Europe’s ‘Democratic Disconnect’: Reflections on the Recent Comments by Mario Monti

Prof. Peter Lindseth

The comments this week by Mario Monti, in an interview in Der Spiegel, were perhaps not the most well-chosen:  ‘If governments allow themselves to be entirely bound to the decisions of their parliament, without protecting their own freedom to act, a break up of Europe would be a more probable outcome than deeper integration’.  The idea that governments need negotiating room, free from excessive parliamentary constraint, might in different circumstances have been regarded as a banal truth (certainly Danish governments, in the face of their parliament’s famously powerful European affairs committee, would agree).  But coming from a ‘technocratic’ PM with tenuous democratic legitimacy, in the midst of a crisis that has raised widespread concerns on both the left and the right about the future of democracy in Europe, Monti’s comments came across as especially ominous.

Certainly the remarks have not been well received in Germany, where both the political class and the constitutional court are seen as deeply committed to national-parliamentary oversight as essential to the democratic legitimacy of the entire integration project.  Monti has since tried to walk back from his remarks, as a means of cooling the controversy:

‘I am convinced that [parliamentary] democratic legitimation is fundamental in the European integration process. To this purpose in the Lisbon Treaty the role of both national Parliaments and European Parliament has been strengthened. I did not mean that I hope for a limitation of the parliament control on governments, on the contrary, I think it should be strengthened on the national and European levels. The autonomy of parliament from the executive is not in question at all, with obvious deference to what is provided for by the national constitutions of each European State.’

Monti’s clarification, by invoking both national parliaments and the European Parliament, raises the questions of ‘dual legitimation’ that I have explored previously on this blog. I’d like to focus on the national-parliamentary side of the legitimation equation for a moment, which to me seems the much more crucial one. I explore the growth of national-parliamentary oversight in great detail in Chapter Five of my book, Power and Legitimacy: Reconciling Europe and the Nation-State (OUP 2010).  For readers interested in this history of both national and supranational legal developments, I urge them to take a look (and please excuse the shameless plug).

Several reviewers of Power and Legitimacy have noted how my analysis seems to stress national-parliamentary oversight as superior to EP supervision as an instrument democratic legitimation in European integration (see, e.g., the comments by Türküler Isiksel and Bruno de Witte in the book symposium in the European Constitutional Law Review here and here).  This is true.  As I put it in my reply in the symposium:

The persistent legitimacy difficulties of the EP demonstrate . . . why the ‘no demos’ problem in European integration has bite. The EP participates in the exercise of real legislative power; it is isomorphically structured along the lines of a national legislative assembly; and yet it does not represent, as yet, a historically coherent demos capable of legitimizing the EP in an autonomously ‘constitutional’ sense.  The EP’s legitimacy, like the legitimacy of the EU as a whole, is derivative of the legal commitments made by the member states in the treaties.  The EP serves a critically important functional and political purpose in integration, no doubt.  But the citizens of Europe do not see it as an embodiment or expression of the capacity of a new European ‘demos’ to rule itself in autonomously constitutional terms.’

This claim obviously has bearing on the Eurozone crisis, where the quest for democratic legitimation of a seemingly distant and technocratic decision-making process (of which Mario Monti is one symbol) has become ever more acute.  As I discussed in my Daimler Lecture last February at the American Academy in Berlin (since published here), the role of the EP is undoubtedly important to the ‘input legitimacy’ of the EU, i.e., to a sense of government ‘by the people’ in Lincoln’s famous formulation.  But given the lack of ‘demos-legitimacy’, the EP cannot satisfy Lincoln’s threshold criterion – government ‘of the people’ – or the ‘historical identity between a population and a set of governing institutions’, grounded in ‘the political-cultural perception that the institutions of government are genuinely the people’s own, which they have historically constituted for the purpose of self-government over time’.  As the lecture continued:

‘Without such demos-legitimacy—that is, without the sense that European institutions are genuinely the people’s own, rather than some distant bureaucratic construct—Europe will always have a great deal of difficulty overcoming its democratic deficit, no matter how much input and output legitimacy otherwise exists. Indeed, the very idea of a democratic deficit in the EU may itself reflect an elite misapprehension of the nature of the problem. As my book Power and Legitimacy describes in some detail, the problem in the EU is not a democratic deficit, in the sense of needing increased input legitimacy, but rather a democratic disconnect. European institutions are generally perceived as beyond the control of democratic and constitutional bodies in a historically recognizable [i.e., national] sense, and this has a bearing on the scope of authority that Europeans believe supranational bodies can legitimately exercise.’

This idea of the EU’s legitimacy problem as being primarily a ‘democratic disconnect’ has begun to receive some attention in certain quarters, which I of course welcome and would like to develop further.  It is also one that high-profile advocates of increasing supranational democratization would do well to consider.  The problem of the ‘deficit’ view, in my estimation, is that it assumes that the democratic problem in the EU is solely one of inputs – for example, increasing the power of the EP in the legislative process, making the Commission more directly accountable to the EP as a genuine ‘government’, or electing the European Council president by a Europe-wide vote.  These efforts to increase ‘input legitimacy’ might have a long-run impact on the development of a sense of democracy in the EU, but only if a genuine European demos also emerges (perhaps these reforms might help that process along, as some of their advocates argue).  But given the current lack of a European demos, as well as the continued attachment of Europeans to national parliaments as cornerstones of democratic self-government, such reforms could well have the opposite effect of what their advocates intend.  If accompanied by dramatic increases of supranational power of the type many regard as essential to solving the current crisis (e.g., Euro-bonds), such reforms could be experienced as deepening the ‘democratic disconnect’ by undermining the power of national parliaments, without replacing them with any institutions with recognizable ‘demos-legitimacy’ on the supranational level.

