Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


What kind of Polity?

That the democratisation of the Community is a difficult task and may remain so for many years to come is spelled out by Philippe Schmitter, when he argues that it will take a collapse of the current Member States before a public quest for a true European democracy will appear:

"In the absence of some manifest collapse of the anciens régimes nationaux, as sometimes occurred within the autocracies of Southern Europe and Latin America and even more dramatically in Eastern Europe, it is not clear whether these two generic dilemmas can be sufficiently overcome to allow for any substantial progress toward Euro-democratisation...Mere mal performance and declining policy competence in the Member States are not likely to be sufficient to compel actors to shift their allegiances." (Schmitter 2000: 13-14).

Such a prediction certainly gives little hope for enhancing the trust and confidence in the European Union among ordinary citizens. The question is, nevertheless, of whether the consequences that one should draw from such an analysis would be to sit back and wait for the collapse of our own nation states before we take any action at all? Such a solution does not seem very satisfying. The nation states should not be seen as an antithesis to a better functioning and more democratic European Union. The strategy is also unsatisfying when considering both the coming expansion of the Union and the fundamental constitutional reform which is expected in the near future. That it would be somewhat risky just to leave things as they are also re-emerges in Schmitter's writings, for instance, when he diagnoses the Community as suffering from "a double democratic deficit".(Schmitter 2000). On the one hand, we have a European Union which has all the institutions of a modern state, but with no real public legitimacy. And, on the other, we have the century old nation states whose existence as real democracies have been more or less undermined by supranational governance (Wind 2001). This also touches on the basic problems of congruency and accountability as, for instance, Beetham & Lord have emphasised (Beetham & Lord 1998). The point is that there should be some kind of congruence between those affected by decisions and those responsible for taking those very same decisions. This is hardly the situation today independent of whether we look at national or European level.

There is little doubt that the enlargement of the European Union in the years to come will not make this problem any better. Quite the contrary. It will take a magician to turn a Europe of 27 into something that the broader public can relate to and feel truly confident about. It was these insights that prompted the constitutional debate which was started by Joschka Fischer in Berlin last year (Joerges, Mény & Weiler 2000). Successively, several other European leaders have followed suit and launched their own vision for a larger and more capable European Union. From the analysis above, it is clear that the White Paper does not give the answer to all the questions that confront us. However, in spite of all its faults - it is, at least, a beginning. It is, for instance, to the point when the White Paper stresses that not all the responsibility for the malfunctioning of the Union can be put on the shoulders of the Commission and the Community institutions. Only if the Member States themselves take up the challenge and do their part of the job will there be any chance of reconciling the grave differences between the governed and the governing. In other words, there is little doubt that the Member States can (and should) be blamed for their role in turning their citizens into reluctant Europeans - at least, if we focus on the Nordic countries, Britain and perhaps even Ireland (Hansen forthcoming). A lot of popular resentment towards the Union and its institutions can thus be traced to national politicians themselves, who, in recent years, have been extremely busy reassuring the voters that the EU is not (and never will be) anything but `ordinary international politics' among entirely independent governments. Thus, lack of confidence in the EU has a lot to do with the lack of trust in national politicians, who have handed down promises about the development of the Union which, clearly, could not be kept. Approaching the 2004 intergovernmental conference and the adoption of a formal European constitution with a Charter of basic rights, etc., it is hard to keep up the image of a Union where everything is as it always was (Wessels 1997). What people see when they look out of the window is not business as usual but the merging of 15 different political, social and legal systems into a fuzzy, but still functioning, corpus (Hix 1998; Sefaty 2000).

One should, of course, always take legitimacy problems seriously, but what makes it so urgent in the European case is that we are dealing with a polity that already encapsulates the main features of a state-like polity. In legal terms, the EU has already long had a constitution (Weiler 1999). Community law is superior to national law and citizens can rely on directly effective EC law before their own courts. That this has been accomplished is, in fact, a revolutionary feat that should be attributed to the, otherwise much criticised, European Court of Justice (Wind 2001). In particular, when coming from a field such as international relations, it is sometimes hard to believe that the Community has moved so far away from ordinary international law and politics as, in reality, it has.

This does not mean that there is anything inevitable about the European future, however. Despite what has already been accomplished and despite the fact that there seems to be a determination to go even further with a formal constitution in the coming IGC, many things can still turn this scenario upside down. If further rationalization of the decision-making processes is not accomplished, and if and democratisation of the Union institutions is not taken seriously enough, a Europe of 27 may very well end up as a fragmented system of concentric and overlapping circles, where countries opt in and out of the Community policies that they find appealing. Some Member States (mainly the large ones) may have an interest in seeing this happening, since a Europe a la carte would undoubtedly give them more room of manoeuvre. Such a development would, however, hardly be a priority for the small and medium-sized Member States, nor would it be to the advantage of the broader public, who would be forced to live in an even more fuzzy Union in which most decisions were taken behind closed doors.




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