are illegitimate due to their elite-driven agendas and lack of explicit democratic delegation and direct popular accountability.4

Redressing the perceived “democratic deficit” has become a controversial concern among Europeans as well. Many in the European Union (EU), the contemporary world’s most extensive and ambitious multilateral institution, share the view of sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, himself a former European Union Commissioner, that internationalization “almost invariably means a loss of democracy.”5 The Laeken Declaration of 2001, which officially launched the EU’s recent and contentious effort to promulgate a “constitution,” identified the major internal challenge as that of bringing the EU “closer to its citizens” and providing “better democratic scrutiny” over its activities.6

Critics charge that international law and multilateral institutions allow elites to bypass the onerous processes of persuasion and consensus-seeking that democracy requires. Unelected nongovernmental organizations and special interest advocacy networks operate across borders and lobby for new rules, sometimes without normal legislative deliberation and formal lawmaking. Commitments made through the treaty power may be expanded incrementally through the operation of international legal processes, without being ratified at home. In these ways and others, multilateral institutions enable internationalists to evade the complex consensual processes of democratic publics.

Supporters of multilateralism tend either to concede these points or ignore them, seeking instead to justify multilateralism either on pragmatic grounds or on principled grounds unrelated to domestic democracy. Delegation and pooling of sovereignty, they assert, allow democratic polities to achieve policy goals together that none could realize alone. Without reciprocal cooperation, governments cannot reach domestic goals such as liberalizing the international economy, integrating communication systems, combating terrorism, slowing global warming, or regulating multinational corporations. Some pragmatists go further, arguing that a measure of insulation from democratic pressures is often required for national governments to achieve economic integration and other diffuse goals. This sums up the current debate: critics of multilateralism point to ways in which international institutions undermine democracy; defenders respond by stressing pragmatic benefits.

Beyond the Multilateralism vs. Democracy Dichotomy: Democracy-enhancing Multilateralism

Clearly this simple dichotomy contains some truth: tensions can arise between democratic costs and pragmatic benefits of multilateralism, and such tensions need to be managed. Yet the “multilateralism versus democracy” framework also restricts the debate, obscuring as much as it illuminates. In particular, those who accuse multilateralism of degrading democracy underestimate the democratic legitimacy of existing global and regional governance, and overlook important ways in which international institutions can enhance domestic democracy.

This conclusion rests on the premise that in an era of growing interdependence, national governments remain the fundamental political building blocks of world politics. For an overwhelming number of the world’s people, they remain the most important decision makers and the critical sites of democratic identity, contestation, and deliberation. The central question is thus in what ways global governance today degrades, maintains, or enhances domestic democracy.

Critics tend to overlook this way of formulating the problem, treating international institutions instead as if they were presumptively autonomous agents. They rarely are. In fact, to a much greater extent, multilateralism is very much akin to domestic constitutionalism; it is an extension, even an embodiment, of the modern nation-state, not a rejection of it. The decision to pool sovereignty in a multilateral institution is analogous to a commitment to promulgate a national constitution in that IOs, like constitutions, constrain populist and plebiscitary forces. They are both institutional precommitments that deliberately restrict institutional malleability in the face of popular will. The reasons for doing so, however, often have a solid normative and pragmatic basis in democratic theory; indeed, the paradox of constitutionalism is precisely that it restricts the popular will in the interest of better realizing it. Critics of multilateralism who overlook the analogy between constitutions and multilateral commitments also tend to overlook the democratic legitimacy and democracy-enhancing potential of multilateralism. This is because their criticisms rest on three specific and related fallacies.

1.   The first fallacy shared by critics of multilateralism is that unfettered legal sovereignty is a necessary prerequisite of democracy. Some critics of multilateralism argue that only complete sovereignty properly represents a state’s collective capacity and obligation, as a democratic political community, to make its own legal decisions. Yet in the modern world, where social interactions are transnational, it is surely more plausible to argue that one of the most important rights legal sovereignty confers on national communities is the power to enter into binding international legal agreements granting states reciprocal influence over each other’s policies. States and their citizens are, after all, influenced in important ways by the policies of foreign governments. To gain an influence over those policies, in exchange for surrendering some domestic discretion, they must cooperate. Since the resulting interstate arrangements are crucial for citizens to achieve security, welfare, and other legitimate public purposes, they cannot simply be ad hoc. Accordingly, a blanket refusal to delegate any authority to multilateral institutions represents a self-defeating and arbitrary restriction on national democratic deliberation. Far from restricting and degrading national democracy, the constitutional option of pooling and delegating sovereignty in this way expands the scope of democratic choice and can improve control over policy by the affected parties. In this way it is democracy-enhancing.

