Europe's sovereignty mismatch

A Handbook on the European Union - Book index

The European Union has two entities capable of forming the rules that fall within their competences. The one is the institution of the European Council, while the other is the Eurogroup, a partially informal body that brings together the finance ministers of all Member States whose currency is the euro. Both are intergovernmental, meaning that they stand as fora where the national governments are represented and where their collective will is formed. Under normal circumstances, the Eurogroup would not be placed on an equal footing with the European Council, however the euro crisis and the concatenation of events leading to the adoption of extraordinary measures for addressing the financial shock has made this entity a key player in European politics.

The democratic quality of these rule forming entities could be improved. Though measures to increase their transparency would be welcome, a certain change in their structures is necessary. Their shortcomings are ones of design, pertaining to the indirectness of their legitimacy and accountability as bodies. While each representative is typically legitimised by—and is answerable to—their national electorate, the collection of nationally legitimised officials is not commensurate with system-wide legitimacy and accountability. This is made manifest in the fact that the rules formed concern the Union (or the euro area) at-large, while the democratic loop of legitimacy and accountability remains confined to national borders.

Democratic procedures at the national level only concern the political leader of that state, yet it is clear that said leader was not alone in adopting the decision for forming a certain supranational rule. The decision was collective, yet the collective as such is answerable to no corresponding collective of European citizens or representatives thereof. Put simply, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Holland may be pivotal in shaping a certain decision at the European Council, yet they only have to answer to their own voters, Germans and French respectively, even though their influence may effectively extend beyond Germany and France.

Fragmentation along national lines may be perceived as positive, as it seems that multiple checks are placed on supranational authority. While plausible, that is analytically incorrect, for the multitude of checks is not placed on the wholeness of such power, but only on its instances as appearing at the national level. Still, it may be argued that the full area of the system necessarily covers all of its parts, those being each of the Member States. Since each of these parts is a nation state operating as a democracy, then it is to be inferred that all the parts are placing a check on supranational authority. Such line of thinking would fail to treat things in terms of their interoperation, remaining trapped in a mindset of aggregation.

The distinction between aggregation and interoperation is important for three reasons:

  1. the parts of the system, the Member States, always retain their status as parts, even though they may adopt joint decisions, and they always work together within the framework of European law which, among others, determines the modal features of their interoperations, with the peculiarities of the European Council and the Eurogroup being among them;
  2. if we were to think that several democracies bundled together produce a greater democracy, then the EU would have to qualify as a democracy par excellence; an inference that would not factor in the inter-state power relations that may be formed depending on the prevailing conditions or the subject at hand and how these may produce states of affairs that were not demanded by any unified body of citizens;
  3. the view that the EU is the sum of its parts—a greater democracy—misses the key attribute of national democracy, which is its relative directness; whereas the aggregation of democracies, within the context of intergovernmental negotiations, is indirect at best, with such indirectness rendering intergovernmentalism normatively inferior to the customs and procedures that apply to the national level.

Adding to the above, we need to account for sovereignty in its democratic version, as the interplay between state and popular sovereignty, and then use that as a criterion for evaluating the quality of supranational rule formation. A democratically sovereign state is one where there exists a virtuous cycle between legitimacy and accountability. The citizens legitimise the state’s structures, while the state adopts decisions for the citizens in line with the promotion of the common good, always remaining answerable to them, and always bound by the state’s legal order.

The EU’s sovereignty mismatch is discernible in the lack of overlap between the scope of European rule formation and that of a constitutionally non-existent European demos. Though there is European citizenship, it does not have a constitutional status, one which would substantiate a European demos as the subject performing the function of legitimising each of the rule forming entities as a body, as well as holding each of them accountable as a whole.

To address this issue, two changes are necessary in line with embedding democratic sovereignty: (1) a European demos needs to be made the constitutional subject of the European Union, and (2) the rule forming entities need to become akin to national governments in both their legitimacy and accountability. This would indeed make supranational legitimacy and accountability at least equal in value to those existing at the national level, solidifying the position of the EU as a successful experiment in transnational democracy, one that would manifest as a federal republic of a nation of nations.