The EU Legitimacy Crisis and the UK Membership Referendum

schweiger-brexit-handsThe public referendum on the future of EU membership in the UK on 23 June is a reflection of the EU’s deepening internal crisis.
Dr Christian Schweiger explores.

Never before in the history of the European integration process has the realistic prospect of a member state exiting the Union occurred. The upcoming referendum on British EU membership could result in the exit of the third largest member state, which would have profound implications for the future shape of the Union. With the UK the Single European Market would lose one of the strongest and most vibrant economies. The EU would also be significantly weakened as a security actor as the UK is one of the few member states who spends at least two per cent of its GDP on defence and has significant crisis deployment resources, which are overall in short supply.

The background to the second public referendum since the UK joined the European Community in 1973 has its origins in a mixture between domestic circumstances and external developments in the EU. To a certain extent the referendum is an attempt by David Cameron to end the long-standing internal war on Europe within the Conservative party by appeasing the eurosceptic wing and to fend off the growing electoral challenge represented by the UK Independence Party. The domestic background is closely linked with developments in the EU. Calls for a second public referendum on the EU in the Conservative Party grew louder as the EU came under German leadership during the eurozone crisis. German chancellor Angela Merkel responded to the eurozone sovereign debt crisis by pushing through the introduction of new coordinative policy mechanisms which enhance the Commission’s supervisory role over national budgets and macroeconomic policies. Merkel’s ambition has been to draw the lessons from the crisis by turning the eurozone into a stability union. This was considered by both British Conservative eurosceptics and UKIP as the first step towards turning the EU into a federal political union. Cameron hence came under increasing pressure to renegotiate the terms of British membership and to allow the British public to vote on the deal in a referendum.

The renegotiation reflects the EU’s internal division over what
is essentially a legitimacy crisis.

Since the Maastricht Treaty created the current European Union structure in 1993, governments in the EU have struggled to maintain the permissive consensus that used to carry the integration process. Under the permissive consensus citizens accepted to be indirectly represented in the EU through their national governments. This was granted on the basis of the expectation that elite-level decision-making would result in effective policies to resolve major internal and external challenges. As EU policies failed to tackle the mounting problems such as rising unemployment, poverty, lack of affordable education, healthcare as well as declining internal and external security, citizens began to scrutinize the procedures and content of EU-level decision-making. The problem with this is that EU governments responded by turning the European Parliament, which receives low levels of public interest, into co-decision maker. At the same time they however failed to develop direct input mechanisms for public consultation in the EU’s governance system. The frequent decision-making gridlock in the Council resulted in less collective decision-making between the growing number of member states and more informal intensive transgovernmentalism[1] between groups of countries. Under the unprecedented conditions of the eurozone crisis, which moved Germany into the position of semi-hegemonial leader in the EU, the tendency to reach decisions through backroom deals between member state groupings, with the involvement of the European Commission and the European Central Bank, has increased substantially. This was obvious during the eurozone crisis and again during the recent migration crisis, where the German government determined the content of the bilateral deal with Turkey in cooperation with the Dutch government and the Commission. The rest of the EU member states in the Council were consequently repeatedly presented with what were essentially done deals, which Merkel promoted as being without alternative (over the eurozone crisis) and as a moral imperative (over the proposal for binding EU-wide refugee quotas). At the same time unelected institutions such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (the troika) and more recently the newly created European Stability Mechanism (ESM), were granted an intergovernmental mandate to implement and scrutinize budgetary and economic reform programs in the eurozone crisis countries. Democratic supervision of these processes remains limited, in spite of the fact that the decisions taken under the austerity reform programs directly affect the lives of citizens on a daily basis. As citizens in these countries and across the EU experience rising unemployment, declining welfare standards and public services they feel increasingly powerless to influence the political agenda. Latest Eurobarometer public opinion show that currently 54 per cent of citizens across the EU think that their voice does not count in the EU, which is only a slight decrease from the 67 per cent reached during the peak of the eurozone crisis[2].

The result has been a surge in public support for eurosceptic parties on radical left- and right-wing fringes of the political spectrum across the EU. Even the founding Franco-German partnership of the European project is slowly gripped by euroscepticism with record levels of support for the anti-EU Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and the realistic possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the 2017 presidential elections in France. The UK’s exit from the EU is likely to fuel the fire of euroscepticism further. Brexit may ultimately lead to referenda on EU membership in other member states, which could potentially result in the slow disintegration of the Union. Although Brexit is certain to weaken the EU, the other 27 member states are not in a position to offer the Remain camp in the UK strong arguments to convince the majority of the British to opt for staying in. The EU presents itself in permanent crisis mode and member states are unable to collectively resolve the mounting internal and external challenges. As the strategic interest of member states drift ever further apart and solidarity is scarce, the EU resembles more a disunion than a cooperative Union. The Vote Leave camp consequently finds it easy to raise negative issues in connection with Britain’s EU membership, such as the prospect of the further loss of sovereignty, large-scale inward migration, economic instability in the eurozone and most recently the prospect of Turkish membership. Vote Leave figurehead Boris Johnson controversially, but potentially effectively in terms of winning public support, compared the EU with Nazi Germany when he stated in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that ‘the EU wants a superstate, just as Hitler did’[3].

Germany’s semi-hegemonial leadership is currently neither challenged by economically the weakened France, Italy and Spain. Poland under the new Law and Justice government of Beata Szydlo seems no longer interested in playing a leading role in the EU and is instead concentrating on cooperation in the Visegrád group with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Under these circumstances the EU currently can hardly afford to lose a big player like the UK. What the EU would currently need is a fully and pragmatically engaged British government which acts as the promoter of substantial institutional and policy reform. David Cameron has vowed to return his country to a leading role in the EU if the UK remains a member after the referendum. If Cameron himself, or his successor as prime minister in case he faces a leadership challenge immediately after the referendum, is indeed willing and able to live up to this ambition remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the EU will need to move from the current German semi-hegemony towards more inclusive, strategic and visionary leadership if it wants to overcome its deepening legitimacy crisis. This can only be achieved if all the countries in group of six largest member states, including the UK, make a substantial contribution. Without the UK it would fall to France and Poland to fill the gap and work towards transforming the EU’s leadership agenda. Neither of the two countries seems currently able to do this as France under president Hollande has turned inwards and Poland under the eurosceptic Law and Justice Party can hardly be regarded as a constructive partner. The outlook is therefore bleak and never before has the future of the European project been so fundamentally at stake.

[3] T. Ross (2016), ‘Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate, just as Hitler did’, 15 May, available at

[1] H. Wallace and C. Reh (2015), ‘An Institutional Anatomy and Five Policy Modes’, in Hellen Walace, Mark A. Pollack and Alasdair R. Young (eds), Policy-Making in the European Union, Oxford: University Press, p. 109.

[2] European Commission (2015), Standard Eurobarometer 84: Autumn 2015: First Results, available at, p.9

Exploring the EU’s Legitimacy Crisis by Christian Schweiger will be out in November.


, , , , , , , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: