The EU is currently marked by democracy problems at both the community and the member state levels. In the past decades, European decision-making authority has grown exponentially in breadth and depth without providing for appropriate mechanisms of democratic (input) legitimation. This is referred to as the EU’s democratic deficit. On the other hand, there has been a widespread surge of nationalist populism in the member states that has an authoritarian inclination. In some cases, such as Hungary and Poland, they have started to effectively undermine the domestic institutions of liberal democracy. I argue that these two developments are causally linked and mutually reinforcing, fueling a vicious cycle of increasingly authoritarian rule at the national as well as the supranational level.
The logic of the argument is that the EU’s democratic deficit spurs public resistance to further integration, which European decision makers try to circumvent by means of integration by stealth or force. As a result, European governance is strengthened at the cost of reinforcing the legitimacy gap. In turn, mass publics are further alienated and start opposing the EU in principle, breeding the nationalist sentiment and the sowing the seed for populist denunciation. As the EU encounters further problems of interdependence that functionally require integrative solutions, the cycle begins anew.
A first loop can be traced in the passage from the so-called “permissive consensus to the constraining dissensus” starting in the 1990s and the reaction of European decision makers. With the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the EU started a process of progressive supranationalization of political authority, even including formerly core state powers. While the European Parliament was somewhat strengthened, it never became a truly supranational representative institution that could have accommodated the participatory legitimacy requirements for the EU. The growing supranational authority with its increasingly direct and palpable consequences for the people in turn led to a politicization of European integration, which erected higher public hurdles for further integration. In response, EU member states and the Commission tried to circumvent this constraining dissensus by pushing integration through non-majoritarian or executive-dominated channels without involving the wider public. However, this integration by stealth has only strengthened the incentives for political partisanship on the European question, starting to turn the politicization of European integration into a rejection of the EU in general.
A second, consecutive loop can be shown in the case of the euro crisis, where policy makers faced strong functional pressures for integration but also a strong constraining dissensus in the public. Hence, multiple veto points prevented the open and procedurally legitimate implementation of necessary supranational capacity-building. Legally, this would have required constitutional reform that was both disputed among states and presumed unlikely to find the approval of domestic constituencies. Instead, in the mode of emergency politics, the European Council set up emergency credit facilities outside the European legal framework, had the Troika strip recipient countries off their fiscal sovereignty, delegated discretionary implementation and supervisory functions to the Commission, and foisted off the most delicate political decisions to the independent European Central Bank (ECB), which is immune to democratic accountability.
These quasi-authoritarian traits in European governance, in turn, created incentives for popular anti-system opposition and provided political opportunities for populist leaders, which meaningfully enhanced the prospects of an anti-liberal, anti-European backlash.
First, as Peter Mair has highlighted, the EU’s democratic deficit implies limitations for political opposition and access to contestation, inciting “the mobilization of new – perhaps populist – opposition in principle.” European emergency politics exacerbates this problem exponentially: EU measures that are highly intrusive and that side-line domestic democratic procedures quickly lead to the popular impression of disempowerment by distant and unaccountable technocrats. Coupled with the European emergency discourse continuously portraying political decisions as necessary and without alternative, dissatisfied voters develop both anti-EU sentiment and alienation from the domestic political mainstream that seems complicit in the dealings – driving them into the arms of nationalist populists.
Second, the complex configurations of European emergency rule represent perfect targets for populist denunciation. Since populism builds on the critique of self-referential elites, it feeds on opaque and hardly attributable political choices implemented by technocrats. On the one hand, populist leaders can draw on the exceptionalist power of EU institutions to shift blame to Brussels (or Frankfurt), because the delegation chain is interrupted or at least elusive for the general public. This allows them to downplay their own role in unpopular political decisions and fuel skepticism vis-à-vis Europe. On the other hand, the incomprehensibility of responsibilities and policy effects of European emergency measures opens the way for blaming Brussels for basically anything, irrespective of the degree to which one is affected by the policies.
My suspicion thus is that these factors have contributed to the surge of nationalist populism across Europe, which partially even entailed a democratic backsliding in member states. Several especially Central and Eastern European member states such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, or Slovenia have slid towards authoritarianism. But also beyond the post-communist states, there has been a rise of parties and movements at the political fringes. In Southern Europe, left-wing populist parties have become powerful political contenders. In Northwestern Europe, right-wing populism has grown that is decidedly nationalist and offers authoritarian alternatives to the constitutional democratic establishment.
As it seems, this is a cyclical development by which the antagonistic developments of Eurosceptic politicization and undemocratic integration are mutually reinforcing: Discretionary supranational governance provokes a nationalist backlash that fosters precisely those preconditions that facilitated the resort to emergency politics at the EU level in the first place. From this perspective, the current European malaise is a problem of democracy, more than anything else. Reform attempts that fail to take this into consideration – all potential functional benefits notwithstanding – risk reinforcing the problem rather than solving it.
Parts of this argument are unpacked in my recent paper “An authoritarian turn in Europe and European Studies?” that appeared in the Journal of European Public Policy debate section “The EU in crisis – EU studies in crisis?”