The Democratic Deficit of the Common Security and Defence Policy?

IMG_8819This blog post is the fourth in a series of posts that come from students of our 2nd year undergraduate “Politics of the EU” course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to EU politics. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of the EU, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.

The European Union (EU) has long been criticised in many of its aspects for lacking democratic legitimacy. Despite the presence of an elected European Parliament (EP), there are concerns that other institutions within the EU do not have the oversight or accountability that should be required of a supranational government. This is especially critical in the matter of security and defence, a policy area that is often cloaked in secrecy. The European Parliament and national parliaments, which do have democratic legitimacy, have only a limited range of power over the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and it’s actions. Whether this was an intentional action for leaders to evade domestic control or an unforeseen outcome of integration, it is clear that the CSDP is lacking in oversight and accountability. This democratic deficit within the CSDP creates several problems for both the EU and its member states, as it damages their legitimacy, continues a pattern of a lack of accountability in defence policy, and even further removes the European people from control over their peace and security.

Security and defence policies by necessity require a higher level of secrecy to adequately respond to threats, and are therefore often lacking in accountability. While it is ultimately up to each member state to finance missions and deploy troops, the powers of each national parliament differ greatly and the very nature of the CSDP makes it difficult to control (Comelli, 2011). This can lead to circumstances where a national parliament may be unable to influence policy before it is passed and unable to modify it after a decision is made by the European Council (Barbé et al., 2005: pp. 32). This was the case in 2003, when both the British and Italian parliaments, “did not view or have a say on the final drafts of the documents discussed in the European Council that approved Operation Concordia,” (Barbé et al., 2005: pp. 52). As additional integration of military forces and security policy occurs it is likely the democratic deficit will only increase. These policies and the process they are made through will put, “pressure on reluctant member states to contribute to military missions even in the absence of majority support at home,” (Wagner, 2007: pp. 2). Democratic legitimacy in the area of defence is critically important as war can have a serious impact on the daily lives of citizens, both economically and in terms of casualties (Koenig-Archibugi, 2002: pp. 69-70). It is often unpopular, especially in the long term, and public opinion can turn against the government if it continues to support the conflict. Democratic oversight and accountability can have a profound effect on a government’s actions, and the clear lack of it in the CSDP creates many issues for the future of European security and defence.

As a supranational institution responsible for the economic and political interests of twenty-eight member states, the EU must hold a certain level of legitimacy to operate with any authority. The EP has the most accountability of the EU institutions, and yet it has little real control over its common security policy. The EP has been described as having, “powers of information but no real power of control,” as they have the right to be informed on developments and pass resolutions, but this influence does not, “bind the other European institutions to the Parliament’s wishes,” (Barbé et al., 2005: pp. 17). Since its introduction, the EP has been continually fighting for more control over the CSDP (Barbé et al., 2005). Although the EP also has some control over the budget, it has considerably less power than the Council (Barbé et al., 2005: pp. 17). The EP can also issue non-binding resolutions or recommendations once a mission is launched, but, “These resolutions are normally adopted following statements made by Council and Commission officials before the EP,” (Comelli, 2011: pp. 58). From its inception, the CSDP has been a mirror for the national issues many Western countries face with security policy. The EP is the democratically elected body ostensibly ensuring that the will of the European people is carried out, yet they have little to no control over the CSDP, furthering a national pattern of a lack of accountability and oversight in security and defence policy.

There are theorists who have suggested that this democratic deficit is not just a by-product of further integration, but rather that a lack of oversight and accountability is favourable for some governments or leaders and has occurred purposely. In his research, Koenig-Archibugi proposes a concept termed collusive delegation, which maintains that it is, “not merely a by-product of the transfer of powers to supranational institutions, but also one of the purposes of this transfer,” in which, “Governments pool their authority in order to loosen domestic political constraints,” (Koenig-Archibugi, 2002: pp. 63). He, along with other political scientists such as Moravcsik and Wolf, contends that policymaking at the EU level allows national governments to elude parliamentary control and gain more power domestically over particular issues as, “international cooperation tends to redistribute domestic political resources toward executives,” (Wagner, 2007: pp. 5). The complex and multi-level nature of policy making within the EU makes this possible, as governments can take advantage of the collective decision-making process and the consequences of rejecting policies that have already been agreed on (Koenig-Archibugi, 2002: pp. 62-63). This is particularly true of military actions, as, “even the ministers in the Council can no longer amend agreements previously reached between the conflicting parties or within the UN Security Council which form the bases of the military mission,” (Wagner, 2007: pp. 5). The history of integration, principally in the area of defence and security, clearly points to an outcome of loosened domestic restrictions on leaders. Whether or not certain developments are beneficial for the European people, they are not occurring democratically and the process in which they are being created damages the credibility of the EU as an international actor in all policy areas.

The EU creates political and economic policy as a single entity acting with and on behalf of twenty-eight member states, and the present democratic deficit within the CSDP is a fundamental challenge to its authority and accountability. The EP and national parliaments are, as democratically elected bodies, theoretically the central institutions for oversight and legitimacy, but realistically hold little power over the CSDP. The EP has non-binding powers and very often must follow the lead of the Council or the Commission. Member state parliaments have also been shown to have little say in the creation of policy or operation of missions. Whether or not this is collusive delegation or an unfortunate by-product of integration, it is clear that the EU has removed the European people from having any real control. This has only furthered a pattern, often seen nationally, of secrecy and a lack of accountability in security and defence policy and persistently harms the reputation of the EU and its ability to perform as an international actor.

Ellen Gustavson is a second year student at UCD studying politics and international relations. Her research interests include international security, counterterrorism, and security policy.


Barbé, E., Herranz, A., Lalone, N., Bono, G., Soler i Lecha, E., Zanon, F. (2005) The Role of Parliaments in European Foreign Policy. Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2016]

Comelli, M. (2011) “The Common Security and Defence Policy and the Issue of Democratic Accountability: What Role for the European Parliament?”, European Democracy and Cosmopolitan Democracy (The Ventotene Papers): pp. 51-67

Koenig-Archibugi, M. (2002) “The democratic deficit of EU foreign and security policy”, The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 37 (Issue 4); pp. 61-73

Koenig-Archibugi, M. (2004) “International Governance as New Raison d’État? The Case of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 10 (No. 2): pp. 147-188

Wagner, W. (2005) “The democratic legitimacy of European Security and Defence Policy”, Chaillot Occasional Paper 57, Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies

Wagner, W. (2007) “The Democratic Deficit in the EU’s Security and Defense Policy – why bother?”, EUSA Tenth Biennial International Conference. Montreal, Canada, May 17-19

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