The Europhile Threat to European Political Integration

image1 The financial-economic and migrant crises exacerbate anti-European sentiments. Populist movements across Europe have become electorally successful. One of their central manifesto pledges is to take their country out of the European Union (EU or Union) or at least bring sovereign powers back to the nation-state. Their narrative is often that the national elite have given away powers to an unaccountable EU-regime, powers that rightfully belong to the true domain of modern democracy: the sovereign nation-state. Conventional wisdom holds that these Eurosceptic populists are the threat to the stability of European integration.

In this short essay, I go against this conventional wisdom. Instead, I point toward the danger of (implicit) persistent Europhilia without popular support. European integration policy has effectively been marked by an ideology of Europhilia. That is to say, the idea that more Europe is always a good development and, equally important, less Europe is always a negative development. The Europhile bias in the European integration project is seen as to continuously undermine the nation-states’ sovereignty in favor of transferring powers to the EU-regime. This bias subsequently fuels widespread anti-European sentiments among a population that remains committed to national sovereignty. From this perspective, Euroscepticism is thus the articulation, rather than the cause, of destabilizing anti-European sentiments. However, the skeptical ideology also does not do justice to EU-citizens’ beliefs. EU-citizens continue to support Europe for its benefits which makes ‘no Europe’ also an illegitimate solution from their perspective. In these times of crisis, I will conclude, the challenge is to find a democratic vision to stabilize European political integration that balances EU-citizens’ commitment to national sovereignty and support for integration in virtue of its beneficial outcomes.


Let me start with a short definition of legitimacy and its relationship to normative political philosophy. Political legitimacy is the widespread support for a regime from those that are subjected to its collective rule. The subjects of rule provide their support to the political order, or at least acquiesce to it, because they accept claims about the legitimacy of the regime. From this perspective, citizens’ beliefs are the micro-foundations of any legitimate political order. Realist political philosophers often argue that a regime requires legitimacy to ensure the stability of the political order.[1] A lack of legitimacy results in resentment and, if widespread and severe enough, rebellion or another form of civil war. They add that successful bandits using fear and force to ensure compliance is also not a form of legitimate rule. Citizens transform rule into authority based on uncoerced beliefs about the desirability of their political order. Legitimacy is thus a normative concept at its core, hence it falls squarely in the domain of normative political philosophy.

The debate on the EU’s lack of legitimacy arose in the early 1990s. Until then a permissive consensus existed. This consensus consisted of widespread support for a rather elite-driven integration project. Citizens passively supported European integration, because, on the one hand, they trusted their elected governments to defend core national interests, and, on the other hand, the European regime secured positive outcomes, most importantly peace and prosperity.[2] The 1992 Maastricht Treaty consolidated the institutional framework of the Union as a political regime. From then onwards, the EU has increasingly encountered resistance to its rule. Popular protests, negative rulings by high courts on EU-powers, no-votes on the constitutional treaty, and the rise of Eurosceptic parties reflect a widespread wave of anti-EU sentiments.[3] Philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that recent popular uprisings resulted from the perceived illegitimacy of European political order.[4] The EU’s lack of legitimacy is thus undermining Europe’s political order. As a realist political philosopher, I am particularly keen to understand the causes of this pressing real-world legitimacy crisis as well as plausible solutions for it.

The Eurosceptic story is deceivingly simplistic but not entirely incorrect. A broad sketch will suffice to get the general gist. Eurosceptics argue that the European Union is an undemocratic elitist project that threatens sovereign national democracies. Three broad claims come together. First, the European Union is undemocratic. The democratic deficit is often invoked to substantiate the claim. For instance, neither the European Commission nor the Council of the European Union are directly accountable to the European people through European elections or the European Parliament. Moreover, they often add, that the lack of a European demos makes any pan-European election into an empty façade. The second and related critique is on the elitist nature of the project. EU-citizens have little influence on the political direction, but, and this sets the current state of affairs from the previous one, the Union’s rules and regulations increasingly impact citizens’ everyday lives. The third claim is that as a result of European integration national peoples can no longer determine their future themselves. Democratic self-determination has become usurped by European elites. The replacement of Italy’s elected government by the technocratic Monti government and the imposition of detailed policies as precondition for essential bailout packages are often mentioned in this context.


