EU legitimacy in question
By Eric Maurice
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.
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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 first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.