2.   A second fallacy underlying the claim that multilateralism degrades democracy is the unwarranted assumption that existing domestic institutions always adhere to high democratic standards. Most critics of multilateralism who point to abstract flows in international procedures compare them to idealized domestic political processes. Yet in classically sovereign national democracies, existing mechanisms such as elections and other forms of political representation and deliberation often contain biases, imperfections, and weaknesses. Often, multilateral institutions and processes are no worse in this regard than existing domestic democratic biases and imperfections. Moreover, international institutions are a means (often a uniquely important one) to help offset or correct such domestic democratic flaws. Criticism of multilateralism that does not take this into account, and therefore insists that international institutions be more democratic than domestic ones actually are, flirts with utopianism. Rather they should recognize that in the real world, multilateralism can be democracy-enhancing.

3.   Perhaps the most important fallacy underlying the claim that multilateralism degrades democracy lies in the reduction of the ideal of democracy to maximizing direct popular participation. Such a participatory definition of democracy obviously gives intuitive force to claims that “distant” international organizations undermine “democratic legitimacy.” No one would deny that a key dimension of democracy is that a measure of popular participation is required to assure that outputs are representative and leaders are accountable. Yet popular participation and representativeness or accountability is only one among a number of political values to be balanced in a well-ordered constitutional democracy. At least three other normatively important objectives are individual and minority rights, the suppression of factions, and maximizing the epistemic richness of deliberation. As we shall see below, global and regional governance institutions tend to specialize in areas where normal domestic democratic practices in advanced democracies are not highly participatory—for good normative and technocratic reasons—and they often maintain or enhance existing standards along these dimensions, as well as sometimes promoting participation. In this way also, multilateralism can be democracy-enhancing.

A satisfying theory of constitutional democracy must avoid these three fallacies. It must view reciprocal international binding as a potentially legitimate strategy parallel to constitutional construction; it must recognize the imperfections in existing domestic constitutional orders; and it must recognize the multidimensional quality of the democratic ideal.

Standards for Judging Aggregate Democratic Legitimacy and the “Quality” of Democracy

For the purposes of evaluating real-world institutions, we may restate the multidimensional ideal of constitutional democracy—presented above in terms of the four values of accountability, individual and minority rights, faction and special interest control, and epistemic adequacy—in the form of four different normatively guided “theories of democracy.” Each privileges a different one of the four dimensions discussed above. The ideal theory of libertarian democracy suggests a fundamental constraint on state power imposed by individual and minority rights and freedoms. The ideal theory of pluralist democracy suggests that the leaders should be accountable and policies should be representative of something approximating majority will. The ideal theory of social democratic democracy suggests that the political system must balance against concentrations of power and attempts at domination in society, even if they come from outside the political realm. The ideal theory of deliberative democracy suggests that informed, educated, collectively discussed decisions are of more value than uninformed, uneducated, and nondeliberative decisions. The multidimensional standard above permits us to debate and to criticize the democratic legitimacy of global governance.

One useful characteristic of the multidimensional constitutional conception of democracy is that it facilitates efforts to analyze and critique shifts in the “quality of democracy” driven by multilateralism. It might well be that in certain areas the multilateralization of policymaking may trigger a shift in the domestic mix of accountability, rights protection, faction control, and deliberation. The resulting mix may generally lie within the realm of acceptable policies among modern democracies, but it may be perceived as an unwelcome move away from the traditional practices of a given country. For example, the citizens of smaller democracies that enter into multilateral arrangements (e.g. Denmark entering into the EU) often perceive a decline in face-to-face public deliberation, which is replaced by elite deliberation, nonmajoritarian processes, or delegation. The spread of human rights norms with ex post enforcement through courts has led to the judicialization of civil law and social democratic systems in a way that some have criticized.

The virtue of this approach is that it permits us to marshal empirical evidence in a disciplined yet nuanced way to help assess how democratic an international institution is along various dimensions. Yet we should not forget that in defining an empirical standard to which, in applying ideals to the real world, we should hold a given nation, we do necessarily embed a further normative judgment. This is a delicate question about which much could be said but too little has been written. Criticism can take place at different levels of normative stringency, and critics would do well to be clear about which one they adopt. Consider the following three types of critique.

1.   Pragmatic Critiques: Some might argue that specific global governance procedures (and domestic procedures as modified by them) are democracy-maintaining or democracy-enhancing if and only if they meet at least as high a (multidimensional constitutional) standard or a higher one than the general norm among their member states. Such global governance institutions are democracy-maintaining or democracy-enhancing vis-à-vis the status quo. In some cases, some might argue that the international institutions are simply an extension of unjust or undemocratic domestic arrangements. The response might be that the fault is not with international institutions, but with the more fundamental domestic ones. This is akin to a very traditional international legal norm in that it privileges the domestic realm. Yet even this is a standard with real critical bite, since international procedures that degrade domestic democracy below its current level are rendered presumptively illegitimate.

