From financial crisis to legitimacy crisis?

Chris Lord |

In the wake of the financial crisis, EU governments spent taxpayers’ money to rescue European banks. That displaced a financial crisis into political systems by straining public finances and social protections in all EU member states. Some states were brought to the point of insolvency, and the survival of the EU’s single currency, perhaps even of the EU itself, was threatened. But is the EU experiencing a legitimacy crisis?

Three types of legitimacy crisis

Legitimacy is at the core of ‘good government’. It means the justified or rightful exercise of political power. Since a right to exercise political power implies that people have an obligation to comply also with laws they do not like, legitimate political orders are more likely to enjoy the unforced compliance of citizens. Political systems that can concentrate on satisfying the needs and values of citizens, rather than coercing them, are more likely to deliver high levels of economic performance and to score well on indicators of human development.

Whilst the EU has experienced serial crises since the financial crisis, spanning from geopolitics and Brexit to dealing with refugee flows, it remains to be investigated whether it has experienced a legitimacy crisis. We lack the knowledge, concepts, theories and methods needed to investigate scientifically just how far, if at all, the Union’s ability to make legitimate use of political power corresponds to what it needs to do in crises.

We might say that legitimacy crises occur where a political order is unable to satisfy all necessary conditions for the justification of its powers. That is an intentionally abstract and generic definition, designed to avoid assuming any one form of political order; any one set of necessary conditions for legitimacy; any one set of standards of justification; and any one form of crisis. If we want to understand if a particular political order is subject to a legitimacy crisis, we must ‘fill in’ the generic definition by specifying standards and necessary conditions for the justification of powers specific to that order. Against this background, I argue that the European Union may experience three types of legitimacy crisis.

Failed direct legitimacy

The first type of legitimacy crisis occurs where the EU cannot satisfy all conditions to be directly democratically legitimate with citizens. The Union defines rights, makes law and allocates values. However, in democracies, citizens must be able to control as equals their own rights, laws and allocations of values.  Consider, though, the conditions that are needed for democratic institutions and politics. These include freedoms and rights, political competition that offers voters relevant choices, a civil society in which all groups have equal opportunity for organised influence, a public sphere in which all have equal access to public debate, and a defined people, a demos, or at least agreement on who should have votes and voice in the making of decisions that are binding on all.

Achieving all those conditions simultaneously may be hard for the EU, given that it is a multi-state, non-state political system that operates from beyond the state. The capacity of the state to concentrate power, resources and legal enforcement has historically been useful in ensuring that the decisions of democratic majorities are carried out; in providing universal and equal systems of representation; in guaranteeing rights needed for democracy; in drawing the boundaries of defined political communities; and in motivating voters and elites to participate in democratic political competition for the control of an entity which manifestly affects their needs and values.

Failed indirect legitimacy

So, what of the alternative where the EU somehow derives or borrows democratic legitimacy from that of its member state democracies? That might be more than a second-best where it is difficult for the European Union to develop its own democratic politics and institutions in full. There may also be important justifications for a form of European Union in which individuals are citizens of national democratic political communities of states that are member states of a Union that is itself an association of both national democracies and their citizens.

However, member state democracies could make contradictory demands on the Union’s legitimacy. Attempts to legitimate the EU via its member state democracies could produce democracy-on-democracy domination. Either suggests a second form of legitimacy crisis where the EU cannot be indirectly legitimated by all its member states simultaneously.

Failed input, output or throughput legitimacy

However, cutting across any need to be directly or indirectly legitimated by publics, the EU may also need to be input, output and throughput legitimate. Imagine a political system that was procedurally perfect in its voting and deliberations. Yet it had no outputs. Would we consider it legitimate? Perhaps not, if we think that political power is justified only where it has outcomes important to securing rights, justice and the most basic of public goods needed for personal security and economic and social welfare. So democratic legitimacy needs inputs from votes and voices, outcomes that are valued by citizens and throughputs, or procedures, that convert inputs from votes and voices into outcomes that deliver value, rights and public goods. A political system may also need to be able to make legitimate trade-offs between optimal outcomes and ideal procedures.

Hence, in a third form of legitimacy crisis, the Union might struggle to provide essential inputs, outputs and throughputs simultaneously. As a Union of democracies, a high level of agreement between member states may be a procedural condition for input and throughput legitimacy. However, multiple veto points may make it harder to secure the outputs that are thought to justify collective action at the European level.

The research project Post-crisis Democracy in the European Union (PLATO) explores these tensions. It aims to build new theory through multiple, connected PhD projects that investigate different actors with whom the EU needs to be legitimate, and different standards of democratic legitimacy. I invite you to explore findings from the individual studies on this blog and to engage in conversations on the EU’s struggle for legitimacy.