The term democracy comes from the Greek words “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; so, democracy can be thought of as “power of the people”: a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.
There are so many different models of democratic government around the world that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it definitely is not.
Democracy, then, is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules; and it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules. Properly understood, democracy should not even be “rule of the majority”, if that means that minorities’ interests are ignored completely.
A democracy, at least in theory, is government on behalf of all the people, according to their “will” […] However, a democracy is also incomplete without a thoroughgoing respect for human rights. Taking part in government, in a genuine way, is almost impossible to do without people having other basic rights respected.
The EU presents an important democratic characteristic: the separation of powers. Even if this does not happen in the classical form of the legislature, executive and judiciary, power is not centred on one person or institution.
The legislative power is constructed in the interaction between citizens, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament:
- Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament, to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin. Against the death penalty, discrimination, torture and trafficking; and for civil, social, economic and cultural rights;
- In the European Union, the Council of the European Union (or ‘Council of Ministers’ of the EU) and the European Parliament are the only two sources of democratic legitimacy; they are the EU’s two legislative chambers composed of elected officials.
- The European Council is composed of the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states together with its President and the President of the European Commission, and defines the guidelines of EU strategies, priorities and policies.
On the other hand, the European Commission is composed of ‘commissioners’ who are not elected by EU citizens, but who are nominated by governments of the member states in consultation with the president of the commission; commissioners are, therefore, non-elected officials who represent their member state’s executive. The European Parliament approves the EU commission as a body. Further, the executive power is in the governments of member states that implement EU laws and regulations at the national level.
The EU also has a supreme court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ensures the uniform application and interpretation of EU law; its decisions are binding for all Member States (see section 4.1.1).
With the establishment of the European Parliament and the first elections in 1979, central democratic institutions were created to increase the co-determination of EU citizens. The voices of the citizens are therefore represented in the European Parliament. National representatives are elected every five years and move into the European Parliament; nevertheless, they are allocated according to the political parties they belong.
There are always discussions as to whether this approach is ideal. For example, each country is allocated a certain number of seats according to the size of its population. This means that in small countries, with few inhabitants, candidates must win fewer votes to get seats than in, for example, Germany in order to get a seat. This principle of degressive proportionality means that not all votes count equally.
The equality of the value of all votes, however, is actually a principle of democratic elections. This is alleviated by the fact that, at least in the national elections, all the votes cast count equally.