2.   “Democratic Club” Critiques: Some might object that it is perverse to speak (as pragmatists above would) of international institutions that strengthen, but slightly improve the behavior of an authoritarian regime (say, China), as “democracy-enhancing.” They might argue that specific global governance procedures (and domestic procedures as modified by them) are democracy-maintaining or democracy-enhancing if and only if they meet at least as high a (multidimensional constitutional) standard or a higher standard than the general norm among modern democratic states in a similar circumstance. One implication of this higher standard, vis-à-vis the first criterion, is that it treats democracy not as a continuum, but as a discrete higher state. This approach suggests, first, that the behavior of the club of democracies defines proper behavior and, implicitly, also that a responsibility exists for democracies to maintain and extend democratic norms.

3.   Ideal Critiques: Still others may be more strongly idealistic in their critique along one dimension or another. They might argue that specific global governance procedures (and domestic procedures as modified by them) are democracy-maintaining or democracy-enhancing if and only if they realize specific constitutional ideals or specific ideal levels. I have argued above that this has the disadvantage of being utopian, and essentially blaming the failings of domestic governance on the international system—which is how I view much criticism of the EU and other IOs today. Still, they provide an aspirational standard and provide a clear standpoint from which one can criticize an international institution for failing to achieve a particular goal and seek to mobilize longer-term reform.

In analyzing the EU below, I adopt a “democratic club” viewpoint, which is identical to the “pragmatic critique” in that case, because most EU states are well-functioning democracies. Thus the “general norm” among EU members and the “general norm among modern democracies” converge.

The European Union: Four Perspectives

This theoretical apparatus is not just abstract. It is useful when faced with a real world institution. The analyst can conduct a multiperspectival audit of the specific ways and precise extent to which a multilateral institution degrades, maintains, or enhances domestic democracy by examining each of these four dimensions: libertarian democracy (rights and limited government), pluralist democracy (accountability and representation), social democracy (equality and faction control), and deliberative democracy (transparency and epistemic quality). By taking all four dimensions together, we can get some sense of how the quality of domestic democracy may have changed. This approach permits us to assemble and analyze detailed empirical evidence and theory drawn from comparative and international politics in rigorous and structured ways that bear upon the fundamental normative judgment of whether political institutions are democratically legitimate.

Elsewhere I have used a similar framework to consider issues such as terrorism, global human rights and global trade in the GATT/WTO.7 Here I consider the EU, the world’s most ambitious international institution, and adopt a “democratic club” standard—that is, I inquire whether the EU meets the general norms among modern democracies—a standard which, for the reasons explained above, converges with the pragmatic norm. My basic conclusion in this case is that, by the standards set forth above, the EU is in almost all respects quite democratic. No matter which of the four dimensions one adopts, or which issue one examines, EU institutions appear to maintain and even enhance domestic democracy at a relatively high standard. There is one possible and important exception, however, namely the Euro system of monetary integration. This system is not clearly democracy-maintaining or democracy-enhancing as judged against the general domestic practice of its member states, and there is good reason to believe it may be democracy-degrading.

  • The Libertarian Perspective: Is the EU an Arbitrary Superstate?

The basic libertarian focus in evaluating constitutional democracy lies in its ability to check and channel the arbitrary and potentially corrupt power of the state and to assure negative rights of the citizenry.8 Arbitrary rule by supranational technocrats—“bureaucratic despotism” by a “super-state” in Brussels—is a widespread concern in regard to contemporary EU politics. Yet the threat of a European “superstate” is a myth. The EU’s constitutional order imposes tight substantive, fiscal, administrative, legal, and procedural constraints on policymaking. For libertarians, the EU is in many ways the ideal of limited government.

Substantively, the EU’s current mandate is restricted by treaty and practice to a modest subset of the activities of modern states. To be sure, free trade in goods and services, the movement of factors of production, the production of and trade in agricultural commodities, exchange rates and monetary policy, foreign aid and trade-related environmental, consumer, and competition policy are important matters. Overall, however, studies show that only 10 percent of national laws, regulations and standards are made in Brussels—far from the 60 or 80 percent one often reads. The order of magnitude validity of 10 percent rather than 80 percent should be obvious simply by considering the scope of EU governance, which does not (and cannot) include most of the basic functions of the modern state. It excludes in particular those functions that involve heavy fiscal and administrative commitments. Most of what the modern state does is thereby excluded: taxation and the setting of fiscal priorities, social welfare provision, defense and police powers, education policy, cultural policy, noneconomic civil litigation, direct cultural promotion and regulation, the funding of civilian infrastructure, and most other regulatory policies unrelated to cross-border economic activity. The EU remains what Giandomenico Majone terms a "regulatory polity."9 The EU’s ability to tax is capped at about 2 to 3 percent of national and local government spending (1.3 percent of GDP) and is unlikely to change soon.

