Monday

21st May 2018

Magazine

EU legitimacy in question

  • "I'm fundamentally not a big friend of referendums," European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said in June, days before the UK vote. (Photo: Reuters)

Referendums are dangerous for the EU. In recent years, almost all popular votes on EU matters ended up with the same answer: No.

The vote with the most far-reaching consequences was Britain's EU membership referendum on 23 June, when 51.9 percent of voters chose the most radical option: leaving the Union.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • In recent years, almost all popular votes on EU matters ended up with the same answer: No. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Only weeks before, in April, 61.1 percent of voters in a Dutch referendum had rejected an EU-Ukraine association agreement, casting doubts on the bloc's strategy to stabilise the war-torn country.

These two referendums in 2016 followed one in Denmark, at the end of 2015, when a closer cooperation with other EU countries in some justice and home affairs issues was dismissed by 53 percent of voters.

"I'm fundamentally not a big friend of referendums," European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said in June, days before the UK vote.

"One always breaks out in a sweat when someone dares to ask the opinion of the people," he told Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Admittedly people do not always vote only on the question asked in a referendum, and domestic politics often has an influence on their final decision.

The 'last‑chance commission'

Juncker's lack of confidence in the public's judgement seems to be reciprocated.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey - the regular EU study of public opinion - conducted last spring and published in July, just 33 percent of Europeans said they had trust in the European Union and 34 percent had a positive image.

The level of trust was slightly above the 31 percent low reached in 2013-2014, just before Juncker became commission chief, but down from 40 percent in spring 2015.

"This will be the last‑chance commission," Juncker warned in 2014. "Either we will succeed in bringing our citizens closer to Europe, or we will fail."

Two years later, the EU is about to lose a member and anti-EU movements are gaining ground in several countries.

Dutch and French far-right leaders, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, are leading in opinion polls ahead of elections next year. And in Austria, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly missed the presidency in a rerun election in December.

In countries such as Poland and Hungary, elected leaders have pursued programmes putting them in a collision course with EU policies or values, but they stop short of running for the EU exit door.

Even in Germany, immune from large far-right movements since World War II, the year 2016 has seen the rise of the anti-migrant and anti-EU Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Launched in 2013, the AfD won a symbolic victory in September when it finished second in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern elections, ahead of chancellor Merkel's CDU in her own region.

From democratic to legitimacy deficit

In 2016, opposition to policies like the eurozone's austerity push developed into a broader critique of the EU's role in issues, including the refugee crisis and free trade.

Another referendum was organised in Hungary against the EU's policy of sharing asylum seekers. Only 44 percent of voters participated, but 98 percent of the valid votes cast rejected the idea that the EU should impose mandatory quotas.

Even the EU's trade policy, of which the commission has led the charge for decades, is under growing criticism. France, a founding member of the Union, called for more national involvement.

The ultimate proof of contention regarding the EU's role came when the Belgian region of Wallonia held up the signing of an EU-Canada trade deal. Canada ultimately had to negotiate directly with Wallonia to ensure its concerns were taken into account.

After the much talked about democratic deficit of the 1990s and 2000s, the EU seems now to suffer from a legitimacy deficit.

Legitimacy from common benefit

"Historically, the EU drew its legitimacy from common benefit. It brought more prosperity, affluence, accountability. The benefits outweighed the costs," Jiri Priban, director of the Centre of Law and Society at Cardiff University, told EUobserver.

But with time, the EU has become a more political project and "the question of its legitimacy will hit at every new step", he noted.

"Every law expresses a certain public spirit," he said. But now, "the EU is turning into a machinery of decision-making and it is losing its spirit and is producing ghosts of the past, like nationalism, ethnic hatred and authoritarianism".

The EU, faced with what Juncker has called "a polycrisis" - from economic crisis to refugee crisis - is also more fragile than other levels of powers.

"Europe is the weakest level of power of all, because European identity is so weak," Herman van Rompuy, a former European Council president, said during a conference in Brussels in November.

He said that when a problem arises, "we switch from a functional question to an existential question", thus slowing action and encouraging anti-EU forces.

'People respect leadership'

For Priban, EU democracy was threatened at national level by austerity policies and constraints on governments. To regain legitimacy with European citizens, the EU needs a new deal to create investments and jobs and recreate the common benefit narrative.

Van Rompuy also explained that EU leaders were neither decisive enough nor protective enough of their citizens.

"The lack of trust is so profound that we cannot expect to overcome it in a few years," he said, adding that the EU needed to show better leadership and give concrete results on the economy, security or migration.

"People respect leadership even if they don't agree," the former EU leader said.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

Magazine

Barrosogate and the revolt of public opinion

Just days after Britain's vote to leave the EU, the bloc was rocked by the news that commission ex-president, Jose Manuel Barroso, had landed a top job with Goldman Sachs.

Analysis

After Brexit, EU leaders start soul-searching

The general public and financial markets are waiting for the EU's response to the British shock. But when leaders meet at next week's summit, there will be more questions than answers.

Opinion

The young didn’t choose Trump or Brexit

Young people have been sold down the river by this year's political events, but it's not too late for Europe to safeguard the future for the world's youth.

Magazine

Macron: Hegelian hero of EU history?

The election of the 39-year old newcomer injected new hope and dynamism. But the French president still has to find solid allies in the EU and deliver his ambitious agenda at home.

Magazine

In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.

News in Brief

  1. Trump warns Nato allies' low budgets will be 'dealt with'
  2. Only Estonia, Greece and UK hit Nato spending target
  3. EU to start process to counter US Iran sanctions
  4. Macedonia PM sees 'possible solutions' in Greek name row
  5. EU takes six countries to court over air pollution
  6. New Catalan leader sworn in without reference to Spain
  7. Merkel and Putin revive dialogue in troubled times
  8. European companies putting Iran business on hold

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  2. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  3. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  5. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  7. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  10. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  11. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach
  12. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May

Latest News

  1. Athens mayor wants direct access to EU migration fund
  2. Nordics could be first carbon-negative region in world
  3. Zuckerberg and Trump top the EU's agenda This WEEK
  4. Integration of Syrian refugees in Europe needs scrutiny
  5. Bulgarian PM: No asylum reform without stronger border
  6. Eight countries to miss EU data protection deadline
  7. Italian populists to defy EU debt rules
  8. Commission 'playing tricks' with EU budget figures

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  2. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  5. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  7. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  8. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  9. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  10. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  11. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight