Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law

Mountain or Molehill?
A Critical Appraisal of the Commission White Paper on Governance


What is there to legitimize in the European Union... and how might this be accomplished? *

Philippe C. Schmitter **

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This paper is a part of contributions to the Jean Monnet Working Paper
No.6/01, Symposium: Mountain or Molehill? A Critical Appraisal of the Commission White Paper on Governance

`Legitimacy' is one of the most frequently used and misused concepts in political science. It ranks up there with `power' in terms of how much it is needed, how difficult it is to define and how impossible it is to measure. Cynically, one is tempted to observe that it is precisely this ambiguity that makes it so useful to political scientists. Virtually any outcome can be "explained" (ex post) by it - especially by its absence - since no one can be sure that this might not have been the case.

For legitimacy usually enters the analytical picture when it is missing or deficient. Only when a regime or arrangement is being manifestly challenged by its citizens/subjects/victims/beneficiaries do political scientists tend to invoke lack of legitimacy as a cause for the crisis. When it is functioning well, legitimacy recedes into the background and persons seem to take for granted that the actions of their authorities are "proper," "normal" or "justified." One is reminded of the famous observation of U.S Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, with regard to pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." With regard to legitimacy, it would be more correct to say: "I may not be able to define (or measure) it, but I know it when it is not there."

Now, if this is true for polities - i.e. national states - that have fixed boundaries, unique identities, formal constitutions, well-established practices and sovereignty over other claimants to authority, imagine how difficult it will be to make any sense of the legitimacy of a polity that has none of the above! The European Union (EU) is, if nothing else, a "polity in formation." No one believes that its borders and rules are going to remain the same for the foreseeable future. Everyone "knows" that it is not only going to enlarge itself to include an, as yet undetermined, number of new countries, but it is also very likely to expand the scope of its activities and to modify the weights and thresholds of its decision-making system. If this were not enough, there is also the fact that the EU is an unprecedented experiment in the peaceful and voluntary creation of a large-scale polity out of previously independent ones. It is, therefore, singularly difficult for its citizens/subjects/victims/beneficiaries to compare this object politique non-identifié with anything they have experienced before. No doubt, there exists a temptation to apply the standards that they are already using to evaluate their respective national authorities, but eventually they may learn to use other normative expectations with regard to EU behavior and benefits.

* This paper was written prior to the publication of the White Paper.

** European University Institute, Florence


© Philippe C. Schmitter 2001


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