The same is true of administration. The EU has almost no police, military force, or investigatory capacity. The essence of regulation lies in implementation, yet the miniscule EU bureaucracy—smaller than that of a modest European city—implements very few of its own rules. The member states carry out those functions. With such a low level of spending and administration, EU corruption is almost unheard of at the Brussels level. As a result, the EU has been, overall, strongly liberal and nonfiscal in its impact on European policy-making, which makes opposition by right-wing libertarians, not least Anglo-American ones, puzzling.

All this might not matter if the EU officials or member states could legislate, regulate, or enforce as they wish, and credibly delegate to others. Yet the EU is a divided state, with separation of powers, a multilevel structure of decision making, and a plural executive. EU decision making is consensus decision making, requiring broad support from many decision-making bodies at many levels of governance, thus rendering truly arbitrary and capricious action by one decision maker almost impossible. Unanimity is required for amendment of the Treaty of Rome, followed by electoral, parliamentary, or administrative ratification—a high standard for any fundamental act of substantive redirection or institutional delegation. Even ‘everyday’ EU directives must be promulgated under rules that require the concurrent support of between 70 and 100 per cent of the weighted votes of territorial representatives in the Council of Ministers – a higher threshold than required to amend many national constitutions. Moreover, the EU is a separation of powers system: the Commission must propose, the Parliament must consent, national parliaments or officials must transpose into national law, national bureaucracies must implement, and, if the legislation is challenged, the Court must approve.

High supermajority and unanimity thresholds are not unique to the EU; they are typical of international organizations. This is as they should be, according to libertarian standards; in domestic polities, this is a typical way of protecting minority interests in diverse federal polities. Thus it is reasonable to presume the legitimacy of global governance processes (and domestic procedures as modified by them) freely entered into and freely maintained by governments (at least governments of democratically legitimate states) unless proven otherwise. It follows that international institutions among democratic states, such as the EU, should be given a greater benefit of the doubt than those created by nondemocratic states.

One concern is that supermajoritarian or unanimity procedures tend to lock in the status quo. Multilateral institutions are prima facie suspect if they freeze outcomes so undesirable that most states (or a persistent minority of states) intensely regret the initial pooling of sovereignty, but find it costly to reverse it. There is substantial evidence that the Euro is now fallen prey to this negative “historical institutionalist” or “path dependent” syndrome. It is important to remember, however, that evidence of single outcomes undesirable to individual states, often cited as evidence that international organizations are tyrannous, is insufficient to show that institutions are undemocratic. After all, perhaps the major purpose of international regimes is to credibly commit states to issue linkage and compliance under uncertainty. Thus the existence of some disgruntled states simply shows institutions are fulfilling their primary purpose—i.e., they do more than coordinate lowest common denominator behavior.

Finally, there are areas in which European institutions are, from a libertarian perspective, democracy-enhancing. The EU and the Council of Europe have been decisive in codifying, enforcing, and spreading basic norms of human rights, immigrant rights, property rights, rule of law, and due process—both in old member states and in enlargement countries. EU oversight of functions such as state aid and competition have also contributed, on balance, to rendering Europe less corrupt than it otherwise might have been.

  • The Pluralist Perspective: Is the EU an Unaccountable Technocracy?

The pluralist conception of democracy stresses the direct accountability of governing officials to public preferences, as expressed through elections.10 Dahl has criticized the EU as being an elite-driven project that does not deserve to be called ‘democratic.' He notes: “To ensure public debate, it would be necessary to create an international equivalent to national political competition by parties and individuals seeking office.”11 Simon Hix and Andreas Føllesdal have extended this view with their proposal—which echoes perhaps the most widespread elite scheme for democratizing Europe these days—for holding direct election of the Commission coordinated with the European Parliament.

Such schemes tend to overlook the extent to which domestic and EU-level democratic accountability already exists. If there is a problem, it is not the lack of popular representation, but the lack of interest in the essentially nonsalient issues (from the perspective of the average voter) the EU handles. The most important channel of democratic control is through the democratically elected governments of the member states, who dominate the European Council (heads of state and government) and Council of Ministers (direct diplomatic representatives and ministers). The bonds of accountability are tight: National representatives can be recalled or re-instructed at will, often more easily than parliamentarians in national party systems. In addition, national parliaments consider and comment on many EU policies. Though their de facto ability to influence policy fluctuates greatly by country, any government could impose at will the ex ante approval system that exists in Denmark and Sweden.

At the European level, moreover, the European Parliament (EP) has been for several decades progressively usurping the role of the Commission as the primary agenda-setter vis-à-vis the Council in the EU legislative process. The EP is directly elected, generally by proportional representation within nation-states, and often acts independently of ruling national parties. Whereas one might criticize the desultory participation and the absence of clear programmatic discourse in European elections, the EP nonetheless has an effective system of party cooperation, with votes most often splitting along party lines and in which recognizable ideological cleavages shape voting patterns.

