Having considered Fritz Scharpf’s distinction between input (by the people) and output (for the people) legitimacy and briefly analyzed why the unity that is required to achieve input legitimacy is very difficult to obtain in a European context, we now turn to output legitimacy. By its nature, input legitimacy is quite unitary in force: there is one kind of self-determination that is legitimate, namely that which corresponds to the authentic preferences of members of the community. By contrast, output legitimacy allows a higher number of legitimizing mechanisms. This also means that output legitimacy requires more conditions to be in place and is more limited in its scope (Scharpf 1999, 20); namely, it provides legitimacy only to the extent that a precise set of conditions is being met. Legitimacy in this sense is derived from the capacity of solving problems that are in need of collective solutions. Such problems cannot be solved by either individual action or the market, or even on the level of civil society. Output legitimacy is attained when there is a sizable and durable inventory [Bestand] of public interests in this sense (ibid). Output legitimacy has no recourse to notions of solidarity or duty derived from the practice of living together. Instead, this kind of legitimacy is founded on two potentially contradictory goals: first, preventing abuse of public power and second, facilitate effective solutions to problems (ibid, 22). This also means, that the definition of public interest has to include all interests, and that costs and benefits of measures have to be divided in the public interest following convincing norms of distributive justice.
Legitimacy is thus within reach for political units, whose weak identity would not allow any ‘organismic’ interpretation. What is more, those political units are no longer reliant exclusively, or even primarily, on the loyalty of their members. In principle, output-oriented legitimacy allows for the unproblematic coexistence of multiple, hierarchically ordered or overlapping, collective identities, the scope of which is defined through certain categories of problems, and the organisation of which cannot lay claim to either territorial or functional criteria. (Scharpf 1999, 20)
This means that the EU can be defined, without conceptual scruples, as a political unit that is suitable to address collective problem-solving of problems plaguing the community as such. As Scharpf says: “So far, so good” (ibid, 21). He then prepares the way for Schmidt by saying that the EU is mostly evaluated with reference to the input- and output-oriented legitimacy of the nation state. In the democratic nation state, they exist side by side and “mutually strengthen, supplement and replace each other” (ibid). Because of the EU’s difficulties with input legitimacy, the fact that it is compared to nation states results in its beings rejected as insufficiently legitimate. The fact is that the EU is for the most part confined to output legitimacy. This “allows a relatively high tolerance for weak collective identities, while also demanding higher institutional requirements” and putting limits on what can be legitimated (ibid). In the last post, we considered how the finer points on input legitimacy remains a purely ‘academic’ concern in the context of the nation state, where collective identities are sufficiently fixed for this kind of legitimacy to be attained as a matter of course. In the context of the EU, the supposedly fundamental democratic deficit remains an ‘academic’ concern so long as “European politics takes its course as if legitimacy did not matter” (ibid).
In a way, this is a privilege Europe has inherited from its postwar period of foundation, when it was still an elite project that took place outside of the public eye. The removed status of this project was justified by national discourses that presented European integration as having “little negative effects on national sovereignty”, and “with little mention of any deep-seated challenges to traditional democracy” (Schmidt 2006, 37). This resulted in a description of European integration as a matter of “a political-moral dignity, that made it nearly immune to objections” (Kielmansegg 2013, 50). Even today, some analysts describe a “toxic pressure to conform” to the historically prevalent direction of European politics, which means that only those who give in to “the determinism of negative integration” are good Europeans (Michelsen & Walter 2013, 336-337). In terms of citizens’ willingness to let European politics go about its way outside of the public eye, however, the so-called permissive consensus that characterized earlier phases of European integration has been transformed into a constraining dissensus (Van der Eijk & Franklin, 1996; Hix, 1999; Hooghe & Marks, 2009).
Arguably, this transformation is due to the effects of European integration itself. An important factor in these terms would be the introduction of majority rule to the Council of the EU. In terms of input legitimacy, the individual member states’ right to veto before the change to majority rule was the “single most legitimating element” of European politics (Weiler 1991: 189). Simply put, because of the lack of European Gemeinschaftsglauben we discussed in the previous post, there are no theoretical grounds to legitimate majority decisions on the European level. Further integration also implies an extention of the competencies of the EU. This increases the likelihood of measures that are experienced by citizens as impositions on the part of ‘Brussels’, especially in conditions where individual member states’ capacity to act is ever-decreasing (Kielmansegg 2013, 50-51). Such conditions likewise result from the integration process. Factors that are not strictly tied to integration also have an important role to play in the shift from permissive consensus to the present mood of Euroskepticism: an example is economic growth. So long as Europe could be perceived as a “community of winners” in an economic sense, the project of European integration, which was seen as an important contributor to economic success, was less likely to come under question than in the period since the economic crisis (Habermas 2015). We could take the perspective that such external factors are more directly important to understanding the shift away from permissive consensus, since the EU has remained relatively invisible to most citizens, since the application of law is left to the member states (Kielsmansegg 2013, 51). However, especially in terms of the decreasing capacity to act on the part of member states, it seems that citizens are quite aware of and in fact distraught at, for instance, the primacy of EU law over national law and the effects of this primacy. In that sense, as is emphasized in the academic literature, the shift to constraining dissensus amounted to a politicization of European integration (Hooghe & Marks 2009; Boerzel & Risse 2009; De Wilde 2012). We will return to this point later.
In a general sense, output legitimacy is secured through general, free and equal elections that are not so much involved with respresenting the people, but rather with securing institutional and pragmatic concerns (Scharpf 1999, 23). First, elections secure the orientation of government agents with respect to the public interest. Second, elections are the only available way to approach the ideal of national citizens’ equality (ibid). Next to the elections themselves, this presupposes that they are embedded in societal and political structures and practices: for instance, ‘checks and balances’, competitive political parties, and credible mass media (ibid).
A common assumption of authors on depoliticization, whether in theoretical terms or applied to the EU, is that democracy is a strong requirement for anything to rightly be called ‘political’. There are three factors that pull European politics in the opposite direction. First, as we have discussed, there does not seem to be a unified will that could be represented by democratic means (recall the difficulties surrounding input legitimacy in Europe). Second, while elections have a function, that function is not to represent the will of the people but to secure favourable circumstances to reach its goals: formulating answers to communal problems and avoiding power abuses. Third, these goals themselves tend to lead away from democracy, since output legitimacy favours an alternative style of policy-making; even the far-removed political structure of an independent expertocracy, given certain conditions. This is where we re-encounter the self-withdrawal of politics. In order to make this clear, we will now consider the way politics is situated within the European framework.