Repoliticizing representation in Europe

If the patrolling of borders unites European peoples more solidly than European “universal values”, what hope for the European Union? Nadia Urbinati argues that issues raised by the coming European elections go to the very heart of the pact that defined the post-war democratic rebirth.

The political history of the “new old world”, as Perry Anderson defined the European Union,1 has been marked by what academics and columnists have dubbed the “democratic deficit”. Until recently, the weakness of democratic legitimacy was rooted in EU institutions, not the European project itself. In terms of its self-representation to its citizens and to the world, Europe has personified widely shared “universal values”, and presented itself as a beacon of “the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”, as stated in the Preamble to the Lisbon Treaty. Democratic cosmopolitanism, which is a key chapter in contemporary democratic theory, is a creation of a pro-Europe, utopian approach intended to extend democratic principles beyond national borders, in order to govern economic globalization and protect democracy. In relation to these principles, the “democratic deficit” has been blamed for the incomplete political integration of the Union: while bureaucratic competencies have grown stronger, political bodies have, in terms of accountability, yet to develop beyond the chrysalis stage. Many European people now question the validity and legitimacy of the European Union as a political project.

Plenary room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on 20 March 2013. Photo: Botond Horvath. Source: Shutterstock

Executive dominance and eurosceptic ideology

One certain consequence of the interruption of the political integration process has been the burgeoning of an “executive dominance” (resulting in the Union belonging to the same category as “enlightened despotism”) that, together with the economic crisis, has turned out to be one of the factors to have triggered populist euroscepticism. A remote European leadership that operates beyond the reach of any democratic controls has only served to exacerbate the power imbalance between member states: this, among other accusations being hurled at the EU, is what threatens to undermine consensus on the ideals behind the EU. Executive dominance and eurosceptic ideology exist in an osmotic relationship. The consequence is that today, in public opinion, a declaration of loyalty to principles risks seeming like an ideological construct designed to serve a status quo where, in fact, the political behaviour of the European leadership follows a logic of its own. The way in which this opinion has taken hold (and it has set in far beyond eurosceptic positions) is the most daunting aspect of the euroscepticism that dominates the European parliamentary election campaign, because its language crosses the entire political spectrum and is not limited to rightwing parties and movements alone. While up until a few years ago, the shortfalls and weaknesses of European policies were ascribed to the incomplete process of political integration, today it seems that the problem is the very idea of a European union itself.

In his recent message to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), Jürgen Habermas said that “European peoples have good reason to ask for a political union”. However, this opinion is perhaps less widespread today than just a few years ago, and is being questioned not just by xenophobic rightwing militants. This much is clear from Habermas’ use of language alone, and the harsh terms in which he felt compelled to remind a pro-European party like the SPD of its responsibility to combat anti-European rhetoric – instead of attempting to exploit such rhetoric to its own advantage.2

Now, with regard to the anti-EU ideological scenario, the incompetence of representational bodies in determining the governance of the Union might seem a fortunate circumstance, and the democratic deficit a convenient inconvenience. This provocative view of the situation is worth investigating, precisely in order to appreciate the importance of a politicization of the EU’s agenda – the subject with which I shall close this piece. Let us firstly schematically examine the interpretations of the “democratic deficit”.

There are at least two dominant positions. In one case, the deficit has been defined and evaluated in relation to a national model of democracy, in which representation performs two functions: that of representing the interests and wills of the electorate, and that of giving substance to the government. It is the absence of both traditional functions at the level of European government that renders the Union all the more impermeable to democratic control. If this is the parameter for measuring democratic legitimacy, the only recipe for curing the “democratic deficit” can be to adapt Europe to national models (whether federal or confederate), without which representation could not perform the two functions in question. This, however, is a recipe for disaster, precisely due to the non-national nature of the European Union.3

In the second case, the diagnosis and the solution are the exact opposite: Andrew Moravcsik has stated that, if by democracy we mean the control and monitoring of the establishment, then there is no democratic deficit, as the ruling functions of the EU are in any case limited by national (democratically legitimate) players; it would therefore be pointless to weigh down the continent-wide organization with an additional tier of party politics.4

Thus it is clear in the first case that either Europe must adopt a comprehensive form of representational government, in the image of national government, or remain a deceptive hybrid; and that, in the second, it is neither necessary nor desirable for Europe to become fully representative in the same way as nation-states: it is enough for a hybrid Europe to stabilize and to codify its administrative functions and intergovernmental method in order to better serve the requirements of the member states and the free market.