Along the pluralist dimension of accountability, the EU is in some respects democracy-enhancing. Most importantly, the establishment of the EU allows the transnational scope of the political system to be aligned with the scope of transnational problems, so issues with transnational effects are now addressed with input from elected officials in twenty-eight countries—an extraordinary expansion in accountability. In addition, the EU’s democracy promotion activities with regard to new members, the new roles of the European Parliament, the greater range of actors involved in many EU procedures, and the spread of full notice and comment rights in regulatory procedures all expand accountability.

It might be objected that, as compared to national systems, a greater proportion of EU decisions are made by autonomous technocrats in the Commission, constitutional court judges, or central bankers. Some of these appointed officials resolve essentially political questions involving the apportionment of costs, benefits and risks. Yet here is another place where the multidimensional constitutional conception of democracy is most relevant. In many respects, little is in fact distinctive about the pattern of delegation we observe in the EU. The late twentieth century was a period of the ‘decline of parliaments’ and the rise of courts, public administrations and the ‘core executive.’ Accountability is imposed, increasingly not through direct participation in majoritarian decision making but instead through complex systems of direct and indirect representation, professional socialization, ex post review, and balances between branches of government. EU officials (or insulated national representatives) tend to enjoy the greatest autonomy in precisely those areas—central banking, constitutional adjudication, criminal and civil prosecution, technical administration and economic diplomacy—in which many advanced industrial democracies, including most member states of the EU, insulate from direct political contestation. The apparently ‘undemocratic’ nature of the EU as a whole is largely a function of this selection effect.

An EU exception, again, is the European Central Bank (ECB). Two issues are important here. First, while central bank independence is widely viewed as necessary to assure that central banks will fulfill their function of guaranteeing the value of money against short-term pressures, the ECB is more independent than any modern central bank of a major system, with no apparent technocratic or democratic justification. Independence in central banks has real implications, namely a more anti-inflationary, hard money perspective. The reason for this is obvious, namely that the major creditor country in the system, Germany, demanded that it be so. I argued in 2004 that the Euro system is on this ground presumptively lacking in democratic legitimacy and I think subsequent events confirm that judgment, though an overall assessment remains complex. Second, now that the Euro has failed and the costs of reversing the policy are proving extremely—perhaps prohibitively—large, legitimate pluralist concerns could be raised about the undemocratic implications of constitutional precommitment strategies. While some precommitment is inevitable in constitutional government, governments in the diverse, complex, and rapidly changing international system should be wary of commitments in areas like monetary policy where the preferences of governments are diverse, our scientific knowledge is inexact, and the costs of policy reversal are high. Such commitments are not simply imprudent, but in committing future generations, arguably undemocratic.

  • The Social Democratic Perspective: Does the EU Impose a Neoliberal Bias?

The social democratic conception of democracy stresses the role of political institutions in offsetting underlying social inequality, informal domination, and resulting special interest influence in politics.12 Fritz Scharpf13 and others have argued that most Europeans favour maintaining current levels of welfare spending, as demonstrated by the decentralized tendency of member states to spend increasing percentages of GNP on welfare as per capita income increases. Yet the status quo cannot be maintained today because of the tendency of decentralized market competition to generate an interstate ‘race to the bottom’ in regulatory protection. Trade, immigration, and especially foreign investment and capital flows create strong incentives for countries to reduce welfare expenditures. The EU cannot respond effectively to this tendency because of a neoliberal bias in the constitutional structure of the EU, and the rhetoric that surrounds it, which favors market liberalization (‘negative integration’) over social protection (‘positive integration’). In contrast to the pluralist view, social democrats argue that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy not so much because it stifles political participation, but because its policies are biased against particular interests that are consensually recognized as legitimate. In contrast to the libertarian view, social democrats see the EU as problematic not because it does too much, but because it does too little; it tends to exclude social welfare and public interest regulation from the agenda.

Yet, in Europe, relatively little evidence confirms the existence of a race to the bottom. Scharpf himself concedes that such a race could exist in only a few areas—corporate taxation, for example—that relatively little evidence suggests it has yet occurred, and that effects have been limited. National welfare systems are no longer moving strongly in the direction of greater redistribution, but they are not imploding either. Recent OECD analyses report that fiscal consolidation over the past twenty years has almost always led to increases in government revenues as a percentage of GNP, and in most cases the burden of consolidation is placed primarily on revenue increases. More importantly, the most important factors behind increasing social spending are instead domestic: the shift to a postindustrial economy, lower productivity growth, shifting demand for less skilled workers, rising costs of health care, pensions and employment, exacerbated by increasingly unfavorable demographic trends. These factors fuel welfare deficits and fiscal strains, yet any reform is opposed by entrenched constituencies (the elderly, medical care consumers, and the full-time unemployed) well placed to resist it. No responsible analyst believes that current individual social welfare entitlements can be maintained in the face of these structural shifts, regardless of how they are structured and how they interact with the global economy. In this context, the neoliberal bias of the EU, if it exists, may well be partially justified by the social welfarist bias of current national policies, and marginal pressure towards consolidation of national welfare systems should be considered a benefit not a threat. Certainly there is little evidence that the EU is driving social protection downwards. By contrast, the EU often permits high standards and supportive institutional reform, and thus tends to re-regulate at a high level.

