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Normative Political Theory and the European Union1
The French and Dutch referendum rejections of the Constitutional Treaty on Europe again
brought issues of the EUs legitimacy and identity to the forefront of political debate.
the EU suffer from legitimacy deficits? If so, what are their alleged symptoms, diagnosis and
prescriptions? Is there, and should there be, a European Identity? Must Europeans share acore of values, traditions and rights and should that requirement deny Turkey membership?
The express public concern in Europe for these issues of normative political theory
underscore the value of such research both for doing and for understanding politics. This
academic subdiscipline centrally seeks to evaluate the legitimacy of institutions and policies,
and scrutinizes both the relevant standards, and the soundness of their normative grounds. The
salience of such issues of normative political theory in the current political debate confirms a
recognizable pattern: Perceived political crises increase the demand, supply and impact of
normative political theory. The insights of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel
Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, John Rawls, Jrgen Habermas and
Susan Okin and others arose from, and informed, the political crises of the day.
Consider the alleged legitimacy deficit of the European Union. Worries about a democratic
deficit did not emerge in response to the Constitutional Treaty. Indeed, the reverse may be
argued: that concerns about such deficits added fuel to the calls for a constitution for the EU.
Popular disquiet had already gained political salience in response to the contentious
Maastricht Treaty ratification process. And such reactions were in line with the predictions of
some scholars, who had warned of domestic backlashes in response to European integration
(e.g. Keohane and Hoffmann 1991, 29).
What is at stake for the EU, and for other subdisciplines?
For some political theorists, legitimacy is centrally a matter of whether citizens have trust inthe future compliance of other citizens and authorities, with institutions they believe to be
normatively legitimate. Such trustworthiness in institutions and fellow citizens seems
necessary for the long term support for the multi-level political order, and for authorities
ability to govern. Disillusioned citizenry may fall prey to populist demagogues, with
consequences all too familiar on this continent. Perhaps more likely, a general loss of political
trust may also threaten a wide variety of institutions and practices both at the domestic and
European level. Normative political theory may contribute decisively in promoting such long
in so far as political philosophy does seek to persuade members
of a system of the existence of a verifiable objective common
good, it does serve, with respect to its possible politicalconsequences, as a response that may aid in the growth of
diffuse support. (Easton 1965, 319 fn 3)
The normative legitimacy of the EU, and the public perception of such legitimacy, is also
relevant for other research on European integration. For instance, some of these issues inform
and are expressed by public opinion and political culture, which are crucial variables in
several theories of European integration (Sinnott 1995, 24).
This review presents some of the central approaches and research issues of the political theory
of the European Union. The normative turn in EU studies (Bellamy and Castiglione 2003)
is evident in several research topics addressed by normative political theorists. Section 1 gives
1Approximately as printed inHandbook of European Union Politics. K. E. Jorgensen, M. A. Pollack &B.
Rosamund (eds). London, Sage: 317-335.
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a brief overview. Some of the highlights of the long, though meagre, pedigree of this field are
sketched in section 2, and the more recent history is sketched in section 3. Popular and legal
conflicts strengthened the claim of many politicians and scholars that the European Union
suffered from a legitimacy deficit in need of resolution. Section 4 dissolves this apparent
consensus by exposing experts different accounts of symptoms, diagnoses and prescriptions
with regard to this deficit. This section also illustrates how normative political theory engageswith other subdisciplines of political science. Section 5 seeks to provide a taxonomy of
concepts of legitimacy, institutional mechanisms of legitimation, and objects of legitimacy.
Section 6 combines several of these disjointed insights into a somewhat unified perspective. It
incorporates empirical concepts of legitimacy as compliance in an account of citizens
political obligation to obey normatively legitimate political orders. Several concepts and
mechanisms of legitimacy address the assurance problems that conditional compliers face
under complex structures of interdependence. These challenges are likely to increase with
European integration, and merit careful study. Section 7 concludes with a sketch of some
current normative research topics about the European Union. I shall suggest that several
issues require scholars to rethink fundamental concepts and normative standards of the
subdiscipline of normative political theory.
1 Some topics in the Political Theory of the EUAt first glance it may seem that political theory and European integration are hardly on
speaking terms. For instance, the SageHandbook of Political Theory(Gaus and Kukathas
2004) makes no mention of the EU. Yet European integration raises profound issues of
political theory, and has occasioned much political theory research.
One central topic is the implications of European integration for concepts such as the stateandsovereignty. Europe is a prime site for changes to the institution of sovereign statehood.
Final domestic legal authority and immunity from outside authorities have become less
effective tools for effective control within the territory of each state, so governments have
pooled some legal and political controls in order to achieve certain common objectives
(Keohane 1995; Krasner 1999). How are we to assess such profound transformations of
sovereignty, from a defining characteristic of a state to a bargaining chip? What are the
normative implications if member states of the EU are no longer states in the received sense,
or if the EU has itself taken on state-like features? Must, for instance, the EU be defended and
assessed by similar standards of legitimacy as sovereign states? (MacCormick 1999).
Another topic of concern has been the basic formof the European political order: Should this
polity be regarded mainly as a confederal arrangement, or federal, or with a network
structure? Or is the only empirically and normatively defensible solution to regard it as apolitical order sui generis for now or for ever? The Constitutional Treaty would remove
some obscurities by placing some legal competences more clearly with Member States or
with the Union a move toward a federal order by some accounts (Elazar 1987, Norman
1994, Kymlicka 1995, Choudhry 2001, Follesdal 2001). What are we to make of allocating
the competences according to a principle of Subsidiarity (Follesdal 1998b)?
The proper values and objectivesthat should or may be pursued by Europeans remain
important research task for normative political theory. The Constitutional Treaty identifies the
central values of the Union, including
respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, therule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights ofmailto:[email protected]:[email protected]:[email protected]
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persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to
the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-
discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality
between women and men prevail. (Art I-2).
Article 3 of the Constitutional Treaty goes on to identify the objectives of the Union,
including the promotion of peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples. It shall alsopromote social justice and protection, economic, social and territorial cohesion, and
solidarity among Member States. whilst respecting Europes rich cultural and linguistic
diversity. Much recent work by normative theorists addresses these various values and their
relative weight: Is (further) integration necessary for peace? Should the EU be a counterforce
to US military hegemony (Habermas and Derrida 2003)? What sort of freedom does and
should the EU aim to promote (Dobson 2004)?
Another important normative issue is distributive justice. Given the objective of social justice
and the frequent references to theEuropean Social Model, how should European
institutions distribute benefits and burdens among Europeans, and how should such decisions
be made? To equalize living standards would entail politically unacceptable costs, since the
newest member states GNP per capita was only