How the EU Mitigates a Fundamental Democratic Deficit of European Nation-States


In this piece, Samuel D. Schmid, Andrea C. Blättler, and Joachim Blatter summarise the key findings from their winning article of the JCMS 2017 Best Article Prize: ‘Democratic Deficits in Europe: The Overlooked Exclusiveness of Nation‐States and the Positive Role of the European Union’ (Vol 55, Issue 3), available here.

Interior of state parliament (Landtag) in Berlin, Germany © Matyas Rehak/Adobe Stock

State parliament (Landtag) in Berlin © Matyas Rehak/Adobe Stock

The European Union, many believe, has a democratic deficit. The sovereign nation-state is seen as democratically superior. Even more, it is often argued that the EU undermines the functioning of national democracies, compounding this alleged democratic deficit.

In our article we show that when it comes to the electoral inclusion of immigrants, nation states suffer from a democratic deficit and the EU plays a democracy-enhancing role. European democracies are much more exclusive than they should be according to normative standards derived from democratic theory. The EU has been key to mitigating the exclusiveness of democracies. By requiring its member states to enfranchise non-national EU citizens on the local level, it pushes one of the currently most relevant “frontiers of democracy” in the right direction.

Why should democracies include long-term immigrant residents?

Normative theorists of democracy, whether they are liberals, republicans, or communitarians agree that democracies should – in order to retain full legitimacy – grant voting rights to all adult, legal and long-term residents. The same goes for Robert Dahl, one of founding fathers of empirical democracy measurement. He defined inclusive suffrage accordingly when he introduced his concept of polyarchy.

Currently, the most significant group often excluded in this definition of the demos are long-term immigrant residents. They far outnumber disenfranchised resident citizens (e.g. criminal convicts, the mentally disabled). In the article, we deduce a strong normative demand that immigrants have to be included into the demos after five years of continuous residence. Democracies can opt to do so either by allowing immigrants to naturalize or by providing them with alien voting rights.

Constructing the Immigrant Inclusion Index (IMIX)

Taking this position as a benchmark, we construct an evaluative assessment tool: the Immigrant Inclusion Index (IMIX). It has two constitutive dimensions. The de facto dimension contrasts the number of people who are actually included with the number of people that should be included with regard to both mechanisms of inclusion. The de jure dimension assesses the laws regulating the immigrants’ access to citizenship and alien enfranchisement in light of the normative demands.

The details of measurement, normalization, and aggregation are elaborated in the article. We draw on extensive original data collection and established resources such as the electoral rights indicators (ELECLAW) and the citizenship policy indicators (CITLAW) provided by the GLOBALCIT Observatory based at the European University Institute.

The exclusiveness of 20 European democracies – and the positive role of the EU

Having selected the 20 most established democracies with stable territorial boundaries among all EU member states[1], the first and main result of our study is the stark discrepancy between the laws and practice of electoral inclusion in these established European democracies and the ideal of ‘universal suffrage.’ In Figure 1 below, ‘universal suffrage’ equates a value of 100 on our IMIX scale. Even Sweden, the most inclusive country in our sample, is far from reaching this standard and suffers from a notable democratic deficit.

Figure 1: How 20 EU democracies fare in immigrant electoral inclusion – and how Switzerland compares

Legend: Figure 1 shows the scores on the IMIX scale for the 20 EU member states evaluated, plus the scores for Switzerland, as case for which we estimate a hypothetical “EU support” in a later study. Data clusters around 2010. Blue is the IMIX score without “EU support”. Yellow is the proportion attributable to “EU support”. We talk about “EU support” and not about an “EU effect” because we do not claim a causal role for the EU in each country, but a functional role as a safeguard in all countries.

The second main insight is the positive function of EU membership. According to EU law, EU members must grant voting rights to non-national EU citizens in local legislative elections. This EU norm plays a supportive role for the electoral inclusion of immigrants and reduces the democratic deficit of member states. This became also very visible when we added Switzerland to our sample in a further study . Currently, Switzerland is one of the most exclusive countries in Europe. Membership in the EU would make a huge difference since it would allow the many immigrants from EU countries to have a vote at least on the local level (which is currently only the case in a very limited number of cantons and municipalities).

Not only the least inclusive European democracies (could) get a boost in inclusiveness through EU membership. Almost all countries that fall into the ‘fairly inclusive’ category are greatly aided in achieving this label by applying EU law. For instance, Belgium’s de facto score is 34 percent due to enfranchised non-national EU citizen residents; and only Sweden would remain in the ‘fairly inclusive’ category if ‘EU support’ was subtracted from the IMIX score. We thus conclude that the EU plays an important democracy-enhancing role when it comes to immigrants’ electoral inclusion in EU Member States.

Avenues for supranational and postnational citizenship – and democracy measurement

In times when the EU faces an unprecedented legitimacy crisis and when there are claims that the EU continues to suffer from structural democratic deficits and produces such deficits on the national level, it is important to highlight existing shortcomings within national democracies. These democratic deficits within EU Member States do not reduce the democratic deficits of the EU per se; however, they put into perspective the often-proclaimed superiority of national democracies. Moreover, our analysis shows that the EU plays an important role in reducing this democratic deficit.

In contrast to most indices in the field of immigration, integration, and citizenship, the IMIX uses an approach grounded in the tradition of democratic theory and democracy measurement. As we show in our working paper, new democracy measurement tools represent major steps forwards in aligning methodology to theory and practice. Nevertheless, regarding the fundamental dimension of electoral inclusion there is still a gap between measurement tools, theoretical discourses, and practical struggles. The aspect of inclusion was side-lined in almost all significant democracy indices in the 20th century, supplanted by the notion of participation (of those already included). It is only taken up on the margins of the two most recent and sophisticated democracy measurement tools, the Democracy Barometer and the Varieties of Democracy Project.

Therefore, we hope that the IMIX also inspires democracy measurement projects to better capture one of the currently most important “frontiers of democracy” – that is, to include inclusion in an adequate way.

[1] We exclude the Baltic states because of the second criterion. Our concern about their territorial integrity is further connected to the fact that they have large non-citizen Russian-speaking minorities, which – if fully included – may undermine the autonomy of these polities.

This piece is based on the winning article of the JCMS 2017 Best Article Prize: ‘Democratic Deficits in Europe: The Overlooked Exclusiveness of Nation‐States and the Positive Role of the European Union’ (Vol 55, Issue 3) available here.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of  Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

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Samuel D. SchmidJournal of Common Market Studies Best Article Prize is a graduate of the University of Lucerne and a current PhD Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His thesis investigates the association between the openness of borders and the inclusiveness of citizenship across 20 Western democracies from 1980 to 2010. Twitter: @samdschmid


Andrea C. BlättlerJournal of Common Market Studies Best Article Prize graduated with a BA from the University of Lucerne and is currently completing joint master’s degree in political theory at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main & Technische Universität Darmstadt and spent a DAAD-funded term at The New School for Social Research, New York. She works at the intersection of political and social theory on questions of power and social stratification.


Joachim Blatter is professor of Political Science at the University of Lucerne. He wrote his Habilitation at the University of Konstanz, and has been a research fellow at Harvard, the Australian National University, and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). His current research focuses on dual citizenship, the transnationalization of national democracies, and on the migration of migration policies.