Again, the Euro may be an exception. Yet even this is difficult to judge. We now know that the Euro was neither a quid pro quo for German reunification nor the result of European idealism. From the start, it has been a project with an economic rationale. The creation of the Euro was a bargain between strong currency countries (e.g. Germany, Netherlands), which sought to keep their exchange rate down and promote market integration, and weak currency countries (e.g. Italy and France), which sought to lower their domestic interest rates to maintain government spending and economic activity. The problem today is that both sets of countries got what they wanted. This in fact relaxed constraints on their policies in the short term.

Yet the Euro did not prove a stable arrangement in the long run. Perverse capital flows toward the nontradable sectors of southern economies and a competitiveness gap in the real economy resulted. Over the long run, the external constraint for some states increased. Today, the Euro system has locked deficit countries into a system that no longer clearly benefits them, to the advantage of creditor countries like Germany. The result is a widespread policy of austerity in Southern countries without the traditional countervailing benefits of currency depreciation or fiscal flexibility. (In the even longer term, however, should weak currency countries exit, Germany might pay a very high price.) For the moment, this is held in place by the unwillingness of democratic publics, either in creditor or debtor countries, to pay the high short-term costs of leaving the Euro or to accept the political responsibility for policies that lead to that outcome. In this respect, one might argue that even if the Euro is bad policy, its weaknesses result as much from the pathologies of democracy as from efforts to circumvent democracy. Yet this is precisely the type of short-term populist pressure against which, so constitutional theory tells us, well-designed political institutions—not to mention central banks!—ought to be designed to protect citizens. So this claim cannot be used to accord the Euro democratic legitimacy.

  • The Deliberative Perspective: Does the EU Foster Public Passivity?

Many deliberative democrats object to the trend toward transnational decision making because they perceive too high a cost in terms of political engagement and civic virtue.14 Such critics observe that the EU has failed to promote the transnational political parties, identities, and discourses that might help render European political participation meaningful for citizens. Moreover, in recent years, European institutions have become less popular. Some propose to reform European institutions to encourage greater mobilization, deliberation and engagement by political parties, interest groups, networks of common discourse, deliberative democratic circles, and public opinion. This, they expect, will generate legitimacy. Yet this criticism exaggerates the democracy-degrading effects of the EU across numerous dimensions. Empirical evidence suggests the EU system is in many respects democracy-maintaining or even democracy-enhancing.

A precondition for deliberation is transparency. In contrast to the widespread vision of a cadre of secretive gnomes burrowing away in Brussels, supranational officials and national officials in Brussels in fact work under intense public scrutiny. The EU’s multistage legislative process, whereby legislation must traverse the Commission, Council, Parliament, and domestic implementing authorities, encourages more open policymaking than in most national systems. With representatives from twenty-seven countries, plus the supranational officials, there is no such thing as a secret in Brussels; information is as plentiful about the EU political and regulatory process, at least at the Brussels level, than about similar processes in nearly all of its member states. Thomas Zweifel and others have conducted research revealing that the EU regulatory processes are as open to input from civil society, and as constrained by the need to give reasons, as the (relatively open) systems of Switzerland and the U.S. The legislative process works slowly, without any equivalent to ruling by executive decree or pushing legislation swiftly through a friendly parliament.

Another democracy-enhancing quality of the EU is that, at the elite level of committees and governing elites, it appears to generate policy deliberation, discourse, and learning. The most obvious cases of this are found in judicial politics, where conversations among courts at different levels have led to the emergence of a European legal system, and in regulatory politics, where there are regular weekly meetings of European regulators on most EU issues. Enthusiastic proponents of “democratic experimentalism,” among them Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin, argue that this has led to widespread diffusion of effective policy ideas and solutions. This may be so, though it is worth noting that many of these have failed. A more realistic account is that intense deliberation has led to more intensive policy coordination and new solutions in limited areas of common interest.

Deliberative democrats complain, however, that such elite and technocratic processes have not spread to the mass level. The EU, it is argued, is unpopular because citizens are unengaged, and this degrades their experience of democracy. The EU may be transparent, but its issues do not inspire publics to pay attention, mobilize or deliberate. EU issues (the Euro aside) play little role in national elections. Direct elections to the EU parliament (or referendums on the EU) evince low turnout, low political knowledge, negative voting, and a focus on national issues.

