Where next for the European Union?

Brendan Donnelly

By Brendan Donnelly

In discussing the future of the European Union, we have to start by acknowledging that there is a substantial and probably growing unease in the relationship between the European Union and its citizens. This unease has most recently been illustrated in the French and Dutch referendums, where differing concerns had led to the rejection of the European Union’s constitutional treaty. Other countries, and not just Britain, might well have rejected the Treaty if they had been asked to vote on it in a referendum.

Against this background of popular unease, let us consider three related concepts of importance for the European Union and its citizens’ view of it, namely democracy, legitimacy and identity. I think it is fair to say that the European Union enjoys high democratic credentials and should enjoy corresponding legitimacy. I fear, however, that the democratic nature and political legitimacy of the European Union will not be recognised as such by European voters until the Union has a more clearly defined political personality.

The democratic nature of the Union springs from the democratic mandate of those who signed the Treaties taking their countries into the European Union, from the democratic decision-making structures of the Union and from the transparency of its procedures. All these considerations should confer upon the Union a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, but this is not always the case.

If a law or policy of the European Union is unpopular in the eyes of an individual citizen or group of citizens, this law or policy is not always accepted by those citizens with the same unquestioning acquiescence as are the unpopular laws or policies of a member state. Is it possible to achieve at the level of the European Union the same political legitimacy for the Union and its acts that most member states of the Union enjoy most of the time from the overwhelming majority of their citizens?

I can see two possible answers to this question. The first (which I reject) is that it is simply impossible for the European Union to enjoy the same legitimacy in the eyes of European citizens as did the member states. Only the member states have the shared history, culture and common political space which allowed them to claim and indeed enforce democratic political legitimacy. There is no European demos, and therefore there can be no European democracy. Without real European democracy, no real legitimacy for the European Union comparable to that of the member states is conceivable.

The alternative analysis accepts that at present no such phenomenon as a European demos can be discerned, but argues that its emergence is indeed possible. In particular, its emergence can be facilitated by conscious steps on the part of the Union and its leaders to deepen and above all clarify the process of European integration.

On this latter analysis, the European “demos” is unlikely to emerge spontaneously, but it could come into being if Europe’s structures were such as to call it forth. It might be that Europe’s contemporary politicians are unwilling or unable to give the Union such structures, and it might be that the European Union’s voters would reject or be indifferent to the political and institutional structures apt to create a European demos. But those who say they wish to make the European Union more democratic are under an obligation to try to encourage the genesis of a European demos. I personally think it highly likely that under the right political and institutional circumstances such a European demos will emerge.

But if there is to occur this emergence of a European demos, it is vital for the European Union to have a sharper political identity than it currently has. The European Constitutional Treaty had tried to bring this about, but the elaborate compromises between radically different views of the Union which the Treaty incorporated had the effect of blurring rather than sharpening the contours of the Union’s political identity.

There are a number of specific steps I would advocate to make the political identity of the Union more manifest, notably the creation of trans-European political parties, the election of the Commission president (and eventually the whole Commission) in the light of the results of the European elections, a European Foreign Minister, an active European security policy and an economic government for the eurozone. All these steps are desirable in themselves and would serve to bring home to the citizen the political identity of the European Union in a less ambiguous fashion than hitherto.

In this context, a particular responsibility falls on the European Union’s national politicians. In recent years, many of the Union’s leaders have been inconsistent, even hypocritical in their approach to European questions. While proclaiming themselves in favour of more European integration, they have employed a nationalist and populist rhetoric with their electorates which militated against the establishment of a European demos. Those who publicly oppose European integration would naturally and legitimately employ such rhetoric, but it is particularly disappointing when those who claim to favour European integration use a vocabulary to describe the European Union which encourages estrangement between the Union and Europe’s citizens.

In conclusion, I think we should regard the present state of European integration as being a volatile and unsustainable one. It is necessary either to resolve existing doubts about the viability of a democratic European Union or reduce the level of political integration which already had been achieved.

I expect that the emergence of a more integrated and more democratic European Union will inevitably lead to differentiation in levels of achieved integration between the EU’s member states. Britain and others might well be unwilling to take the integrative steps necessary to construct a democratic European Union. Ironically, a number of those countries which have only recently joined the European Union might well be prepared to go further and faster in the direction of reinforced European integration than a number of countries who have been in the Union for many years. Slovenia’s forthcoming membership of the euro may well be a portent of things to come. In the short term, the enlargement of the European Union has arguably placed a brake upon the process of European democratic integration. In the long term, its effect will almost certainly be the reverse.

Brendan Donnelly is Director of the Federal Trust and Chair of Federal Union. This article is based on a speech given at the Charles University in Prague on 20 March 2006. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union or the Federal Trust.

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