In Other Words

The Heartless EU

Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, November 2002, Oxford By many accounts, the European Union (EU) has all the makings of a state: a common currency, a flag, and even an anthem. But it lacks a formal constitution — for now, at least. In June 2003, a European constitutional convention chaired by ...

Journal of Common Market Studies,
Vol. 40, No. 4, November 2002, Oxford

By many accounts, the European Union (EU) has all the makings of a state: a common currency, a flag, and even an anthem. But it lacks a formal constitution — for now, at least. In June 2003, a European constitutional convention chaired by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing will present a draft to the leaders of the 15 member states. Giscard and the other participants in the convention hope member states will adopt their document in 2004, just as the EU expands to take in 10 new countries.

Already, scholars, lawyers, and politicians have spent countless hours analyzing and debating what the union’s proper constitutional structure should be, prompting Harvard political scientist Andrew Moravcsik to wonder in a recent article, "Why are there so many Madisons?" His piece, which examines the problem of legitimacy in the EU, appears as part of a special issue of the Journal of Common Market Studies on European integration and enlargement.

"Most… members of the European public," Moravcsik writes, "appear to agree that the EU suffers from a severe ‘democratic deficit.’" The term, in the context of the EU, refers to the powers that national parliaments have lost to intergovernmental bodies such as the Council of the European Union, which comprises the national ministers from the 15 member states. But Moravcsik argues there is no need to be concerned about the democratic deficit, claiming that those who criticize the EU for being insufficiently democratic are comparing the EU with some utopian form of democracy rather than with actual advanced industrial democracies.

The checks and balances enshrined in the EU’s existing structure suffice to preserve its legitimacy, according to Moravcsik. The EU must not be viewed in isolation, he argues, but as part of a multilevel arrangement in which member states and their parliaments also play a part. And, in modern democracies, governments often delegate to other bodies such as courts, central banks, and regulatory agencies, so the prominent role of the European Court of Justice and the European Central Bank is no surprise.

Moreover, Moravcsik believes that concerns about the democratic deficit arise because people put too much emphasis on the European Parliament (EP), the only branch of the EU that is directly elected. According to him, the main source of the union’s legitimacy is the "democratically elected governments of the Member States, which dominate the still largely territorial and intergovernmental structure of the EU." This view, however, is highly contested and is not shared by all member states; some, such as the United Kingdom, would concur with Moravcsik on the importance of member states, but other, more pro-European countries, such as Belgium or Germany, would stress that the EP’s elections make the union democratically legitimate. In reality, the EU’s legitimacy stems from both the states, as represented in the Council of the European Union, and from the people, as represented in the EP. But EP elections routinely experience low turnout: In the United Kingdom, for example, turnout in the 1999 EP election was only 24 percent, compared with 71.4 percent for the national Parliament’s 1997 election. Low turnout and a focus on national rather than European issues in EP elections cast doubt over the EU’s social legitimacy — that is, the support of its citizens.

Greater popular participation in the deliberative processes of the EU would not create a greater sense of political community in Europe, posits Moravcsik, in part because the issues tackled at the European level are primarily technical. But this argument is misleading. In reality, the EU legislates on a variety of issues that touch people’s day-to-day lives: for instance, health and safety directives and limitations on the number of hours Europeans are permitted to work. Indeed, according to a 1998 study, the union is responsible for half of all domestic legislation passed in the 15 member states and for 80 percent of economic and social legislation.

Moravcsik makes a convincing argument that the EU is not lacking in democratic practices or formal legitimacy, but a question mark does remain over the union’s social legitimacy. Democratic or not, the EU doesn’t yet seem to have won over the hearts and minds of its citizens — which means that even a new constitution is unlikely to resolve the question of a democratic deficit at the European level.

Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin. She served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @Julie_C_Smith

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