The EU: the best answer to the crisis of democracy?

Every month, TEPSA Secretary-General Jim Cloos writes a newsletter editorial on the news of the day, the future of Europe, and the work of the TEPSA network. To receive every upcoming editorial direct to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE to the TEPSA Newsletter here.

Liberal democracy is in crisis across the world. The hopes for an “end of history” in the shape of a decisive triumph of liberal democracy have been dashed. The reactions in Asia, Africa and Latin America to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine are at best neutral, precisely because the conflict is perceived as an episode in the Western crusade for predominance. Within the democratic world, we see the emergence of political leaders who call into question basic tenets of a democratic functioning of society. We also see growing polarisation and intolerance, a lack of dialogue, exacerbated individualism, plummeting participation in elections and low ratings for politicians. Too many people have been left behind in the wake of globalisation.

This is a threat for the European Union, which is very much part of the democratic West and seen as co-responsible for the less palatable sides of capitalism and globalisation, like the condoning of greed, a winner-takes-all mentality and growing inequality. Besides, a turmoil of democracy within Member States will inevitably affect the EU. At the same time though, European integration may well be the best antidote to the undermining of democracy. To understand why, we will look at what makes its essence.  

European integration represents a radically new way of organising cooperation between nations. It is a way to look to the future together while never forgetting the past. As Kierkegaard said: Life can only be understood backwards; but it has to be lived forwards.” It has made war impossible between old enemies by pooling the management of coal and steel. It has found a means to transform borders into bridges rather than walls. As Jacques Delors said in his farewell speech to the European Parliament in January 1995, “Europe is built on competition that stimulates, on cooperation that strengthens, and solidarity that unites.”

Post-war Europe has created a new legal order in the shape of a union of States and peoples, with a double democratic legitimacy; at the national levels it expresses itself through parliamentary majority systems, at the EU level through a system of checks and balances*. The institutional set-up of the EU reflects this dual nature: a European Council and a Council where the Member States are represented, a directly elected European Parliament, and an independent Commission promoting the common interest. In the terms of Jean Monnet, strong institutions are “pillars of civilisation”. This construction is completed and underpinned by the European Court of Justice (CJEU), whose rulings enjoy primacy in areas of EU competence. The Luxembourg court controls the legality of acts adopted by the institutions, the respect by the Member States of their obligations, and the respect of the unity of European law.

This system of checks and balances makes for a construction which, compared to national democracies, is less swayed by political passion and party politics, more open for the patient search for compromise, and corseted by common rules under the control of the CJEU. Its very nature shields it from sudden changes in majorities and swings of the political pendulum. It thus provides an additional dimension to policy-making in the EU. It is interesting to see that in spite of changing political landscapes across the EU and often divergent histories and ways of looking at life, the system functions and delivers. That is the reason why I do not believe in institutional solutions like a single President for the European Council and the Commission, which would move the EU towards a State-like construction. I simply do not believe that the ‘United States of Europe’ is on the cards, or even desirable. If one looks at the political climate in a country like France right now, the idea to govern directly from Brussels is nightmarish.

The nature of the EU is not always well known or well explained. This is becoming a growing problem, because it leads people to propose false solutions. We should explain a few simple truths about the EU:

  • there is no structural ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU, contrary to what federalists and Eurosceptics assert for exactly opposite reasons. The former deny the EU’s legitimacy because not all the powers belong to the European Parliament, the latter because they abhor any form of supranational power;
  • the EU institutions are not the netherworld of Brexiteer fantasy, in which “rootless” Europeans have abandoned all sense of national identity. The challenge in Europe is neither to change one’s national identity nor even to defend it, because it is not under threat. The challenge is rather to recognise the growing European dimension of our national identities;
  • there is no ‘pure’ European interest as opposed to ‘impure’ national interests. Each Member State pursues its own interests. What else should their elected leaders defend? But the EU has invented a much more intelligent way of defending national interests: by working with the partners, forsaking the pursuit of narrow self-interest, finding compromise solutions, and developing common policies. It is not as though the EU countries existed in a harmonious accord from which every disagreement represented some peculiar deviation. The EU is about creating deals that are acceptable to all. This is done by constant negotiation at all political and technical levels within a network that breeds mutual recognition and solidarity;
  • the unity which counts is not unity at the start of a negotiation. People come to Brussels to discuss the issues they disagree upon, not to revel in pre-existing ‘unity’. It is almost funny how the press, before each EUCO meeting, predict disaster because there are disagreements and fierce debates. It is disingenuous to pretend that 27 MS could or should have identical positions in each policy field. The EU does not ask them to forsake their traditions, their history, or their interests.

There is a beautiful quote by Vivien Schmidt who sums it all up: “How has the EU managed to get so far, given a system that is so contingent in sovereignty, uncertain in boundaries, unclear in identity, complicated in governance, and fragmented in democracy? The answer is: it has come as far it has BECAUSE of these very attributes. These attributes are an expression of the creative tension between the EU and its member states, propelling them at one and the same time into ever-increasing regional integration and continuing national differentiation.” (In Democracy in Europe, page 267)

This does not mean that everything is fine and we should do business as usual. While there is no structural problem with the EU system, there are many things that do not function as they should. More importantly, the EU faces a real dilemma. The way the world goes, the EU must increase its resilience and its power and acquire more state-like functions in the shape of joint procurement, stronger executive powers for the Commission or a bigger role in security and defence. At the same time, it cannot and should not pretend to develop into a traditional superpower and forget its own DNA. This is a fine line to tread. The EU’s response to the recurrent crises since 2008 shows that it can be done; many ‘impossibles” have become possible, and the overall result is a more integrated and a more autonomous EU.

In my view the glass is half full. I look at it as a practitioner who knows how miraculous it is to find common solutions. For academics, the glass is often half empty, because they look at the EU in a more idealistic fashion, judging it against the yardstick of what they think it should be or do. The EU is not into classical empire building. It is about looking for common solutions to the big challenges, based on mutual respect and the rule of law. The EU method works, even under strain, as is the case with breaches of the rule of law or leaders coming from rather Eurosceptic corners. The Hungarian PM has accepted ten sanctions packages against Russia while clearly not being convinced that it is the right thing to do. The new Italian Prime Minister has shown a great willingness to work with her partners to find solutions, including on Ukraine.  

There is of course no reason for complacency. The EU is a human, hence imperfect, construction, and it faces huge challenges. Nothing is ever cast in stone, and we should heed the lessons of the past. Observers like Caroline de Gruyter have established parallels between the Austro-Hungarian empire and the EU**. We should do everything in our power to avoid a Stefan Zweig of the mid-21st century having to write a book about the sad loss of a world of yesterday that was so much better than what came afterwards.

Jim Cloos, TEPSA Secretary-General

* The most eloquent formulation of this principle can be found in the writings of Jaap Hoeksma.
** See Caroline de Gruyter, Yesterday’s World, Tomorrow’s World.

The themes addressed in this editorial will form an integral part of TEPSA’s work for the coming years. In addition to the ongoing “Reclaiming Liberal Democracy in the Postfactual Age” (RECLAIM) and “Raising Awareness of Disinformation Achieving Resilience” (RADAR) projects, which aim respectively to moderate the effects of post-truth politics on liberal democracy and its institutions and raise citizens’ awareness on disinformation, providing an accessible public platform for debate on the issue, TEPSA has in March 2023 launched the new “Activating European Citizens’ Trust in Times of Crises and Polarization” (ActEU) project. You can follow along the work of these projects on TEPSA’s website and social media, as well as by subscribing to the TEPSA Newsletter.