The idea of modelling the European structure after national governments justifiably arouses scepticism and, in the last issue of Il Mulino, Maurizio Ferrera presented a clear outline of the unending slalom that pro-Europeans retrace time and again between federalist, semi-federalist, confederate and other models.5 But the re-legitimization of bureaucratic procedures is hardly any more convincing. The case for rethinking democracy as no longer offering an alternative to bureaucratic powers has been made by Pierre Rosanvallon, who has suggested re-evaluating the stabilizing function of non-political departments such as justice and, above all, bureaucracy, the two most solid legs of the Union.6 Rosanvallon attributes two crucial functions to bureaucratic bodies, traditionally viewed as the antithesis of politics and democracy: these involve acting firstly as a force for integration and solidarity and, secondly, as a force for impartiality. The latter is very important, especially in a democracy in which political decisions are marked by partiality and partisanship. According to this view, the European Union has helped highlight the legitimating value of delegated power, especially when implemented through an extended regulatory system capable of imposing uniform standards across the various national and regional administrative systems. Nineteenth-century concepts of bureaucracy based on a rigid hierarchy, centralistic state control and the standardizing treatment of people and issues have given way to a devolved, joined-up practice of regulation that takes local characteristics into account.

In short, the European Union may be seen as having contributed to emancipating administration from the stigma commonly attached to it, changing its nature and turning it into a resource for the integration of a democratic society. That is why, to the extent that the Union can facilitate monitoring and control, citizens can feel they play an active role in assessing the efficacy of Brussels governance through the impact it has on peripheral bodies. Granted, this is not political participation through representation; however, it is an effective form of participation and one that ensures that power is subjected to scrutiny, this being a key prerequisite of constitutional democracies. Inherent to this framework of political containment is scepticism as to those proposals that aim at resolving the democratic deficit by means of injections of electoral accountability.

The repoliticization of European issues

The current economic crisis has scrambled this optimistic scenario and shed doubt on the democratic function of techno-bureaucracy. Above all, it has revealed the populist risks that executive dominance can foster without being able to neutralize or overcome them. It is the economic crisis that has reinvigorated politics and brought back the question of the democratic deficit of the Union to the centre of the debate, because responses to nationalist and anti-European rhetoric can only stem from the repoliticization of European issues.

“The continuation of current policy intensifies the vicious circle: the more initiative the Council and Commission take in the consolidation policy, the more this closed-doors governing leads citizens to become aware of the growing weight of the technocracy.”7 Moreover, the reasons for realigning political and economic integration are to be found in the structure of global markets: the European project is a shared effort that is useful to national governments in restoring to Brussels the capacity for intervention that, individually, they had lost.8 Lionel Jospin’s proposal, following the signature of the Maastricht Treaty, to establish robust economic governance in the eurozone and plan continent-wide fiscal integration, responded to this need. That project remained on the shelf, just like political integration, even though it was a prudent, non-utopian choice intended to counteract two interlinked problems (both of which were emerging at the time): the worsening of the “democratic deficit” due to the increase in prerogatives of the Commission and above all, the Council of Ministers; and, as a consequence, the growing dissatisfaction of European citizens. This dissatisfaction was particularly pronounced in smaller or economically weaker nations, and was exploited in anti-European propaganda orchestrated by external countries (which were, however, linked to the EU by various trade treaties) such as Norway, the UK and Switzerland.

Further, the outcome of the recent referendum in the Swiss Confederation on restrictions to the entry of European workers acts as a sounding board for xenophobic ideology across Europe. It demonstrates how the patrolling of borders is beginning to unite European peoples more solidly than European “universal values”. What can a politically weak Union do to fight all this? Criticisms of Switzerland from Brussels are not enough to hide the problem of the extremely serious employment crisis on the old continent. Nationalist movements in European countries confess that they envy the freedom of the Swiss to oppose “the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels”.9

Euro-bureaucracy isn’t enough to legitimize the European elite, especially considering the overproduction of executive dominance – something that the debt crisis has accentuated.10 Indeed, well before the crisis began to be used as an argument to justify speed and discretion in decision-making, informal meetings between ministers of member states and their civil servants (breakfasts and face-to-face meetings at various clubs around Brussels) had become a well-established habit; these are described with analytical exactness by Deirdre Curtin, who has also shown how, especially following the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council of Ministers, already central to the structure of the EU, has increased its power, becoming the body that establishes the Union’s agenda in areas such as justice and economic planning. In parallel, the Commission’s right of initiative has diminished. “The professionalization of the support of the European Council has meant that it has been able to increase greatly the frequency with which it meets, over and above the four times a year prescribed in Article 15 (3) TFEU.”11 Also growing is the practice of intergovernmental treaties signed a latere, or outside existing EU treaties (such as the Fiscal Compact).

