• Idriss Bendrif

The European Union and its legitimacy crisis

L'enlèvement d'Europe - Sébastien Leclerc the younger. The painting describes the Greek classic tale where Europe was unwittingly taken away by Zeus, and then kidnapped.


The EU has been facing unprecedented challenges which defy its neoliberal structural model. Between the various attempts to handle globalized economic interests, somewhat of a federalist type of governance and ensuring complete respect of national sovereignty and democracy, the balance is undeniably difficult to maintain. What is now called a legitimacy crisis, coupled with the rise of internal political national movements, is threatening EU cohesion and unity due the nature of its practices, decisional customs and image. The populations of Europe are widening a trust gap between themselves and the highest EU supranational institutions, challenging the latter’s views, democratic legitimacy and thus authority. However, certain alternatives are suggested which could rethink the shape of tomorrow’s European Union. This research piece will firstly explain to what extent the EU faces a crisis of legitimacy and will then argue that it can be resolved, depending on what priorities and thus sacrifices the EU is willing to make.

Legitimacy crisis

Democratic deficit

There are many aspects to the legitimacy crisis the European Union has suffered for the at least the past decade. First, it would be helpful to define what is exactly meant by ‘legitimacy crisis’ label. One side of this crisis lies within the democratic deficit of the EU and recent major events such as Brexit or the rise of far-right parties. Democracy is ‘the government of the people, by the people, for the people’ according to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Similarly, the Western vision on democracy is traditionally focused on the power which the legislative branch of the political system holds, namely parliaments. Within the EU, the 751 MEP’s who sit it the Parliament represent the European citizens and carry out their concerns to Brussels.

The European Union suffers from a lack of transparency, legitimacy and democracy to the extent that it seems rather unable to make the average European citizen included, because its ways of operating are complex and technocratic. This issue of democratic deficit has been raised by EU citizens who feel distant and increasingly reluctant vis-à-vis what is deemed to be an unelected form of ‘government’. According to Lenz and Viola’s definition (December 2017), a legitimacy crisis takes over when the ‘level of social recognition that its identity, interests, practices, norms or procedures are rightful declines to the point where the actor or the institution must either adapt (…) or face disempowerment’. National parliaments also highlight this democratic deficit as they witness the weakening of previous powers, that is a more formal, bureaucratic and structural form of legitimacy crisis against EU institutions.

To illustrate that, one can take the example of how consensus works within the decision-making process of the Council. According to Novak (2013) in her data research compilation, consensus within the walls of the Council consists of a simple lack of ‘explicit opposition’, rather than an actual unanimity or overall agreement. This method of operating has understandable reasons for existing. Whether it be for national political reasons or blame avoidance in general, however, it is detrimental to the EU ruling bodies’ democracy and accountability capital.

Furthermore, out of the three EU ruling bodies which are the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament, the latter is the only elected one. Since hardly a third of the EU powerful institutions are elected, a shift in its composition through European elections is unlikely to have any major impact on EU policy. In addition, the fact that strategic and tactical decisions which shape EU policy have been transferred away from nation-state to Brussels geographically, politically and symbolically strengthens the argument of a democratic gap existing between the European Community citizens and the supranational structures. Decisions might be perceived as less and less legitimate by the people, considering the exclusion of all the non-technocrat and non-politician citizens from the political process. This exclusion harms EU institutions’ understanding and thus engagement with EU citizenry.

Another feature of that legitimacy deficit lies within the “impenetrable” nature of the rather complex EU talks and debates. Indeed, most of the remarkably complex decision-making process, even more that of the Council, takes place behind closed doors, unlike national parliamentary debates. Consequently, the “disconnected” impression that the Community public gets from its ruling technocratic elites is reinforced. Its legislative procedures are practically impossible to understand for non-experts and thus voters’ interest is reduced.

Institutional failure

EU institutional actors are not perceived as protecting citizens, especially in times of ‘hyper-globalization’ as Rodrik calls it. Dani Rodrik is a Political Economy professor at Harvard University, and he has been criticizing for over a decade the unconstrained fast pace and thus dangers of financial globalization. According to his work, the Eurozone crisis demonstrated how interconnected main EU banks are to American banks. Therefore, American hegemonic economy, the EU rules towards budget-spending, and austerity policies and the risk of trading off national sovereignty for EU governance gather the components of Rodrik’s (2011) globalisation trilemma theory. His paradox is set between national determination, economic globalisation and democracy pursuit. Only two of these options can be chosen and pursued in a feasible manner. Therefore, clear choices have to be made consensually.

Vivien Schmidt of Boston University observes in her 2015 discussion paper for the European Commission that three decades ago, national economics (capitalism) were for the most part under the control of national governments (democracy). For example, they could nationalize companies from key sectors such as banking, transport and energy. Nowadays, the situation has shifted to one in which capitalism has been lifted upon the European and international stage, while democracy remains on a local stage with insufficient power to significantly co-pilot the European machine. Political, economic and social decisions are taken throughout what is a disruptive new chain of actors from supranational bodies, regional governments to multinational actors, NGO’s to public-private partnerships and regulatory agencies. This decisional (world) order is a challenge to the traditional Western views on nation-state and democracy, as their concept of sovereignty is being increasingly eroded.

