Much of the discussion of the current crisis in Greece and Europe in general has understandably focused on its economic characteristics. But it is also possible to talk about a crisis of legitimacy from which the European Union suffers – a crisis which predates the current eurozone crisis and even the existence of the euro as a whole. A range of factors have been identified as symptoms of this legitimacy crisis: fluctuating levels of support for, and trust in EU institutions as reported in Eurobarometer surveys; low and falling turnout for European Parliament elections; problems with the ratification of EU treaties, both in referendums and using parliamentary methods; increasing amounts of protest and contestation directed at the EU institutions; and non-, or variable compliance with EU law on the part of member states, to mention just a few.
Furthermore the two crises are linked. Not only does the economic crisis expose and highlight the pre-existing crisis of legitimacy in the EU, the legitimacy crisis affects the ability of the EU to tackle the economic crisis, an argument put forward by David Marquand in his 2011 book ‘The End of the West’. The following discussion takes a closer look at the relationship between the two crises by reflecting firstly upon the problems underpinning the legitimacy crisis: a gap between citizens and leaders which is fundamentally built into the EU structures. Finding that the EU’s legitimacy rests largely on its ability to deliver certain outcomes including stability and economic growth, it also considers the need for democratic citizen inputs and a shared identity which are also thought to contribute to legitimacy in liberal democratic societies. Finding limitations in both it briefly considers some of the options for addressing the legitimacy and in turn the economic crises.
Historically speaking, citizens have, for the most part, been absent from the practice of and discussions about European integration. The European institutions were constructed independently of national populations, designed to stress administration and regulation and as such to minimise the visibility of political choices at stake. Particularly in the early days of integration the EU was an organisation characterised by technocracy – which we are reminded, is nothing new in the EU, dominated by expertise and operating largely on the basis of bargaining between opaque sectoral and national interests. It displayed a marked lack of openness, transparency and political accountability and all of this was despite the fact that the Treaty of Rome called for an ‘ever closer Union between the peoples of Europe’ (emphasis added).
There was a fairly paternalistic approach to institutional design: Jean Monnet believed that it was wrong to consult the people of Europe about the nature of an emerging community of which they had no practical knowledge or experience – an approached grounded in suspicion of mass publics and concerns about the effects they might have on the integration process were they to be involved. Instead integration rested on the basis of a popular ‘permissive consensus’ which legitimated integrative action through a tacit assumption that the collective outcome was superior to what could otherwise be achieved through unilateral action. It relied on the ability of elites to persuade the mass publics that European integration was ‘a good thing’ rather than through ongoing active or informed participation on the part of publics. Combined with a hyper-sensitivity to national differences which had to be seen to be safeguarded this resulted in an inherently ambiguous institutional design: power was fragmented, rules were open to interpretation, and diverse actors were locked into joint processes which were cumbersome and obstacle ridden. Adrienne Héritier argued that in this context subterfuge was the only way to keep policy-making going.
By the time of the Maastricht treaty it was clear that this approach to decision-making in the EU, as well as the basis upon which EU governance had hitherto been justified, had become unsustainable. Major economic, social and political changes in the world and in Europe in particular had eroded traditional structures of power and thus, the original bases of EU integration. European integration pushed forward at the elite level, could no longer progress without public support because citizens increasingly had the ability and the willingness to constrain, modify and even stop the integration process. Legitimacy arguments based on the EU’s capacity to solve problems requiring collective solutions because they could not be solved through individual action – so-called output-oriented legitimising arguments – had to be accompanied by input-oriented arguments deriving from citizen inputs and control.
Throughout the noughties, a decade-long process aimed at institutional reform both within and beyond the existing treaties sought to ground EU action more firmly in citizen inputs in order to reduce the perceived gap between citizens and EU institutions. Reforms emerging from this process have included attempts to enhance the role of national parliaments in the EU decision-making process; bolstering consultation regimes and channels for inputs into the decision-making process from organised interests; and a citizens’ initiative which allows 1 million citizens to request that the Commission initiate legislation for the purposes of implementing the treaties. Yet despite institutional reform the EU’s legitimacy problems persist and in fact they appear to have deepened at the same time as attempts to tackle them have increased.
