The EU has enormous power. The European Central Bank governs the euro, and the European Council regulates European agriculture. Eurocrats decide what products can be made under what conditions, and European judges claim that they have the authority to override national laws.
Over the past decades, the internal structure of the EU has become a little more democratic. The European Parliament, for example, has greater powers now than it did in 1990. Even so, it is hard to sustain the fiction that ordinary citizens have a meaningful say over what happens in Brussels. Like in the constitutional monarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries, the mechanism for translating the views of the people into public policy remains extremely indirect.
In Germany, for example, citizens vote for a particular party in the national elections. The leaders of the country’s political parties then enter into a complicated process of negotiation to determine which parties will form the government and who the chancellor should be. That chancellor then appoints a number of ministers. Finally, these ministers go to Brussels a few times a year, where they and their peers from other EU member states pass legislation on the basis of proposals made by the unelected European Commission.
In principle, the European Parliament is supposed to provide a democratic counterweight to the representatives of national governments who dominate the European Council and the bureaucrats who run the European Commission. The problem is that voters barely pay attention to what goes on in it.
If many voters don’t believe that they have much sway over what happens in their national capitals, the feeling of impotence is even more profound when it comes to Brussels.
I don’t mean to suggest that the union confers no benefits. On their own, small countries like Sweden or even medium-size ones like Germany can hardly solve serious problems in areas like the environment. Many European citizens thus understand why they have to share their sovereignty with citizens of France or Greece. By being part of the European Union, their collective voice is that much louder.
But the extent of power that is now delegated to the EU also means that it makes a huge difference who’s actually sitting around the table in Brussels. And because of the rapid rise of authoritarian populism across Europe, German or Italian citizens don’t just share their sovereignty with the free citizens of other democratic states; they also share it with aspiring dictators in Warsaw and Budapest. Which brings me to the second crisis of legitimacy.
When strongmen like Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński first rose to power, European politicians assured the public that they would fail to concentrate power in their own hands. Because these countries were members of the EU, it was supposed to be impossible for them to experience a real decline in their democratic nature. In reality, the EU has, again and again, proved to be indifferent or ineffective in confronting authoritarians who won power in member states. Recent research by R. Daniel Kelemen and others even suggests that membership in the EU has made it easier for these strongmen to stay in power because it allows them to funnel European subsidies in areas like agriculture or infrastructure to their domestic allies.