This is the Europe that is going to be judged by its citizens on 25 May; a not particularly novel example of self-referential elitism, with the aggravating circumstance that it has also transferred the places of decision-making from Community bodies to intergovernmental ones. In practice, it stifles Community usage in favour of national usage. The “clear swerve towards a federalism ‘between executives’ with very weak democratic credentials”12 is, therefore, heading in the same, centrifugal direction as desired in the ideologies of rightwing movements: towards a return to the centrality of national interests. Euro-bureaucracy can no longer play a role of integration nor substitute for the absence of a legitimate political actor.

At this point, we can go back to the discussion on the nature of the democratic deficit as a political deficit. Peter Mair and Jacques Thomassen identify an upside to the fact of European representation not performing the dual function that national representational government does (namely, representing the wishes of the citizens and defining the government): that is, being less anchored in the governmental dimension, European representation can better counterbalance national interests. In the European system, we are witnessing a new form of representation, which is weak as a political process but effective as an instrument of representativeness.13 The opportunities implicit in this governmental weakness, as opposed to a stronger representativeness, have still not been fully explored, but are interesting.

Now, precisely because in Europe representation does not play the function of expressing a majority that governs as in national parliamentary democracy (nor is it likely to govern given that the Lisbon Treaty confirms its non-governmental nature), there is more scope for parties to assume the role of ideological actors, as opposed to transmission belts for special interests. At national level, the parties are ailing because their participatory function has been eroded in favour of that of governments and institutions. But it may be that at a European level, the parties are less exposed to the risk of such ailments, because in any case in Europe they cannot perform a governmental function and so they are “forced”, so to speak, to make more effort in their representative function and thus to reflect the ideas of the citizens. “Freed from the demands of governing, parties at the European level may be able to provide a more robust channel of representation than that currently on offer within the democratic polities of the member states, where the democratic deficit is even greater”.14 While it may seem far-fetched, Mair and Thomassen’s generalization can be used to confirm not just the need, but also the realistic possibility of repoliticizing the European agenda.

It is the lack of the need for coordination between the two traditional levels of representation that makes the European elections even more politicized and politicizable than those of member states. This intuition seems to be confirmed by the growing radicalization of ideological positions in the electoral campaign for the European Parliament. Indeed, if policies or specific proposals are not at the centre of the political debate, as they are at the national level, it is likely that general viewpoints will come to the fore. It is reasonable to expect a more accentuated ideological division in the European sphere than in the national political dimension, in which all parties tend to resemble each other due to the objectively limited diversification of options available to governments to solve concrete problems:

It follows from this that if elections are to serve as an instrument of democracy connecting the will of the European people to decision-making in the European Parliament, party competition and voting behaviour in those elections should be organized around the same left-right dimension.”15

This analysis is similar to that of Habermas, who also maintains that the pending European elections offer “for the first time the possibility of a politicization of the agenda”, because the application of the Lisbon Treaty enacts a “representative democracy”, although not a representative government. In Article 10A, the Treaty defines the Union as a “representative democracy” in which citizens are “directly represented at European Parliament level” and participate by exercising their right to vote in the “democratic life of the Union”. The middlemen of this democracy are the parties, which “contribute to forming the European political awareness and to expressing the wishes of the Union’s citizens”. The Treaty therefore gives citizens “the right to participate” both in the formation of Parliament, and in the formation of political opinion, with the goal of “keeping decisions more open and as close to citizens as possible”.16

