The European Union: Democratic Legitimacy in a Regional State?

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The European Union:

Democratic Legitimacy in a Regional State?*

Vivien A. Schmidt

Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration

Department of International Relations

Boston University

152 Bay State Road

Boston MA 02215

Tel: 1 617 358 0192

Fax: 1 617 353 9290


Forthcoming: Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 42, no. 4 (December 2004).

The European Union:

Democratic Legitimacy in a Regional State?


Democratic legitimacy for the EU is problematic if it is seen as a future nation-state. If instead the EU were seen as a regional state—with shared sovereignty, variable boundaries, composite identity, compound governance, and a fragmented democracy in which the EU level assures governance for and with the people through effective governing and interest consultation, leaving to the national level government by and of the people through political participation and citizen representation—the problems of the democratic deficit diminish for the EU level. But they become even greater for the national level, where the changes to national democratic practices demand better ideas and discourses of legitimization. A further complicating factor results from problems of ‘institutional fit’, because the EU has had a more disruptive impact on ‘simple’ polities, where governing activity has traditionally been channeled through a single authority, than on more ‘compound’ polities, where it has been more dispersed through multiple authorities.

Word count: 9,599

The European Union:

Democratic Legitimacy in a Regional State?

The Constitutional Convention of the European Union has been an important first step in addressing the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU not only institutionally, with proposals for structural reform, but also procedurally, through intense deliberation and wide consultation (Magnette 2003). But whatever the ultimate decisions on institutional redesign, and however deep the debates, there can be no solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ as currently conceived. This is because, first, conceptions of the ‘democratic deficit,’ and therefore of its problems and solutions, are grounded in the wrong model: that of the nation-state. And secondly, whatever the constitutional remedies at the EU level, they can do little to address, let alone resolve, another arguably more significant problem: the ‘democratic deficit’ at the national level.

As everyone reminds us, the EU is certainly not a nation-state. It is ‘sui generis’, an ‘unidentified political object’ (Delors—cited in Schmitter 1996, p. 1), ‘less than a federation, more than a regime’ (Wallace 1983), or maybe ‘the first truly postmodern political form’ (Ruggie1993, pp. 139-40). And yet, in discussions of the democratic deficit, the EU is consistently compared to the nation-state, and necessarily found wanting. But what then can or should it be compared to if we are to avoid such a problem? I argue that we would do better to conceive of it as a ‘regional state,’ by which I mean a ‘regional union of nation-states’1 in which the creative tension between the Union and its member-states ensures both ever-increasing regional integration and ever-continuing national differentiation. I use the term ‘regional state’ deliberately here for two reasons: first, in an ideational strategy to stretch the concept of the state to encompass the EU and, second, in a discursive strategy to break the hold of the nation-state concept with regard to understandings of democracy in the EU and its member-states. Thus, even if the first concept-stretching strategy promoting the idea of the regional state were not to win over many converts, the second strategy still serves a useful purpose, by showing how different the EU is and will remain at least for the medium term from its closest counterparts, the economically advanced, democratic nation-states such as the United States, Japan, Switzerland or even its own member-states (leaving aside in this instance how they have themselves changed as a result of European integration).

These nation-states have had a certain finality characterized by indivisible sovereignty, fixed boundaries, clear identity, established government, and cohesive democracy. By contrast, the EU is better conceptualized in terms of its process of development into the first of the regional states, in which sovereignty is shared with its constituent member-states and contingent upon internal acceptance and external recognition; boundaries are variable with regard to policy reach and not as yet fixed with regard to geography; identity is composite in terms of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, given EU, national, and sub-national levels; and governance is highly compound as a result of multi-level, multi-centered, and multi-form institutions.2

Moreover, EU democracy does not fit the nation-state definition as ‘government by the people’ through political participation, ‘government of the people’ through citizen representation, ‘government for the people’ through effective government, and what I call ‘government with the people’ through consultation with organized interests. Instead, the EU mainly provides democracy ‘for the people’ and ‘with the people’—largely through the elaborate process of interest intermediation known as the ‘Community Method’—leaving to its member-states government by and of the people.

With such a fragmented democracy, legitimacy has been in question. But this is because the EU is compared to the ideal of the nation-state. Were it to be reconceived of instead as a regional state, and the democratic status of its nation-states-turned-member-states added into the equation, the problems of the democratic deficit at the EU level would turn out not to be as great as they are sometimes made to appear. But the problems for national democracy within the context of the EU turn out to be much greater, with a national democratic deficit the result of the impact of the EU on the traditional workings of member-states’ democracies.

The national democratic deficit, however, results not so much because national governance practices have changed as because national leaders have so far failed to generate ideas and discourse that explain and legitimize these changes. Without new ideas to reconceptualize their national democracies in the context of a developing regional European state, national publics continue to hold national leaders accountable for decisions for which they are not fully responsible, over which they may have little control, and to which they may not even be politically committed.

Any such reconceptualization requires not only new ideas about the soundness and appropriateness of Europeanization for national polities but also new discursive interactions. The nation-state typically has two overlapping spheres of discourse in which policy actors ‘coordinate’ the construction of new policies and practices and political actors ‘communicate’ them to the general public for deliberation and legitimization (Schmidt 2002, Chapter 5). In the EU, the ‘coordinative’ discourse among policy actors is especially elaborate, the communicative discourse between political actors and the public particularly thin. This means that whereas in the coordinative sphere, national policy actors can and do engage in debates on EU level policies and their potential impact, in the communicative sphere, national publics are almost wholly dependent on national leaders to convey information on and lead deliberation about the EU’s impact on national polities. On balance, as I argue here, national leaders have bungled their communicative role. Although the European Constitutional Convention has gone some small way toward creating a more ‘deliberative democracy’ at the EU level, ‘deliberative democracy’ at the national level remains in question, at least with regard to the impact of the EU. And this is arguably the most serious problem facing not only national polities but the European Union as a whole.

There is a further complicating factor, however, which is the differential impact of the EU on its member-states. Differences in institutional ‘fit’ between the EU and its member-states make for differences in the relative ease or difficulty of adapting national institutions and, in consequence, for differences in the concomitant challenges to ideas about national democracy. For more ‘simple’ polities such as Britain and France, where governing activity has traditionally been channeled through a single authority, adaptation requires more change, and therefore greater potential challenges to ideas about the organizing principles of democracy, than for more ‘compound’ polities such as Germany and Italy, where governing activity has long been dispersed through multiple authorities. By the same token, however, simple polities have greater potential for speaking to such challenges, where they so choose, because they are better able to speak in one voice and to convey a single message, given their concentration of authority, than more compound national polities, let alone the EU, given the number of potentially authoritative voices with differing messages.

In what follows, I consider in turn the EU’s move to regional sovereignty, the variability of the EU’s regional boundaries, the composite character of EU identity, the compound framework of EU regional governance, and the fragmented nature of the EU’s democracy. I end with a discussion of the real sources of the democratic deficit in the EU, linked to the lack of ideas and discourse about national democracy, and how this affects simple and compound national polities. Throughout, I offer examples from a wide range of EU member-states, but in particular from four countries which represent matched pairs of cases in terms of governance practices, with Britain and France as ‘simple’ polities, Germany and Italy as ‘compound’ polities. These cases serve to draw attention to the institutional differences that enable us to generalize about the greater or lesser EU-related changes in national governance practices and, thereby, about the greater or lesser challenges to national democratic ideas and discourse.

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