Theories of Democracy for Europe: Multi-Level Challenges for Multi-Level Governance

12 Pages Posted: 30 Jan 2011

Date Written: 2000


The "great question", as John Locke put it, is not whether there should be political power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it. For domestic institutions, these three questions of normative political theory may well be separable and ordered as Locke indicated. However, the legitimacy of multi-level systems of governance can hardly be determined without keen regard for whether and why they should exist, and whence they arose. The characteristics and constraints of sovereign states have shaped the parameters for democratic answers to Locke's question. Just domestic government must be accountable to the governed. That is: the power to make laws and secure compliance should ultimately reside with citizens generally, securing coincidence oaf the affected and the electorate. This general and equal distribution of political rights gives expression to the equal worth of all citizens, and is the best institutional arrangement in light of the effects both on popular will formation and for collective decision-making. Theories of democracy have not only endorsed universal suffrage, but also justified more specific details. The commonplaces are constitutionally specified procedures and constraints, including the division of legislative, executive and judicial powers; transparency; accountability of elected representatives to the electorate; and majority rule.The European Union is a new subject for theories of legitimacy, and poses fundamental challenges to the established concepts and principles of democratic theory. The mere existence of the EU proves that the sovereign state cannot remain the sole focus of normative reflection. Indeed, the very conception of sovereignty is at stake in current disputes about the proper scope and legal powers to be transferred to central European institutions, without divesting traditional member states of all powers (Jachtenfuchs 1998).

European institutions are not designed to replace domestic nodes of governance, but instead turn Europe into a system of multi-level governance.

We must ask whether non-democratic modes of government may be justified to the citizens of Europe, such as has been suggested by such phrases as "post-parliamentary governance" (Andersen and Burns 1996). In any case, the received conceptual grid of democratic theory cannot easily be brought to bear on this polity at the supra-state level. It remains to be determined whether concepts such as the constitutional division of powers, transparency, accountability of representatives, and majority rule can play a role at all in assessing European institutions. The role of democratic decision procedures and consent must be rethought, both for domestic and multi-level governance, to consider why and in what sense legitimate government must rest on consent of the governed. A central issue must then be the proper scope of democratic decision procedures at the EU level. Several authors have addressed these issues, see reference list for an incomplete overview. This paper merely seeks to identify several of the challenges.

Keywords: democracy, political theory, multi-level governance, EU

Suggested Citation

Follesdal, Andreas, Theories of Democracy for Europe: Multi-Level Challenges for Multi-Level Governance (2000). Available at SSRN: or

Andreas Follesdal (Contact Author)

Pluricourts ( email )

P.O. Box 6706
St. Olavs plass 5
0130 Oslo

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