In any case, addressing the legitimacy crisis by reforming the EU institutions to make them more open and transparent can only go so far. A large part of the problem is in the behaviour of the governments of the member states. Governments have always played the EU and their citizens off against each other. Traditionally they have claimed to populations that their hands are tied by the EU – blaming ‘Brussels’ for unpopular decisions that they themselves have signed up to. At the same time they talk about securing the goods for domestic audiences in Brussels which doesn’t always bear much resemblance to the realities of treaty negotiations. The side-stepping and repetition of referendums doesn’t help either. Twice in Ireland referendums on treaties (Nice then Lisbon) have been repeated after the first referendum delivered a negatove result. In the immediate aftermath of the referendums on the Constitutional treaty in France and the Netherlands there were discussions – brief and then dismissed – of re-running the referendums.
And as well as blaming Brussels for unpopular decisions member state governments may even start to argue that public opinion at the national level – or some notion of the national interest – means certain avenues for co-operation at the EU level are impossible. When treaties are increasingly subjected to mechanisms of direct democracy this can be intensified. Some member states, such as Ireland, have a strong constitutional basis for holding referendums on EU–related issues (in this based on court rulings which stated that EU treaty change is necessarily also constitutional change and so requires a referendum). Not all member states have such an approach and as referendums are used on an ad hoc basis there is opened up the possibility that calling one, or threatening to call one can be intended as, or perceived as a political move to shut down certain discussions or options in treaty negotiations. Here then we see the co-existence of two different models of democracy and democratic decision-making in the EU – a federal type model where governments are sovereign and a direct democracy resting on a strong notion of popular sovereignty – with no clear argument for saying which is more legitimate. Nevertheless, what both models incorporate is a sense of an identifiable political community from which preferences emerge – either directly or mediated by national governments.
For the EU, by contrast, its democratic and legitimacy problems are more intractable due to the absence of a European demos. In most national societies, input legitimacy rests on a shared identity or belief in an essential ‘sameness’ stemming from pre-existing commonalities in history, language, culture, ethnicity – a so-called ‘thick’ collective identity. On most counts given the historical, linguistic, cultural, ethnic and institutional diversity of the EU’s member states, the Union is very far from having achieved such a ‘thick’ collective identity. The economic crisis exposes this further as the response has generally been in terms of ‘sovereignty’ rather than ‘solidarity’. Furthermore, in the absence of a thick collective identity, institutional reforms will not greatly increase the input-oriented legitimacy of decisions taken by majority rule since simply amending decision-rules cannot (or at least not in the short term) provide the sense of ‘we-feeling’ necessary to sustain a majoritarian system of democracy in the EU.
Part of the problem seems to be that democracy is understood very much in ‘national’ terms. Democratic decision-making processes are viewed in terms of formal representative structures of the kind found in the member states, and as a consequence the dominant response to the EU’s democratic problems has been to increase the powers of the European Parliament. Governments are viewed as custodians of the national interest but this is also often conflated with the ‘general will’ and so is rarely questioned or contested. Feelings of Europeanness are not dispersed equally or with sufficient intensity to generate solidarity. This poses the question therefore of whether the best way to enhance democracy in the EU and tackle its legitimacy and economic crises is through a strengthened intergovernmental system in which no decision could be taken but with the explicit consent of all member states. Besides the enormous transaction costs that this would entail it is not evident that it would enhance the legitimacy of EU decision-making given that member state governments are often the source of the legitimacy issues in the first place.
To conclude, the problems of legitimacy that permeate EU decision-making structures and the current economic crisis in Europe are interconnected. Without a sense of a European identity and political community the solidarity that could facilitate collective decision-making to help member states in trouble is elusive. When securing outputs of economic growth cannot be guaranteed, the lack of citizen input in decision-making is no longer tolerated. A return to pure intergovernmental decision-making would not necessarily be either more democratic or effective. At the same time a technocratic solution would be inconsistent with the need for the direct legitimation of EU action and would imply regression rather than progression. The notion that decision-makers ‘know best’ for Europe may be a tempting way of insulating difficult decisions from public scrutiny and contestation but it is such a sentiment that was hard-wired into the EU’s institutional architecture and is at the root of the legitimacy crisis from which the EU continues to suffer – and which makes the economic crisis harder to tackle.
Dr Elizabeth Monaghan, University of Hull
For the GPPF Nottingham Forum, March 2012