Because the democratic-legitimacy problem in European governance continues to be experienced as a ‘disconnect’, not a ‘deficit’, I was not surprised by the deeply critical response to the Mario Monti’s gaffe (which in America we define as ‘when a politician accidentally says what he really thinks’).  As Guido Westervelle, the German foreign minister, said, the critical national parliamentary role in the Eurozone crisis ‘is beyond discussion. We need a strengthening, not a weakening of democratic legitimation in Europe.’  The role of national parliaments remains essential, in other words, to the task of overcoming Europe’s persistent ‘democratic disconnect’, particularly as the crisis demands the increasing delegation of powers to the supranational level.

Allow me to conclude with the closing paragraphs from my Daimler Lecture, which hopefully will help to drive the point home:

‘Despite the many efforts to create a version of constitutionalism beyond the state in the EU [by, inter alia, increasing the power of the EP], the current crisis is a further manifestation of a still basic fact in Europe: “government of the people” is still wedded to the nation-state in crucial respects [hence the importance of national-parliamentary scrutiny in European governance, as the current controversy over Mario Monti’s comments has shown]. How long that will last, I cannot say. But the Eurozone crisis seems to be reminding us of an insight stressed by the French philosopher Ernest Renan in his famous lecture “What is a Nation?” in 1882, something arguably still true despite all that has changed in the intervening century and a quarter. The current crisis is reminding us that, in extremis, national institutions in Europe are still looked upon, in terms of political culture, as a “guarantee of liberty” in a collective, constitutional sense, something that “would be lost if [Europe] had only one law and only one master.”’

2 thoughts on “Europe’s ‘Democratic Disconnect’: Reflections on the Recent Comments by Mario Monti

  1. As the readers of EUtopia knows well, Professor Lindseth’s thinking on the relationship between power and legitimacy in the EU is one of the most sophisticated, timely and nuanced currently available. I am very grateful to him for regularly commenting upon the latest development of the Eurodebt crisis and for making me think ‘out-of-the box’ often times.

    Yet I found his latest analysis of Mr Monti’s ‘ominous’ statement as insightful as disturbing.

    It is undisputed that, due to the lack of political interest (he won’t run in April 2012), Mr Monti is the only EU leader who can afford to tell the truth (both to his colleagues and to the general public). Yet when he does so we call it a gaffe.

    While it is true that asking for more freedom from national parliaments might appear politically incorrect (especially if you are an unelected politician), Mr Monti’s statement is the best proof that Prof. Lindseth’s main thesis is correct: the EU’s legitimacy problem is primarily an issue of ‘democratic disconnect’ rather than an issue of ‘democratic deficit’.

    Monti’s statement looks more a diagnosis than a treatment for unhealthy Europe. Yet, while denouncing the ‘democratic disconnect’ as the cause of the EU malaise he is also helping to identify the right treatment.

    What if we need more unelected politicians to lead towards a “government of the people” in Europe?

    Regardless of media’s speculations, I dream of and wish for more Monti’s ‘gaffes’ to secure a better future for Europe.

  2. Alberto, thanks for this thoughtful and heartfelt comment as well as your kind words about my book. As the book spells out, part of the “constitutional settlement” of the last half century upon which European integration built was an increased degree of policy-making autonomy in the national executive. This is manifest in any number of ways in European public law, not least the legislative role of national executives via the Council. That said, an equally important element of that settlement was a recognition that certain types of policy questions — notably relating to taxation, spending, and borrowing authority — belong to the core competences of the national legislature which, consistent with evolving understandings of representative democracy, cannot be delegated to the executive, whether acting nationally or supranationally. Thus, although, as I said, “in different circumstances” Monti’s statement about the need for executive policy-making autonomy would be unremarkable, it is precisely because he was talking about fundamental decisions falling within core national-legislative competences that his statement was troubling. Unless and until Europeans are prepared to change their understandings about the relative balance of legislative-executive authority on these crucial questions, I do believe statements such as these will “come across as ominous” for the future of democracy, at least as understood under the postwar constitutional settlement. This does not mean that executives, technocratic or otherwise, should be wholly bound by the shifting sentiments in their national legislatures as they struggle to confront the Eurozone crisis. As my book argues, both national executives and national parliaments, along with national high courts, play crucial roles in “maintaining the connection” between functionally-necessary supranational regulatory “power” and national forms of democratic and constitutional “legitimacy.” But the key point is that the three traditional branches on the national level must play this role together, until such time as Europeans decide that the locus of democratic self-government lay elsewhere, perhaps in novel forms of supranational democracy that are are emerging or are as yet devised. I hope this clarifies my point. Thanks again for taking the time to engage me. All the very best, -Peter

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