The European Union is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This is evidenced in a decline in support for the EU among citizens in pretty much every member country. The most extreme manifestation is in the UK, where pressure is mounting to quit the EU.
There are two main schools of thought about how to restore trust in Brussels. One is to increase the direct say citizens have over what the European Commission does – say by giving yet more power to the European Parliament or by having a directly elected European Commission president. The other is to stop Brussels interfering in things best left to nation states.
The former school of thought is based on a misconception. The EU does not have a demos: few Europeans feel European rather than Italian, German, French or whatever. Witness the low turnout for European Parliament elections. Trying to construct a democracy without a demos is artificial and so won’t solve the legitimacy problem.
The better option is to decentralise decision-making to nation states. That will bring power closer to the people.
This is the thinking behind the Dutch government’s recent call for an EU based on the principle “European where necessary, national where possible”. It concluded that the time of an “ever closer union”, a key phrase in the EU treaty, in every possible policy area is over. The UK government’s review of the Commission’s “competences” – a word for its powers, not for whether it is discharging them competently – is motivated by a similar desire. The first results of this review are due later this week.