The premise of this criticism is correct, namely that European citizens are largely unengaged in EU politics (except the Euro). Yet the criticisms do not follow, because they rest on the questionable secondary premise that greater participation in political institutions would generate a deeper sense of political community in Europe or, at the very least, greater popular support for the EU. The argument here is two-fold: individual citizens in Europe are not deliberate because distant institutions block them from doing so, and their lack of deliberation leads them to dislike the EU. There are at least three reasons to doubt both arguments.

First, the reason for low attention and involvement in EU issues is almost certainly not the “distance” of the EU or lack of efficient institutional opportunities to participate. European citizens consistently fail to exploit any of the cost-effective institutional opportunities they possess—referendums, EU elections, national elections, public interest group participation, or individual political education—many of which they use for other purposes. Instead, the main reason for nonparticipation is that the issues that the EU handles, like most issues of most international organizations, tend to be nonsalient. With the exception of the Euro, the EU does not focus primarily on the issues that are foremost in the minds of European citizens. Of the five most salient issues in most West European democracies—healthcare provision, education, law and order, pension and social security policy, and taxation—none is primarily an EU competence. Among the next ten, only a few (managing the economy, the environment, alongside the anomalous issue of Europe itself) are major EU concerns, and none exclusively so. Managing the economy has recently become, with the Euro crisis, a partial exception, to which we shall return. By contrast, the issues in which the EU specializes—trade liberalization, the removal of nontariff barriers, technical regulation in the environmental and other areas, foreign aid and general foreign policy coordination—which tend to be low-salience issues. This is not to deny these issues are objectively important, particularly to small groups in society. It is only to say that they do not motivate large masses of the electorate, compared to other issues, and thus rarely if ever decide elections. Thus the EU finds itself, like many international organizations, in the unenviable position of seeking to attract public attention and democratic support without issues of sufficient salience to do so. The only proven way to do this is to work through national democratic systems, where voters express choices based on salient issues, and the resulting governing parties make decisions about Europe. Lack of salience, not lack of opportunity, may be the critical constraint on European political participation.

Second, attempting to create European mass deliberation over nonsalient issues is not only futile, as we see from the low turnout in European elections; it can be dangerous. We see this from the experience of European elections and referendums (e.g. Ireland, Netherlands, France) on the Maastricht Treaty. Exit polling shows that such cases only a minority of voters cast their ballot on any general EU-related issue. Only a miniscule number had any idea what was in the specific document up for choice. Moreover, voting behavior studies suggest that direct democratic choices tempt the minority of citizens who pay any attention to Europe to act not in a informed manner, but in an ideological one. The reason is that polling shows that the ideological cleavage (Euro-federalist versus Euro-skeptic) is generally more salient in the minds of voters than any issue that the EU handles (macroeconomic policy again the persistent exception).

The second prong of the deliberative democratic critique is the claim that lack of public involvement and deliberation over Europe fosters public alienation. Citizens, it is claimed, tend to trust and respect political institutions that are more participatory or engaging. This premise is, at least for Europe, simply invalid. While it is true that democracies tend to generate public trust and support as a whole, it is not true that more participatory institutions within democracies are more trusted or better liked. There is no correlation. (See FIGURE ONE.) Often the reverse tends to be true: the most trusted institutions in Europe have traditionally tended to be courts, bureaucracies, the army and police, and international organizations such as the EU and the UN. Insulated institutions that adjudicate, implement, and enforce laws are often more popular with the public than legislatures and executives. International institutions like the EU, UN, and European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg command great legitimacy despite the near total lack of direct democratic engagement. Consistently, the least trusted political actors are parties and elected politicians. The EU’s position in the institutional division of labor involves a disproportionate number of insulated political functions, and it is unlikely that more public participation in such functions would legitimate them.


Moravscik Figure 1

Even today, after the Euro crisis and with a Conservative government in office, the British public trusts (on net) the European Commission more than the British Parliament. (See FIGURE TWO.)


Moravscik Figure 2

The central problem is that, in order for individuals to deliberate about EU politics, they require a concrete stake in its issues—a fact that many discussions of how to foster a European 'demos,' ‘we-feeling,’ ‘community,’ or ‘constitutional patriotism’ elide. The most compelling schemes for doing so rest not on the creation of new political opportunities, but the emergence of entirely new political cleavages. Philippe Schmitter, for example, argues that agricultural supports and structural funds should be replaced with a guaranteed minimum income for the poorest one-third of Europeans, national welfare systems should be rebalanced so as not to favour the elderly, and immigrants and aliens should be granted full rights.15