Universal values vs identity politics

The politicization of the agenda implied by the structure of representation at EU level, and by the Community’s constitutional rules, is confirmed by the intensely ideological nature of the current European Parliament election campaign. The ideological struggle revolves mainly around the meaning of the European Union; it therefore goes to the very heart of the pact that marked the history of the post-war democratic rebirth. The fact that the anti-European nationalist rightwing parties have been the first to limber up for it is indicative of the high symbolic stakes of these electoral consultations: the tension between the “universal values” of freedom and democracy, and identity-specific ones; the potentially anti-democratic implications of the lack of employment, which is a real threat to European integration and political stability. Protectionist, anti-universalist rhetoric (the rights of “our kind” against “others”) occupies plenty of space in the programme of the Dutch Freedom Party, which signed an electoral alliance with Marine Le Pen’s Front National late last year. An attack on Jewish and financial lobbies was combined with condemnation of the European bureaucratic executive and of tolerance towards immigrants.

This authoritarian populist rhetoric was also tinged with Christian language, in the name of which the fight over immigration becomes a fight over Islamic culture. Rightwing parties wrap the narrative of a clash of civilizations and values in ominous terms and ones that are, unfortunately, all too easy for the public to grasp.

The aim of the alliance between the Dutch and French right wing, greeted by their respective leaders as “historic”, was to “free Europe from the monster of Brussels”; before long, other xenophobic parties joined in: the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs or FPÖ), the Northern League (Lega Nord) in Italy, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti or DF) and the Swedish right-wing movement. The European Right has set out to dethrone the mystics of Europe and, with them, the culture and practice of rights that Europe is so proud of – as explicitly stated so often before the rest of the world.

A Union that leans heavily to the right is, unfortunately, a not unrealistic outcome (as a matter of fact, authoritarian plans are spreading throughout member states as we saw with the constitutional reform approved last year by the Hungarian parliament); not least because the socialist and democratic forces seem neither willing nor able to counter the populist rhetoric with courageous proposals to re-launch both employment and the culture of rights and simultaneously introduce significant changes to the decision-making methods of European bodies.

Taking the paradigm of politicization seriously, we might hope that in order to check nationalistic ideology, a united front is formed, capable of channelling discontentment with the Brussels executive towards an alternative programme that European citizens could recognize as distinctively democratic and Europeanist. For now, centrist and centre-left parties are abstaining from taking a position on this, and by doing so, they become responsible for aiding anti-European propaganda by playing to nationalist sentiments in an attempt to gain votes. The paradox is that, by acting tolerantly towards the anti-European narrative, they risk boosting the popularity of rival ideologies in an attempt to exploit them to their own advantage. This is a rather weak strategy, partly because, as years of research into voting behaviour have shown, voters motivated by identity-based reasons know how to recognize those offering the genuine article from those presenting imitations.

Perry Anderson, The New Old World, Verso, 2011.

Jürgen Habermas, "'In favour of a strong Europe' -- what does this mean?", Institute for Public Policy Research, 10 March 2014, For the German original, see "'Für ein starkes Europa' -- aber was heißt das?", Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 3/2014.

See Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe, Penguin, 2001 and Jürgen Habermas, The Postnational Constellation, Polity Press, 2000.

Andrew Moravcsik, "In defence of the 'democratic deficit': Reassessing legitimacy in the European Union", Journal of Common Market Studies 40, no. 4 (2002).

Maurizio Ferrera, "L'Europa in trappola: come uscirne?", il Mulino 1/2014.

Pierre Rosanvallon, La Contre-démocratie: La politique à l'âge de la défiance, Seuil, 2006.

Habermas, "In favour of a strong Europe", op. cit.

Jürgen Habermas, "Why Europe needs a constitution", New Left Review 11/2001,

Steven Erlanger, "Swiss vote seen as challenge to European integration", The New York Times, 11 February 2014,

Deirdre Curtin, Executive Power of the European Union: Law, Practices and the Living Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Deirdre Curtin, "Challenging Executive Dominance in European Democracy", Modern Law Review 77, no. 1 (2014).

Ferrera, op. cit.

Peter Mair and Jacques Thomassen, "Political representation and government in the European Union", Journal of European Public Policy 17, no. 1 (2010).

Mair and Thomassen, op. cit.

Mair and Thomassen, op. cit.

Jürgen Habermas, "In favour of a strong Europe", op. cit.

Published 13 May 2014
Original in Italian
Translated by Catherine Salbashian
First published by Eurozine (English version); Il Mulino 2/2014 (Italian version)

Contributed by Il Mulino © Nadia Urbinati / Catherine Salbashian / Eurozine



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