Raphael Paour’s elaborated invitation to vote “no” in the French referendum on the European constitution made me reflect on the theoretical debate behind the nature of the EU. Does the historical development of the Union present a construction of the essentially neo-liberal project or does it leave space for other political and economic doctrines?
John Rawls, in one of his rare (possibly the only- John Rawls and Philippe Van Parijs, “Three Letters on the Law of Peoples and the European Union”, Revue de Philosophie Économique, No. 118, July 2003, p. 15.) texts about the EU, criticizes the nature of this polity in the following way,
[t]he large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, onwards and upwards, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly. If they speak about distribution, it is [a]lmost always in terms of trickle down.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recognized that many view the EU as “…a bureaucratic affair run by a faceless, soulless ‘Eurocracy’ in Brussels-at best boring, at worst dangerous.” Joseph Weiler reminds about the democratic deficit at the EU level and calls the EU, “output oriented democracy.” The essence of such political project is that its power is legitimised not through consent of the population but through the results of the government, in terms of improving the living standard of the people, increasing security etc.
To criticize the EU for being a neo-liberal construction tout court, undermines the complexity of this polity but also implicitly advances a fallacious argument that nation-state (EU Member States) have greater legitimacy than the EU. This argument is based solely on theoretical prejudicing in favour of the nation-state centred classical political theory.
True, popular participation in the elections for the European Parliament is lower than in national elections. European Parliament, despite recent changes, still lags behind national legislative bodies, in terms of the amount of power conferred to it by the constitution. Europeans still continue to read their national newspapers and watch their national TV programs. This is also for the fact that there is no European wide lingua franca. The examples demonstrating the inferiority of the EU over the nation-state in terms of political legitimacy are endless.
Yet, all this arguments undermine an underlying nature of the EU, suggesting that EU is a polity in motion. Not so long ago today’s Member States of the Union were bitter foes. Today they are intrinsically intertwined and, despite many problems, build their future together.
Moreover, aforementioned critique of the EU’s lack of political legitimacy from the perspective of the nation states is deeply affected by the bias towards classical conceptions of state sovereignty that considers the democratic principle a monopolistic source of legitimacy of the polity.
In this way, British scholar Theodora Kostakopoulou advances a concept of floating sovereignty, grasping an essential characteristic of the EU that is endowed with a dynamic and transformative capacity. She argues,
After all, sovereignty has persisted as an ideology and organizing principle of the international system because it has helped to define and enforce collectively binding decisions on the members of the society in the name of the general will or public interest. If sovereignty is no longer necessary for the evolution of the state how could state power be legitimized?
Her answer is thus, not to destroy the concept of sovereignty, but to re-conceptualise it in the way to disconnect it from the automatic linkage with the classical notion of popular sovereignty. Kostakopoulou argues,
…What this means in reality is that the state will no longer be in a position to command the loyalty of its citizens, but it would have to purchase it through its capacity to meet social needs, to fulfil its basic functions and through the normative qualities of its policies and institutions.
This argument of course does not completely undermine the principle of democratic legitimacy but merely aspires to demonstrate how the EU shows that political power can be justified from other sources and by other means.
The EU thus, might be less ‘legitimate’ in terms of the classical political theory, but it offers numerous advantages that are not present within the framework of the nation-state. Apart from the obvious advantages of peace and prosperity, its supranational nature offers a structural possibility for overcoming illnesses of the state dominated by the nation, one of the most illustrative examples is that, through the concept of “internal enlargement” . Thus, quite paradoxically, rather then undermining citizen’s power to have an influence on state matters, by dethroning the nation state, it creates an opportunity to develop new forms of direct, deliberative democracy on the lower level, closer to the people.
It is for this reason that one should vote for the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe (i.e. EU Constitution). The nation-state does not protect the population from the dangers of neo-liberalism, but rather exposes the people to this danger. The European Constitution presents a modest step towards the dethroning of the nation-state in Europe. Embarking on such a road indeed does make us risk and loose the little power that we currently have to make an influence on the decision making process, nevertheless, it creates the possibility to advance towards new innovative forms of democracy were people will have a real say in matters that influence their everyday life. Making such a risk pays off, because, the powers that we have in the nation state are so little that we can afford the risk of losing them.