The European Union’s Double Crisis of Legitimacy

It isn’t sufficiently democratic, and there’s no push to penalize authoritarian member states.

A woman holding the European Union and Union Jack flags.
Francisco Seco / AP Images

After two years of chaos and prevarication, the United Kingdom is finally leaving the European Union.

Back in 2016, some observers predicted that Brexit would prove the frailty of the EU. The leaders of the remaining 27 European countries would be unable to find a common negotiating position. Big corporations—like the extremely powerful German carmakers—would put enormous pressure on leading politicians to cave to British demands. Brexit would be a great success and would quickly inspire other countries to follow suit.

Today, it is obvious that these predictions were wide off the mark. Throughout its negotiations with London, the EU has been remarkably univocal. If the CEOs of BMW and Volkswagen exerted any pressure on Angela Merkel, she evidently ignored it. And since the British political scene has not exactly been inspiring in recent years, the risk of imminent contagion seems to have subsided. Neither Greece nor Italy is about to leave the union.

But if Brexit demonstrated Europe’s strength, the past few years have not done anything to solve a deeper problem that has little to do with its relationship to Great Britain: The union faces a double crisis of legitimacy.

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.

At this late stage, there are still no serious plans for expelling countries that are no longer ruled in a democratic manner from membership in the EU. In fact, it is unlikely that their ability to vote in key institutions like the European Council will ever be suspended. European politicians can pretend not to recognize that this situation poses a fundamental threat to the democratic nature of the union. But it’s hard to predict how long European citizens will tolerate the status quo.

The Europe of today was, in large part, built by an impressive generation of dreamers and statesmen. In the first decades after the end of World War II, leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Jean Monnet reacted to immense challenges with great imagination. It is, in retrospect, difficult to fathom what courage it took for them to believe that the Germans and the French would one day be united in true friendship.

Today’s European leaders still like to invoke the memory of their hallowed predecessors. But they have, unfortunately, taken the wrong lesson from them. Instead of aspiring to the same courage and imagination, they have come to think of the postwar order as a holy relic that must never be touched. Their motto has effectively become: Just keep doing what we have been doing for a long, long time.

That kind of immobilism can work temporarily. If most citizens believe that politicians will eventually solve the EU’s problems, they can tolerate a lot of dysfunction. But Eurocrats have, at this point, been drawing down on the store of trust they inherited for a while.

The only way to rescue the European project is to forthrightly address the double problem of legitimacy.

The EU needs to make sure that the citizens of free countries will never have to share their sovereignty with the subjects of repressive dictatorships. This calls for a much tougher response to the authoritarian drift in many of its member states. Countries that violate the basic values on which the EU was founded need to lose their subsidies and their voting rights. If they don’t correct course, there has to be a workable mechanism for suspending their membership.

The EU also needs to fight against the democratic deficit that pervades its own institutions. In areas in which it makes sense for EU countries to share their sovereignty, the European Parliament needs to gain much greater power to shape decision making. Just as important, those policy areas in which decisions can just as easily be made at the national level need to revert to member states.

Europe’s founders succeeded in bringing peace and friendship to a continent long defined by enmity and warfare. All Europeans should feel an obligation to defend this achievement. But to do that, they first have to acknowledge, and then to remedy, the serious shortcomings now bedeviling the European Union.