The democratic deficit in the European Union has been a cause for comment since its inception, but the conflict between input and output legitimacy continues to this day and a solution is needed now more than ever. The question is, are we brave enough to face the reality of what that solution must entail?
The "raison d´être" of European integration was the war-burdened European history. The particular atrocity of the second world war made it obvious that Hobbesian anarchy needed to be dealt with. The construction of a unique supranational organisation (the "High Authority") and therefore the unseen transfer of national sovereignty, seemed to be the only way to bring peace to the continent.
It was at this time that Robert Schuman introduced his plan for the "European Coal and Steel Community". That single plan was a big success and led eventually to the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union.
Nothing new – in principle
When the politicians of the original six member states committed to the plan, their people were not asked. Nobody questioned the decision, perhaps because there was a broad consensus about the necessity of such an initiative. In the following decades, the European Union and its forerunners have been plagued by core conflict; there is a near constant debate about national sovereignty and common integration. In the past, the Union usually integrated economically and the political integration followed: slow but steady integrational steps were taken. But behind this controversial balancing loomed another conflict: The question about the legitimacy of the entire European project.
At the beginning there was a low level of input legitimacy because the European people had no direct democratic influence, but a high level of output legitimacy, because policy was broadly perceived as necessary and beneficial. Every policy area, especially those which emerged as European issues, was initially controlled by intergovernmental politics, so the European people, while affected by these decisions, had no direct democratic control or influence because they had no vote.
With the rise of power of the European Parliament, democratic legitimacy rose together with the rest of the European Union, though this legitimacy is questionable given the fact that there have been no European elections worth writing home about.
As the powers of the EU still mostly concentrated on issues that were perceived as technical and quite unimportant, the people of the EU-states broadly didn´t care too much about the question of how the EU was ruled and whether elections had a real impact on the European policy. It could also be said that the necessary level of legitimacy, both input and output, was quite low. Besides that, the EU gained a lot of output legitimacy by bringing peace, prosperity and freedom of movement by establishing and developing the famed single market. This approach worked pretty well and I´m quite sure, it was supposed to go on like that when the single currency was introduced.
Then the Euro came
With the introduction of the Euro the exchange rates between the member states disappeared, but the competitiveness between the national economies of the Euro zone diversified, which led to huge trade imbalances. This caused the accumulation of enormous debt (not particularly public debt) by many southern European countries, especially Spain. And the biggest chunk of money came from Germany, which generated an enormous trade surplus. So today, there are huge sums of liabilities between the members of the single currency.
Politically, the Euro integrated the financial market of the European area in such a latent way that many politicians and economists didn´t notice and the subsequent problems pushed the Euro zone to its current situation. To deal with the common problem, the powers of the EU needed- and still need- to be expanded into areas that used to be important national issues, like fiscal and economic policy.
This has been done in recent years mostly through intergovernmental politics- but there has been no increase in the democratic influence of the European people. We find ourselves in a situation that the famous philosopher Habermas described as "postdemocratic." The input legitimacy is not expanding in any notable way.
Where to go from here?
Europe has manouvered itself into a unique dilemma. If the powers of the European Parliament are to be expanded to an adequate level, this can´t happen "over the heads" of the affected people, as input-legitimacy has to come from the people themselves. But a referendum, especially in the current situation, seems to be extremely risky, as it has the capacity to shatter the EU entirely.
The other option would be to operate under a "business as usual" model, expanding the powers of the intergovernmental controlled institutions (and create new ones) and accept the lack of input-legitimacy, which inevitably leads to an increasingly undemocratic EU.
The current behaviour of politicians informs me that the second one of these seems to be the most likely scenario going forward- unfortunately. In Germany, politicians are delusional, thinking that the crisis is just a fiscal crisis of single profligate southern European countries, as opposed to facing the reality that this crisis was born of a structural European problem.
I want to believe that a third scenario is at least theoretically possible, where the people and the politicians of Europe start to perceive the crisis as what it definitely is: a collective problem. European nations must accept that only together can this crisis be settled, and that Europe only has a future when it speaks with one voice.
For this scenario to work, we need the boldness to accept more Europe in our daily politics and especially in our mind and identity. Only on this foundation we could build a strong European Union that has the power and the democratic institutions to meet both sides of legitimacy.
Unfortunately I don´t see it happening. It is clear to me that the prospects are poor.