goddesses (11)
Europa (Baroness Gagerne) by Yevonde Cumbers Middleton (1893-1975)

This extract shows Paul Hirst (political theorist, 1946-2003), one of the 20th century’s most important political thinkers, trying to think through the problem of the democratic deficit of the EU and how the problem surfaces simply by trying to analyse the EU as a political category in itself. It progressively shows that the difficulty about thinking of the EU as a political organisation becomes the root of the difficulty of thinking about an adequate way of reforming it into a more democratic organization. Hirst does not offer any solutions, nor do I venture any, yet if any adequate solution is found it has to begin by rethinking the EU as a political category in itself, one that allows political theory to define it in a clear way in the light of the history of how democracy can be achieved through politics, and in the light of the history in which political theory is incapacitated in this task by categories which are simply incompatible with democratic governance:

We have few ideas about how to ensure democratic governance in supra-national institutions. It is difficult to find and adequate political vocabulary to describe the EU, for example, let alone provide effective remedies for its democratic deficit.

The EU fits none of our conventional constitutional and political categories. It is obviously not a unitary state, nor is it a federal one, but its common institutions and laws have more powers than a confederation. The EU is created by treaties and yet it is not just a treaty organization. It depends crucially on the input of member governments, but it does not simply comprise intergovernmental cooperation. It is a permanent association of states with certain functionally specific but powerful institutions of common governance.

It is difficult to see how these institutions, the rules and policies of which take precedence over national laws in their areas of competence, can be democratically controlled, whether by political action within individual states, or by common institutions like the European Parliament.

A list of powerful EU institutions that are outside any direct democratic control:

  • European Commission.
  • European Central Bank (ECB)
  • European External Action Service (EEAS)
  • European Economic & Social Committee (EESC)
  • European Committee of the Regions (CoR)
  • European Investment Bank (EIB)
  • European Ombudsman
  • European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS)


The extract above is from Paul Hirst’s:

Space and Power: Politics, War and Architecture

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