The Euro has done much, but not in the way European federalists hoped. As across other dimensions of democracy, it is the exception proves the rule: macroeconomic policy is an exceptionally salient EU issue and it has indeed induced political deliberation. Yet the way it has done so demonstrates the limitations of schemes for fostering deliberation in European political institutions, and for translating deliberation into support for the EU. Recent mobilization around the Euro has occurred almost entirely at the national level: national democratic cultures remain the ones that matter to people, as much as they did thirty years ago, and monetary union is a redistributive issue that pits countries (and groups within countries) against one another. Moreover, the Euro debate has undermined support for the EU, because, most observers now agree, EMU was misguided policy. The EU still contains too much crossnational socioeconomic and institutional diversity to enforce (or reinforce fiscally) the macroeconomic convergence required to make monetary union work properly. Governments would not have entered into in this form if they knew then what they know now and their time horizon privileged the present. As noted above, this is an undesirable policy outcome, but it may be the result of democratic pressure as much as the result of efforts to circumvent such pressures.


The forgoing analysis and, in particular, the results concerning the European Union demonstrate the value of the mode of analysis of globalization and democracy proposed here: an empirical assessment guided by constitutional-democratic norms based on a democratic club standard. This approach demonstrates that most multilateral institutional commitments, even in the relatively powerful and far-reaching European Union, are democratically legitimate. At the same time, it demonstrates that this mode of analysis is a powerful critical tool, highlighting points where democratic norms are not met, such as the Euro. The same standards could and should usefully be applied to multilateral institutions and national governments across the globe.

  1. This paper draws on a number of previous publications, which cite the extensive literature on this subject. A selection includes the following: Robert Keohane, Stephen Macedo, and Andrew Moravcsik. 2009. "Democracy-Enhancing Multilateralism," International Organization (Winter); Moravcsik, Andrew. 2006. “What Can We Learn from the Collapse of the European Constitutional Project? A Symposium.Politische Vierteljahresschrift 47:2; Moravcsik, Andrew. 2004. "Is there a 'Democratic Deficit' in World Politics? A Framework for Analysis." Government and Opposition 39:2; Moravcsik, Andrew. 2002. "In Defence of the Democratic Deficit: Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union." Journal of Common Market Studies (40th Anniversary Edition) 40:4; Andrew Moravcsik and Andrea Sangiovanni. 2002. "On Democracy and 'Public Interest' in the European Union." In Wolfgang Streeck and Renate Mainz, eds., Die Reformierbarkeit der Demokratie. Innovationen und Blockaden. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag. Copies of these papers and others can be found at
  2. Dahl, Robert A. 1999. “Can International Organizations be Democratic? A Skeptic’s View.” In Democracy’s Edges, eds. Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón, 19–36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Rubenfeld, Jed. 2004. “Unilateralism and Constitutionalism.” New York University Law Review 79 (6).
  4. Rabkin, Jeremy. 1998. Why Sovereignty Matters, 45. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press; Rabkin, Jeremy. 2005. Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States, 244–48. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. Dahrendorf, Ralf. 1999. “The Third Way and Liberty: An Authoritarian Streak in Europe’s New Center.” Foreign Affairs 78 (5): 16.
  6. Ludlow, Peter. 2002. The Laeken Council, 215–33. Brussels, Belgium: Eurocomment.
  7. See relevant works cited in Footnote One.
  8. For evidence cited in this section, see Moravcsik, "Is there a 'Democratic Deficit' in World Politics? ", pp. 339, 349-352; "In Defence of the Democratic Deficit ," pp. 606-610; “Europe After the Crisis: How to Sustain a Common Currency,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2012).
  9. Majone, Giandomenico. 1996. Regulating Europe. London: Routledge; and Giandomenico Majone. 1998. “Europe’s Democratic Deficit.” European Law Journal, 4 (1): 237–56.
  10. For evidence cited in this section, see Moravcsik, "Is there a 'Democratic Deficit' in World Politics?," pp. 353-356; "In Defence of the Democratic Deficit," pp. 611-614.
  11. Dahl, “Can International Organizations be Democratic? A Skeptic’s View,” op. cit.
  12. For evidence cited in this section, see Moravcsik, "Is there a 'Democratic Deficit' in World Politics?," pp. 356-359; "In Defence of the Democratic Deficit," pp. 617-619; Andrew Moravcsik and Andrea Sangiovanni, "On Democracy and 'Public Interest' in the European Union."
  13. Scharpf, F.W. 1999. Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  14. For evidence cited in this section, see Moravcsik, "Is there a 'Democratic Deficit' in World Politics?," pp. 359-361; "In Defence of the Democratic Deficit," pp. 615-617; Moravcsik, “What Can We Learn from the Collapse of the European Constitutional Project?".
  15. Schmitter, Philippe. 2000. How to Democratize the European Union . . . And Why Bother? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
About the Author
Andrew Moravcsik is a professor of politics at Princeton University.