This is the first of a series of posts about the European Union (EU), with a view to systematically formulating a critique of European politics in terms of its depoliticization. The goal is not only to shed new light on European politics, but also to develop the concept of depoliticization critique that we have already explored at length, in both its ontological and its ethical aspects. Three perspectives will be especially important in our analysis of the EU: first, the uses and functions of moralization in European politics; second, the notion of the European citizen or public that is taken as the foundation of European politics; third, the ethical ends – such as peaceful coexistence of the European states and economic growth – that are postulated by and for European politics. Before any of those matters can be addressed, however, we have to go into definitions. What is the EU?

In order to answer that question, I turn to Vivian A. Schmidt, an international relations scholar who holds Boston’s Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration. Her work combines the virtues of empirical work with a focus on ‘polity’: in particular, she offers “theoretical insights into the democratic implications of the EU’s international organizational form, the interactions between EU and national institutions, and the role of ideas and discourse in democratic adjustment” (Schmidt 2006, ix). This framework suits our investigation, since we are interested in depoliticization both in terms of the EU’s own institutional framework and in terms of the EU’s effectiveness on the politics of its member-states – this interest is theoretically driven in both cases. Finally, a focus on ‘ideas and discourse’ may help us to understand the EU as a philosophical and discursive complex of ideas, both in terms of its present successes and failures and with an eye to its future.

Schmidt’s main thesis is quite provocative. The oft-cited democratic deficit is not simply a matter of the EU falling short of political ideals. “[T]he real problem for member-states is not so much that their democratic practices have changed [as a result of the EU’s influence] as that their national ideas and discourse about democracy have not” (ibid). In other words: that the EU does not function as it it were just another national polity is not in itself a problem. What is experienced as the democratic deficit is, rather, the result of what we might call a failure of expectation management. This may seem like an outlandish thesis, but it is close to what we have examined under the header of self-withdrawal and, in particular, the decreasing importance of nationally based political institutions. Schmidt also sees that, in part as a result of political developments connected to the EU, national politics has increasingly failed to deliver on its promises. On Schmidt’s analysis, this is not so much due to a ‘construction fault’ of the EU, but in the first place the result of the content of the promises made by national politicians.

The first part of this argument is a redefinition of the EU itself. Schmidt calls it a “regional state” to emphasize both the ‘state-like’ character of the EU and to introduce a discursive alternative to the notion of the nation-state (ibid, 9). There are two characteristics that differentiate the regional state from the nation state. First, a nation-state has a certain finality, as she puts it:

[Nation states are] characterized in principle by indivisible sovereignty, fixed boundaries, coherent identity, established government, and cohesive democracy. By contrast, the EU has no such finality but, rather, is better conceptualized as in a constant process of becoming. What it is becoming, moreover, is not a nation-state but, rather, a regional state, given shared sovereignty, variable boundaries, composite identity, highly compound governance, and fragmented democracy split between government by and of the people at the national level, and governance, for and with the people at the EU level. Legitimacy, in this context, is naturally in question when the EU is compared to the nation-state. It need not be if we rethink legitimacy in terms of a regional state. (Schmidt 2006, 9)

Schmidt adds that legitimacy problems persist in the national context, and that the national and European political levels can be characterized as ‘politics without policy’ on the national and ‘policy without politics’ on the European level (ibid.). Summing up: the EU is a of an entirely different nature than the nation-state and is thus not necessarily subject to the same legitimacy concerns that would be valid at the national level. However, “EU-related changes in national governance practices, challenges to national ideas about democracy, and the lack of discourses that sufficiently legitimate the changes” lead to a relatively powerless national politics that is afraid to admit its powerlessness to its constituency. This failure to admit explains the lack of legitimizing discourse.

This contrast between nation-state and EU presupposes a certain conceptual flexibility. For instance, we cannot assume that sovereignty is by its nature rigid, indivisible, and beholden to the nation-state, as most ‘realists’ in international relations theory would define it. It ‘does sovereignty differently’. In terms of democratic theory, it is also clear that there is a difference between the nation-state model and the EU, but it is not necessarily clear what follows from this.

If democratic legitimacy in a nation-state is predicated on a country’s indivisible sovereignty within a fixed set of boundaries with a coherent national identity enabling the expression of a collective will, then the EU is clearly very far from achieving nation-state legitimacy. But this does not mean that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy. Much the contrary, since it can be shown to pass most of the legitimacy tests required of nation-states in terms of political participation, citizen representation, effective government, and interest consultation—only in somewhat different ways with different emphases. (Schmidt 2006, 20)

In the following weeks, I want to focus on these ‘different ways with different emphases’. One crucial distinction is between input and output legitimacy. These concepts work closely together. In Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, democratic government requires both input and output legitimacy, being government “by the people, of the people [input] and for the people [output]”. In the EU context, we can add government with the people (Schmidt 2007, 25-31) in the form of interest groups and NGOs. But this is not the only change to the formula: we will see that the EU ‘innovates’ on various domains. In the next post, we will begin to consider Fritz Scharpf’s crucial work on EU legitimacy.

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