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The EU’s Politicization, At Long Last

Are we finally witnessing politicization of the debate over the future of the EU?

July 24, 2013

Are we finally witnessing politicization of the debate over the future of the EU?

The maintenance of the Eurozone requires political decisions, which, in effect, would lead to an additional transfer of authority to the EU. That, however, has little chance of being accepted by the people.

Against this background, bleak voices dominate debate, advocating an increasing renationalization or outright rejection of the EU.

I want to present another thesis: What we are finally witnessing is something to be welcomed — politicization of the debate over the future of the EU.

For a long time, EU decision-making processes and the content of decisions remained relatively hidden to the broader public. Most people associate the EU above all with rampant bureaucracy. This has changed with the euro crisis.

At long last, the European integration process has attracted considerable media coverage, polarized public opinion, and even provoked open protest at several stages. EU politics thus now involves political passions.

That is good. In effect, this politicization puts an end to the “permissive consensus” that had formed the social basis for elitist and largely non-transparent decision-making.

It challenges the traditional yardsticks for assessing the EU. Instead of focusing on economically efficient outputs as the key criterion for positive assessment, the EU is now seen as a political institution that exercises authority.

It is therefore subject to the need to justify political rule with a more elaborate set of sources of legitimacy.

It might seem counter-intuitive to emphasize the potentially productive role of politicization. But what else should we expect in a democratic setting?

To be sure, this approach to interpreting recent events stands in stark contrast to two prominent and very skeptical readings of the current situation.

One of these interpretations claims that the crisis symbolizes nothing but the ultimate victory of global capitalism over democratic control.

This view is currently prominent in public perception because national and supranational executives are constantly forced to react to ever-newer balance sheet figures from “systemically important” banks, to ever-newer assessments by rating agencies, and to ever-newer fluctuations in interest rates and prices.

A second, similarly skeptical interpretation says that the financial and monetary crisis is causing the re-nationalization of political decision-making with proliferating EU summit diplomacy in Europe.

So are discussions on the national ratification of supranational decisions as well as the mainly national justification patterns offered by national government representatives fuel this view in the public perception.

I agree with these interpretations in so far as the financial and monetary crisis undoubtedly marks a decisive phase in the process of European integration.

In addition, this crisis accentuates and exposes the prevailing logic of European decision-making processes. It thus highlights the tensions between national democracy and supranational technocracy to an unprecedented extent.

In my view, however, the financial and monetary crisis is not automatically expanding technocratic decision-making at the cost of democratic control.

Nor does it inevitably cause the re-nationalization of the political landscape in Europe.

Rather, Europe is at a critical institutional juncture.

To the extent that the EU succeeds in developing a genuine competition for broadly acceptable politics and policies, the present crisis can be considered not merely as a risk, but even more so as an opportunity for European integration.

Such an opportunity is marked by an increased room for maneuver for politicians. They could use it institutional reform in order to close the authority-legitimacy gap that underlies the current day politicization.

Politicization essentially means two things. On the one hand, it points to increased resistance to European institutions, their politics and their policies.

On the other hand, it raises awareness of political authority beyond the nation-state, inducing a wide range of societal interests to address their demands via European institutions. It thus promotes the use of supranational institutions for political purposes.

Politicization can thus mobilize in favor of the integration process. Increased awareness, mobilization and contestation should not be conflated with rejection and renationalization of the EU.

There are indeed little signs that the EU is on the brink of falling apart. Outside of Great Britain, very few ask for the end of the EU or even the euro.

Even the protests in Athens and Madrid are directed against specific European policies and politics, rarely against the European idea as a whole.

And, most importantly, all the critical voices are accompanied by voices who ask for an additional strengthening of the EU and more political competition in the EU institutions.

The EU — crisis or critical juncture?

The situation of the EU may thus be better grasped with the concept of “critical juncture” than the concept of crisis.

A critical juncture describes a situation in which decision-makers have more leeway from structural constraints. The decisions made in such period can create new paths and leave old path dependencies behind.

The long-term effect of the financial and monetary crisis on European integration depends first and foremost on how the existing society-wide politicization can be accommodated by the institutions of the European Union.

Europe’s political elites could persist in pursuing European decision-making in accordance with intergovernmental or technocratic patterns. That would make protest, opposition and, in the medium term, also the feared re-nationalization more probable.

