The question of legitimacy in the European Union

09 February 2022 /

7 min

With the rise of euroscepticism, the debate on the legitimacy of the European Union reappeared. Now it has intensified even more due to the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Does the EU take away the sovereignty of the Member States by putting in place rules with binding effects on the national territories? Is the EU a legitimate Union for our democratic societies? European citizens often pose themselves these questions and end up drowned in a series of answers, not knowing where they stand.

Democracy and representation in the EU

The European Parliament is probably the most popular European institution among the citizens, since its members are directly elected every 5 years.. Most people will refer to it as the democratic basis of the EU, given its representative function. In fact, representation is fundamental for democracy. In Abraham Lincoln’s words: “Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people”. However, one problem remains : each Member of the European Parliament (MEP) does not represent the same number of citizens. To give an example, a Belgian MEP represents 523,809 Belgian citizens. For Germany, a MEP is a deputy for 861,552 citizens. These differences can clearly affect the principle of equality between European citizens if they are not represented in the same way. We see that, even when dealing with a modern and legitimate institution, the complexity of representation can lead citizens to question its democratic character.

When the European project was created in the 1950s, the powers of the Parliament were very limited. The assembly was just composed of national parliamentarians who could not table bills. The Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 gave it the possibility to request a draft law from the committee without having any real power of decision. It was only in 2007 that the Council and the Parliament were placed on an equal footing in the legislative procedure.The European Parliament has evolved enormously from a consultative body to an active participant in decision-making and law-making. Increasing the powers of the European Parliament, which is the only institution that holds direct elections, is a key point to legitimate the EU. Indeed, knowing that it is the elected parliamentarians who take decisions and have an impact on European policies has made the institution more legitimate in the eyes of the citizens.

In addition to that, we are faced with a paradox: we live in an increasingly global world, where states are interdependent and find it difficult to stand alone on the international scene. European integration therefore seems to be the solution to face colossal global challenges. As the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, pointed out, the 21st century challenges that Europe is now facing are climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and authoritarian regimes.

Between European and national sovereignty

But on the other hand, the example of Brexit and Poland’s thoughts on a possible “Polexit” shows to what extent certain peoples and States want to act alone and reaffirm their national sovereignty. As it happens, last October the Polish Constitutional Court reaffirmed that Poland’s Constitution is superior to European law. On the 7th of October, Poland’s highest court ruled that certain articles of the Treaty on the European Union are incompatible with its Constitution. Polish senators, including Michal Sewerynski (PiS) reaffirmed this principle by saying “This is the supreme law of the Republic of Poland. This is our sovereignty”. This willingness to restrict the role of European laws on Polish territory is explained by the far-right and eurosceptic nature of the PiS party.

Indeed, the argument of national sovereignty is often used in debates around the legitimacy of the European Union. Eurosceptics argue that national sovereignty is disappearing in the Union due to the excessive powers given to it by the Member States. Indeed, the Union has increased its competences. It has both budgetary and legislative powers. But this argument must be tempered. The sovereignty of a state lies on its capacity of choice and on the fact that no other state or entity can interfere in its affairs. The countries that decided to join the European Union  agreed to progressively transfer their competences to it. If an agreement is made by the state to transfer its competences to the Union, the fact that the EU uses its powers is not an infringement of national sovereignty but an exercise of it. This is what most researchers in international law have developed on sovereignty, including ULB Law Professor Olivier Corten. In this sense, Marine le Pen’s argument that France lost its sovereignty by joining the European Union is questionable.

The importance of communication and transparency

The question of the legitimacy of the European Union is often dealt with on the basis of representativeness and state sovereignty as discussed above, but an important field of politics is little explored: political communication, which is fundamental in politics. At every level of power, communication remains crucial to building trust between citizens and political power. A lack of communication or transparency can lead to a democratic deficit of political institutions. If we look at the management of the health crisis at the national level, the lack of communication as well as contradictory discourses led to critical situations and distrust.

The same applies for the European Union: If there is a lack of communication and transparency,  the citizen’s trust in the European system decreases because the transparency of European policies directly influences its democratic character. As the political scientist Vivien Schmidt points out, national political parties talk little about what is happening at the EU level. Add to this the fact that the European institutions are often used as an excuse to justify unpopular policies in front of the citizens. All this contributes to the delegitimization of the European Union.

If the European Union wants to gain legitimacy, it must gain transparency and tackle its instrumentalization by some national governments, which often oppose EUpolicy to the national policy. A recent example: Viktor Orban, Hungary’s extreme right-wing prime minister, denounced the attitude of the European Union and compared it to the USSR. He claimed that, In the same way that the Hungarians resisted Moscow, they must now resist Brussels. According to him, the EU threatens European identity by opening its borders. He also said that “The European Union speaks to us and behaves towards us and the Poles as enemies”. Such remarks contribute to delegitimize Europe in the eyes of the citizens.

It is clear that communication is crucial and that national discourses play an important role in building trust in the Union among its citizens. The legitimacy of the European Union can therefore also be understood as resulting from a power of communication.

Answers for the future

The level of mistrust towards the European Union has increased in recent years. 66% of Greek citizens are distrustful of the EU compared to 55% in Italy and 45% in Belgium. The question of the legitimacy of the European Union is still relevant. National eurosceptic discourses, the opposition of state sovereignty and membership of the Union as well as the nature of the European institutions are all relevant to address this issue. What is certain is that answering the question of the legitimacy of the EU with a short answer is impossible. 

The eurosceptics are wrong to depict the European Union as illegitimate and undemocratic, just as others are wrong to describe it as a successful and flawless democratic project. The reality remains complex and both parties will find arguments in both directions. But we can easily affirm that the Union has, since its creation, contributed to make itself legitimate by increasing the power of the Parliament (the only institution elected by its citizens), and by intensifying dialogue and diplomacy between the Member States. However, this remains confronted with facts like Brexit, which severely affect the European project by delegitimizing it. One of the answers that the European Union could put in place is to play on communication, an important element for its legitimacy as we have seen. If the Union manages to develop sustainable communication with its citizens to show its legitimacy, trust will be established and Europeans will find the Union more and more legitimate through its increased transparency. But communication proves to be difficult in certain contexts, such as in the EU’s relationship with Hungary and Poland, where the national political authorities contribute to delegitimize the integration project. 

[This article was first published in the issue 35 of the magazine]

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