In search of a legitimate European Union

The European Union has long had a problem of legitimacy, but the euro crisis has made it worse. According to Eurobarometer, 72 per cent of Spaniards do not trust the EU. The Pew Research Centre finds that 75 per cent of Italians think European economic integration has been bad for their country, as do 77 per cent of the French and 78 per cent of the Greeks.

For more than 60 years, the EU has been built and managed by technocrats, hidden from the public gaze – or so it has seemed. In fact national governments have taken most of the key decisions, but public scrutiny has been insufficient. This model cannot endure, because the EU has started to intrude – particularly in the euro countries – into politically sensitive areas of policy-making.

Political institutions can gain legitimacy from either ‘outputs’ or ‘inputs’. The outputs are the benefits that institutions are seen to deliver. The inputs are the elections through which those exercising power are held to account. The euro crisis has weakened both sorts of legitimacy.

The outputs are hardly impressive. Economies are shrinking in many member-states, credit is in short supply in southern Europe, unemployment in the eurozone is over 12 per cent, and youth unemployment in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain is between 40 and 65 per cent. Neither the EU nor the euro appears to be delivering much in the way of benefits – whether to Greeks who blame Germans for austerity, or to Germans who resent contributing to Greek bail-outs.

Input legitimacy has also suffered. Given the complexity of decision-making, with power shared among many institutions, lines of accountability in the EU have never been easy to follow. But the perception that power is unaccountable is growing, especially in the heavily-indebted eurozone countries.

Power over economic policy has flowed away from national parliaments and governments to financial markets and to unelected institutions. Having mismanaged their economies, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus have had to negotiate programmes of deficit reduction and structural reform with the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Other countries, such as Italy, Spain and Slovenia, have avoided full bail-out programmes but had to follow the Commission’s budgetary prescriptions in order to avoid reprimands and possible disciplinary proceedings. Decisions on bail-outs and the conditionality that applies to them have been taken by eurozone finance ministers and heads of government. It is not at all clear where and how such decisions can be held to account, as became evident during the messy rescue of Cyprus in March.

There is no silver bullet that can suddenly make the EU respected, admired or even popular among many Europeans. Its institutions are geographically distant, hard to understand and often deal with obscure technicalities. However, unless the EU becomes more legitimate and credible in the eyes of voters, parts of it could start to unravel. For example, at some point eurozone governments may seek to strengthen their currency by taking major steps towards a more integrated system of economic policy-making. But then a general election, a referendum or a parliamentary vote could block those steps and so threaten the euro’s future.

The best way to improve the EU’s standing would be to improve its ‘outputs’. If European leaders moved quickly to establish a banking union, to strengthen the EU’s financial system; if Germany did more to stimulate demand, thereby helping southern European economies to grow; if structural reform started to restore the competiveness of those economies; and if unemployment started to fall – then EU leaders would look competent, and support for eurosceptics and populists would wane. For the most part such outcomes require not new institutions, but better policies.

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