The resonance of this story is in part because it is not as unrealistic as some would like it to be. Each of the three claims is true to some degree. The Eurosceptic narrative has actually become more convincing in recent years. The response to the Euro-crisis has resulted in what several academics have described as an executive order.[5] Intergovernmental agents have set up unaccountable forums in which they decide upon Europe’s future. Increasingly, they decide upon matters traditionally associated with the sovereign state, such as macro-economic policy. Executive and technocratic bodies, such as the Commission and the ECB, enforce these policies. Simultaneously, national parliaments and the European Parliament have been relegated to advisory positions at best.[6] This executive order is clearly an undemocratic form of rule on any vision of democratic politics. The current emergencies might require this kind of effective executive action, however they compound concerns about the European project’s undemocratic tendencies.

The response to the Euro-crisis also reflects a deeply rooted de facto Europhile mindset among European elite. Time and again, European leaders have chosen to push toward an ever closer Union. At times, especially now, this mindset seems more a product of fears of the collapse of the entire project. European elites seem unwilling to seriously consider renationalizing major policy domains. For instance, the highly centralized EMU constitutes a highly contestable policy choice within Europe’s heterogeneous polity. Its unequal consequences were evident in the Euro-crisis.[7] Yet, very few European leaders seem to seriously consider abandoning the Euro in favour of national currencies. Leaving aside practical challenges, any reversal of European powers to national level is deemed a failure of the entire project. This highly contestable claim is also a hyperbolic one. No state has made its persistence dependent upon a certain single policy. Good statesmen have been willing to surrender any policy for the survival of their polity. The European project is itself a product of such statesmanship.

The Europhile agenda of ‘more Europe’ has also explicitly informed policy proposals. The European constitution is the most prominent example. The constitution would create a direct democratic relationship between EU-citizens and its European regime. More generally, a constitution is often associated with the foundation of a democratic state. In France and the Netherlands, populations rejected the constitution in referenda. The solution was to water down the Europhile rhetoric in the Lisbon treaty, thus bypassing the need for a referendum in these countries. In Ireland, the treaty required a second referendum to pass effectively ignoring the outcome of the first one. Eurosceptic populists arose across the Union in part as a response. However, our concern is whether, and why, the effective and increasingly apparent Europhile bias toward an ever closer Union explains popular resistance to the project?

As said earlier, legitimacy depends upon citizens’ beliefs about what justifies a regime’s right to rule. Public opinion research analyses EU-citizens’ normative commitments concerning political legitimacy. The broad findings are fairly consistent. Europe’s democratic citizens combine a commitment to European integration with one to national sovereignty. A European identity on par with a national one does not exist. Many EU-citizens recognize an European dimension to their identity. For instance, and not insignificantly, citizens share some of the same liberal democratic values. However, these commitments do not replace a commitment to their national identity. Public allegiance to the EU is primarily generated by the positive outcomes of the project, such as peace between states, safeguarding liberal democracy, and economic security and prosperity.[8] However, this type of output-legitimacy is notoriously fickle, hence it is not a stable source of legitimacy for a political order.

A stable order, as argued above, is a product of widespread acceptance of the regime’s legitimacy. The current reliance on outcomes make the EU’s political order inherently unstable, because outcomes can change and remain contested. Further, EU-citizens’ shared commitment to liberal democratic values clearly make the unaccountable form of executive rule into an illegitimate mode of governance. The EU-regime requires democratic legitimacy to compensate in times of poor outcomes. The paradigmatic Europhile solution of a supranational European democracy is unlikely to generate democratic legitimacy in the foreseeable future, because EU-citizens remain strongly attached to their national identity, and, in political terms, to their sovereign nation-states. As a result, democratic self-determination at the national level remains an important concern for EU-citizens. At this point, the Eurosceptic solution of a retrenchment to a Europe of sovereign nation-states seems attractive.


