EU’s Raison d’Être: Leadership, Democracy - or both? Reflections on G. de Burca and J. Weiler

By Andreas Føllesdal

What is at stake when the EU suffers from a legitimacy deficit, and what should be done about it? As always, Gráinne de Búrca and J H H Weiler identify and illuminate central issues of concern. de Búrca adroitly pinpoints a crux of the legitimacy debates in Europe: how to secure sufficient deference to EU decisions by citizens and national authorities. She is surely right to remind us that the EU’s legitimacy neither can nor should be based simply or primarily on democratic process legitimacy.  But her pessimism may be premature, and her proposal of the EU as a global actor, whilst attractive, is not yet an obvious part of the solution.

de Búrca worries that the EU can not reach the same level of democratic legitimacy as in nation states. For such assessment we must disentangle institutional design and voter practice; and compare either not with unitary states but with federal legal orders where two levels of democratically accountable authorities interact. Without dismissing the concerns, we may temper our tristesse by recalling that the level of voter participation varies greatly among member states. Belgium and Luxemburg both had voter turnout to Parliamentary elections and to EP at around 90%;  while turnout to many parliament elections are lower than to EP in other states. Moreover, we know too little about the many motives non-voters may have, be it apathy, contentment, or inability to see where another crop of politicians and parties would make a difference. Thus the pessimistic prospects Weiler paints must be nuanced: the decision structures of the Union post Lisbon may better allow for political contestation among parties. But their leaders may lag behind, comprehending neither the need nor the opportunities to compete for voters at EP elections or domestically on matters European. These party strategies may change: opposition parties may exploit the authorities’ handling of the Euro crisis, or challenge the Commission’ partisan pursuit of its contestible if not contested conception of ‘the’ European interest. Increased voter participation arises not from popular support for the EU’s raison d’etre alone, but from contestation about its objectives and how to best promote them.

            An articulation of the EU’s global leadership mission may neither compensate for the democratic deficit, nor mobilize unanimous support. Legitimacy is not cumulative. The EU cannot fully compensate meagre democratic credentials by other means, be it sufficiently high objectives – Messianic or otherwise -, increased problem solving effectiveness and efficiency regarding said objectives, or by meticulous standards of legality. These factors of legitimation interplay in intriguing ways: Democratic party competition is crucial to specify many shared objectives,  to assess the best ways and means thereto, and to inform the public whether the authorities warrant their continued vote or should be replaced.

Indeed, some objectives require more democratic accountability rather than less.  Consider one account why the democratic deficit gained attention. One history of the EU tells of drastic shifts in its objectives and strategies, among an ever more diverse set of member states. There were no plausible alternatives to the Shuman vision to achieve peace, an inexhaustible good with few costs. Later objectives are more ambivalent and arguable: Economic growth to be secured through freedom of goods, services, persons and capital; a common monetary policy across Euro-land... These newer objectives are not as paramount as peace, they require trade offs, and create distributive conflicts within and among member states – who find themselves less able to compensate or shelter vulnerable citizens due in part to the EU. Further burdens of justification stem from increased options for majoritarian decisions, requiring  individuals and national authorities to act - possibly until death - contrary to the democratic will of their domestic compatriots. With more contested goals and strategies for promoting them, with greater risks and larger costs for losers, the EU needs more problem solving ability, and more democratic deliberation and competition to motivate citizens to defer to the majority.  

De Burca advocates that the EU in response should exercise significant global leadership. This seems a plausible place to look. But the list of candidate global problems must be pruned in two ways. Firstly, to increase its legitimacy the EU should only take on problems it is likely to help solve. EU’s recent track record regarding the Euro thus counsels caution. Modesty secondly emerges from considerations of subsidiarity. The EU should stick to objectives it can plausibly claim comparative advantage over the efforts of member states and those of other actors such as the Council of Europe. Such arguments are possible, but have yet to be provided for issues ranging from effective human rights and democracy promotion over economic development to climate change.

Any such objectives will surely require policies that disperse costs, benefits, risks and opportunities unevenly among Europeans. So successful resolution of  this carefully selected set of problems will not reduce the need for democratic accountability, deliberation and contestation, but rather seems to require more of the same.


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Published Feb. 11, 2013 12:46 PM - Last modified Feb. 11, 2013 12:46 PM