During the run-up to the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on Brexit, the call to “take back control” resonated more with British voters than other political arguments. According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll, immigration wasn’t the primary motivation of those who voted to leave the E.U. Leavers felt, above all, that “decisions about the U.K. should be taken in the U.K.”
These views are popular in other countries too. The Pew Research Center finds that people in France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden would choose to reclaim power for their governments rather than hand over more authority to the European Union.
According to Eurobarometer polling data, which you can see in the figure below, 45 percent of citizens are not satisfied with the way democracy works in the E.U. A majority is dissatisfied in seven out of the 28 E.U. member states.
No, the E.U. isn’t out of control
Is the public right to hold these views? Some research suggests that the E.U. has given too much power to supranational institutions, international bodies that operate independently of national governments. Such criticism intensified after the euro crisis. Giandomenico Majone, a leading scholar who once justified the E.U.’s “democratic deficit,” or lack of democratic accountability, now sees the European Union as facing a “democratic default.”
However, it’s misleading to claim that the E.U. is a runaway supranational institution. We argue in a recent book that the E.U. is better understood as a collection of institutions — between governments, above governments and beyond governments — that battle it out over E.U. policies.
Through its case law, the E.U. Court of Justice established that European law is superior to national law and helped build the world’s largest single market. The European Central Bank manages the euro, a global currency used by nearly 400 million E.U. citizens in 19 countries. To date, the bank has purchased $1.8 trillion (€1.7 trillion) in bonds as part of its monetary stimulus.
E.U. institutions that operate above the state are powerful, but those that represent national government interests are even more so. The European Council — the regular summits of European heads of state or government — is the real locus of authority. These summits began as “fireside chats” in 1974 but in recent years have become the E.U.’s last resort for dealing with its all-too-frequent problems.
Europe is the biggest experiment ever in building shared institutions
The European Council has been condemned for riding roughshod over Greek democracy, failing to forge a collective solution to the migration crisis and not making the U.K. a better offer to stay in the E.U. And yet, by the standards of global governance, the European Council embodies intergovernmental cooperation at its most consequential.
The G7 and G20 meetings bring heads of state or government together for little more than an annual photo opportunity. The European Council meets up to 11 times per year to make substantive policy decisions across a host of policy areas. From the historic decision to add 10 former Warsaw Pact states to its membership in the 2000s to the controversial 2016 E.U.-Turkey refugee deal, the European Council shapes politics in ways that the executive bodies of other international organizations do not.
The E.U. is also the most ambitious attempt to establish international institutions that derive authority from sources other than governments. In 1979, the European Parliament became the world’s first, and to date only, directly elected transnational legislature. The European Parliament is not a talking shop. It has a veto in almost all areas where the E.U. legislates. Parlasur — the Mercosur Parliament that emerged in South America in 2005 — is the only comparable effort, but its move to direct elections has been delayed.
The E.U. has big legitimacy problems
So why does the E.U. face such big challenges to its legitimacy? Traditional accounts look at how legitimacy depends on an institution’s inputs (does it fairly represent all of the relevant views?) and output (does it lead to good and popular public policy?) They emphasize that the E.U. is weak on both forms of legitimacy. They are partly right.
Output legitimacy is judged against policy performance. While the evidence suggests that European integration has yielded economic benefits, the E.U. has also seen a series of policy crises over the euro, migration, Brexit, Ukraine and the rule of law in Hungary and Poland. Since 2007, the percentage of citizens who hold a positive image of the E.U. has fallen from 53 percent to 35 percent.
Input legitimacy requires institutions to meet agreed standards of good governance, including electoral accountability. Low voter turnout undermines the European Parliament’s legitimating role. Before the Brexit referendum, only 57 percent of Britons knew that the E.U. Parliament was directly elected.
National governments and politicians are partly to blame
National governments contribute to the E.U.’s legitimacy problems — a fact that is often overlooked. Large numbers of E.U. citizens may be dissatisfied with democracy in the European Union. The figure below shows that the same citizens have been as unhappy or unhappier with the state of democracy in their own countries for the last two decades.
National governments blame the E.U. for their own political difficulties but are reluctant to defend the European Union’s achievements. As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has argued, “When something works, everybody says that the praise must go to their respective national governments. When something doesn’t work, the E.U. or the Commission are at fault.”
A new generation of populist politicians, such as French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, are even more inclined to use the E.U. as a scapegoat. As an elected member of the European Parliament, Le Pen knows firsthand how the E.U. works. But describing the E.U. as a “bureaucratic monster” serves her manifesto promise of a “Europe of independent nations.”
Historian Mark Mazower has argued that “Europe has rarely just been about Europe.” The E.U., in particular, has always been a prototype for international cooperation, and it remains the most ambitious attempt to legitimize governance above and beyond the nation-state.
As such, the perilous state of the E.U. 60 years after the Treaty of Rome serves as a warning for the world at a time when anti-globalization sentiment is hardening and political commitment to the international order is in doubt.
Dermot Hodson is a reader in political economy at Birkbeck College, University of London.
John Peterson is a professor of international politics at the University of Edinburgh.