However, and here I diverge from the populist rhetoric, their slogan of ‘no Europe’ will not result in a legitimate European order either. EU-citizens strongly desire both European integration and national sovereignty; therefore, to privilege one exclusively over the other will continue to fall short of citizens’ beliefs about legitimate rule in the EU-polity. Moreover, it might well feed resentment among the large number of EU-citizens committed to European integration. The EU requires a democratic structure to ensure democratic legitimacy. The solution of a European superstate, as indicated, cannot rely on widespread support for the foreseeable future. Due to space restraints I will leave aside a detailed institutional design able to generate democratic legitimacy. My research inquires the legitimation potential of the EU as a demoicracy in which national peoples democratically legitimate a transnational regime.[9] In terms of institutional mechanisms, greater inclusion of national parliaments, referenda and other forms of direct participation in decision-making at the European level seem fruitful options to generate democratic legitimacy. The legitimate institutional form of a European regime, however, should be decided upon through democratic politics rather than by a philosopher-king. It is clear that neither Europhile nor Eurosceptic positions do justice to EU-citizens’ criteria of regime legitimacy. At the moment, these two positions effectively fuel popular resentment.

One of the tasks of political philosophy is to problematize widely accepted beliefs. The conventional wisdom states that Eurosceptic populists threaten Europe’s political order. This short essay offers an alternative reading in which Europhile ideology lies at the root of the instability of the European integration project. The constant push toward an ever closer Union does not find widespread resonance among Europe’s populations. Europe’s supranational institutions, which reflect this logic, do not generate support but resentment. From this perspective, Euroscepticism is an (over)reaction of Europe’s democratic populations against these salient political developments. Eurosceptic populists do indeed destabilize the current political order. However, Europhile ideology fuels the underlying resentment. This ideology acts akin to a moral doctrine, because its (implicit) supporters do not allow for compromises. The problem is not that pro-European ideology is morally troublesome per se, but it is a politically imprudent doctrine in the current circumstances. Citizens require a new vision to lend their support to this unique project in regional integration. Here lies another task for political philosophers, they should imagine such a horizon. Subsequently, states(wo)men will have to show the political courage to stand for and pursue such a realistic non-Europhile vision to stabilize European integration.

Jan Pieter Beetz (VU University Amsterdam, ) is a Postdoctoral Researcher at ACCESS EUROPE situated at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the VU University Amsterdam. His research aims to rethink statist political concepts to suit the transnational nature of the EU-polity, and make theoretical sense of novel empirical developments in this sui generis polity.


Beetz, Jan Pieter. 2015. “Stuck on the Rubicon? The resonance of the idea of demoi-cracy in media debates on the EU’s legitimacy.”  Journal of European Public Policy 22 (1):37-55.

Bellamy, Richard, and Dario Castiglione. 2003. “Legitimizing the Euro-‘polity’ and its ‘Regime': The Normative Turn in EU Studies.”  European Journal of Political Theory 2 (7):7-34.

Dawson, Mark, and Floris de Witte. 2013. “Constitutional Balance in the EU after the Euro-Crisis.”  The Modern Law Review 76 (5):817-844.

Habermas, Jürgen. 2012. The Crisis of the European Union. A Response. Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge: Polity.

Lindberg, L.N., and S.A. Scheingold. 1970. Europe’s Would-be Polity: Patterns of Change in the European Community: Prentice-Hall.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2014. “Small-State Nostalgia? The Currency Union, Germany, and Europe: A Reply to Jürgen Habermas.”  Constellations 21 (2):213-221.

Williams, Bernard. 2005. In the Beginning was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. Edited by Geoffrey Hawthorn. Oxford and Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[1] I draw here primarily upon my reading of the political thought of Bernard Williams (2005).

[2] (Lindberg and Scheingold 1970)

[3] (e.g. Bellamy and Castiglione 2003)

[4] (Habermas 2012)

[5] (Habermas 2012)

[6] (e.g. Dawson and Witte 2013)

[7] (e.g. Streeck 2014)

[8] See most recently Eurobarometer 40 from Autumn 2013.

[9] (Beetz 2015)