More supranational authority without developing democratic legitimation will rapidly turn the financial and monetary crisis into a crisis of European integration.

Political elites could, however, use the broad public discussion to enter into open competition for the content of European policy, thus politicizing the debate actively — rather than merely being politicized.

Societal acceptance can only increase or at least sustain where Europe no longer presents itself only as a producer of constraints to which there is no alternative.

Rather political elites and institutional design need to offer a space of political possibilities in Europe.

During and after the current crisis, it does no longer suffice to merely invoke the unswerving principles of the European idea.

The focus should instead be on tangible policies and their concrete benefits for broad sections of society. It should also extend to an institutional design that allows future course corrections in line with the public will.

If we take now the right path, Europe may again go the way of further integration.

Visionary leaders need to meet critical junctures in order to be successful. Here a heavy dose of skepticism comes in: Barroso, Cameron, Hollande and Merkel so far do not come across as visionary leaders.

So far they act as if they are in crisis, like a war or something permanently bad that has to be avoided, and not as if they are at a critical juncture where something great can be achieved.

Experts vs. electeds

The EU story seems to me part and parcel of a larger story. Overcoming the democratic disconnect needs more than a rejuvenation of the liberal order. It requires the strengthening of republican institutions against both: technocratic and liberal institutions.

What we have systematically and almost linearly seen in the Western world over the last three to four decades (starting before 1989) is a rise in the importance of public, non-political authorities.

They justify themselves either technocratically (on the basis of expertise, output and some accountability) or in liberal terms (protection of individual rights and the rule of law).

Central banks have thus grown in importance almost everywhere in the world — very often with strong constitutional protections.

The same is true with regard to constitutional courts, which as well have been strengthened in more than 80 countries. Regulatory agencies have also grown in importance in large parts of the word.

In Europe, the EU — with the Court and the Commission besides the Council as the decisive actors — have taken over many competencies from the nation states. The same is true for international institutions as the WTO or the United Nations Security Council.

The rise of those institutions goes hand in hand with a decline in relevance of elected authorities. The latter must remember the constant need to legitimize themselves in a republican mode — via participation and deliberation.

Insufficiently aware of this, parliaments and parties have lost power and influence almost everywhere in the OECD world.

People seem to like this trend toward “expertocracy.” If we look at survey data we find that in all countries, courts, central banks and international bodies are trusted more than national parties and parliaments.

Taken together, this means we live in an age of a democratic paradox: While the rhetorical acceptance of the principle of democracy is almost universal, those public authorities legitimated on the basis of expertise and rights are liked much more than those based on participation and open public debates.

To put it differently: People want democracy, but trust non-majoritarian institutions much more than majoritarian ones.

Of this development over the last two to three decades, the limits are showing already. We may soon enter into a phase of increased legitimacy conflicts.

Technocratic and liberal institutions enjoy trust to the extent they seem to be embedded in a democratic constitution, with republican modes of decision making at the core.

To the extent that the technocratic and liberal institutions become detached from this core, people get disconnected from governance. It may then be government for, but not by the people.

And to the extent that people realize this development, there will be new and intensifying political struggles.

These conflicts will not be only about the right policies, but also authority conflicts (i.e. who should decide) and legitimacy conflicts (i.e. on the basis of which legitimation should things be decided).

These authority and legitimation conflicts are nothing to be worried about. Properly understood, they have the potential to reconnect people. What we need is more republican-mindedness, not necessarily more liberalism.

If Europe learns this lesson, future generation will see the days around the Eurocrisis as a critical juncture.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from “The politicization of the EU in times of crisis — implications for institutional design” by Christian Rauh and Michael Zürn.

More on this topic


EU politics now involves political passions. That puts an end to the permissive elite consensus.

Increased awareness, mobilization and contestation should not be conflated with rejection of the EU.

The EU's situation may be better grasped with the concept of "critical juncture" than the concept of crisis.

Barroso, Cameron, Hollande and Merkel so far do not come across as visionary leaders.

People want democracy, but trust non-majoritarian institutions much more than majoritarian ones.

Technocratic and unelected institutions enjoy trust to the extent they are embedded in a constitution.

People get disconnected from governance in technocracy. It becomes government for, not by the people.