The populist backlash

From the Italian Five Star Movement to Viktor Orban’s Hungary and increasingly popular trust given to other European far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France, populist discourses’ contents are fairly similar. They consistently seek to challenge European technocratic establishment and its rapid financialization. They put the populations under the spotlight who have found themselves left behind and impoverished from the promises of globalisation, and also succeed at gathering around them a diverse mix of middle-upper class voters around a number of other EU functional weaknesses. How the European Community has been politically and democratically diminished over time is a key point of the narrative they nurture. Whether or not it is a question of how things are perceived, a cohort of political, economic, social and institutional dysfunctions has progressively turned into a tangible EU legitimacy crisis. If relevant calls for reforms, or at least issues, are raised, it would be useful to consider what could be some of the appropriate solutions.

Solutions for reform

Empowerment of the legislative function

Regarding the legitimacy crisis which is intimately intertwined with a democratic deficit as previously discussed, a stronger democratic inclusive approach might address tensions and worries. First, the European Parliament needs to become more powerful as the only elected EU body. Not only would it give more manoeuvrability to national parliaments, but it would also make citizens feel more listened to if their vote would be taken into account more seriously. Also, it would significantly improve information access, exposure and mobility from the highest supranational institutions to the more local regional bodies, which are naturally affected by EU decisions. The European Parliament is not regarded as an equally important partner amongst EU governance entities. Getting the level of influence of the dominant Eurozone leadership entity decreased would leave a room for a more “adequately-sized” European Parliament. Therefore, national parliaments could interact with the European Parliament in order to reach satisfactory public control over the decision-making of what classical realist International Relations theorist Hans Morgenthau calls high politics. That would challenge the status-quo, instead of entertaining a rather isolated relation between the European and national parliaments.

To enhance the power of the parliament, Held’s deliberative democracy (2007) would be a tool of choice to consider. Deliberative democracy includes elements of consensus and majority rule. Unlike the absence of an explicit opposition which the Council decides upon, it would precisely give that lacking yet critical empowerment that European citizens from remote areas need. It would bring national citizens to the core of the deliberation process. For instance, it would be in the European Commission’s best communal interests to appear as more flexible and comprehensive. The rather tough and rigid technocratic image of the EU is quite often criticized. For example, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has recently called the EU a “bully” (May 2017). A stronger parliament would relieve pressure off the EU. Technical actors are crucial within the European structural stability as they have the capacity to engineer new solutions during critical crisis times, however, they should not constantly be at the forefront of European political, social and economic matters.

Empowerment of national governments in EU matters

Instead of a model which puts citizens at its centre, there is also the option to preserve and openly favour the national sovereignty of member states. If national parliaments, which are the main interlocutors to the Union and other member states, seize influence and power over European policy, institutional forms of accountability would then become a mere second-class concern. Communication between the supranational authority and the citizens would mostly be transmitted by the national authority of member states. This system revolving around national sovereignty would counter-balance the lack of accountability claims due to the growing use of certain procedures within the EU such as the QMV-voting. Also known as the ‘double majority’ rule, this voting method is the most used one in the Council. A qualified majority is reached when a legislation proposal is supported by at least 55% of member states and state members which represent at least 65% of the total EU population. Such practices highlight the exceptional difficulty to change EU policies. Regardless of its unpopularity, the current operating mode is unlikely to change because of blame-avoidance concerns as explained by Kent Weaver (1986). Furthermore, the current lack of accountability of governments towards their own national parliaments when it comes to discussing the Council decisions is entirely legal and thus legitimized.

As Schmidt outlines in her book, Democracy in Europe: The EU and National Polities (2007), the EU situation has become one in which ‘policy without politics’ on the European stage has given birth to ‘politics without policy’ on the national scene. Going back to Rodrik (2012) and his globalization trilemma’s paradox, he puts the only options he thinks are available on the table in a straightforward way. Either the EU seeks more political union if it wishes to keep a single market, or shall seek less economic union if it fails to fulfil political integration. This failure, which the legitimacy and democratic crisis the Union is currently faced with, caused by constraining and limiting EU mechanisms, will continue in a deeper way.


The European Union is currently perceived as a monolithic bureaucratic block stifling the social, economic and democratic needs and voice of its population. Although it is the democratic states of Europe that decide on EU prerogatives and policy actions through the Council, the implementation of these decisions are delegated to necessary yet unelected experts and technocrats. Therefore, the population cannot identify with the policies that are devised in Brussels. To rekindle the European politico-economic project beyond simply a single market, and the citizenry vision beyond simply a mere gathering of many member states, this essay has shown the need to reconnect the EU with its people through its institutions by reinforcing the power of the European Parliament, changing the way decisions are made at the EU executive level and seeking greater levels of political integration to break the unnecessary omnipresent technocratic dominance of the EU. Otherwise, the EU might need to revise its political integration aspirations and slightly step back to further focus on a better handling of globalization to redistribute wealth in a more universally profitable way to lower the damages caused by nationalist claims passions it is suffering from.


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