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Is The EU Having a Legitimacy Crisis?

by Alexander Seling 9 months ago in politics
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How recent developments have affected the EU


This essay will argue that the EU is facing a crisis of legitimacy as a result of the Eurozone Crisis of 2008-9, a summary of the crisis will be outlined before going over how this crisis impacted the different types of legitimacy (output, throughput, & input legitimacy). Finally, I will put forward several recommendations that the EU could consider in order to resolve this crisis of legitimacy and slowly but surely rebuild its reputation with its member states and also regain the trust of the citizens of Europe. By ‘crisis of legitimacy’ I am referring to the recent erosion of trust that member states and citizens have in the EU, this is an outcome that deeply concerns members of the EU because it can be argued that this kind of crisis prevents members of the EU from enacting certain legislation. This is because if they were to try and pass a significant piece of legislation is it likely that some member states would resist it’s implementation and citizens may feel that their voices are not being heard and the EU is following its own agenda rather than the will of the citizens and the member governments.


In 2007 the Eurobarometer revealed some very promising results for the EUs future, in terms of input legitimacy EU citizens seemed to believe their voice was being heard with, 66% saying their country had a voice in the EU and 52% saying that they thought their country would become more influential in the EU. 58% said that their country benefited from EU membership and 53% believed that the EU was doing well economically. This trust and appreciation for EU and national institutions received a powerful blow when in 2008 the financial crash hit the Eurozone. As it battered the Eurozone economies, it created a divide among EU countries, with the strongest economies becoming leaders of monetary policy, imposing strict austerity on those that were suffering the most. These policies failed to legitimate themselves as it became increasingly clear to EU citizens that they were not effective at solving the issues of economies like Greece, Italy and Spain and slowed down the economic growth of the Eurozone.

Output Legitimacy

This type of legitimacy involves the government producing policies and legislation that are seen as effective, but also adheres to the norms and values of its citizens. It is also important to remark that although a policy may be technically successful it must also be recognized as successful by the general public which means that the government has to be effective at communicating with its voters. With the 2008 financial crash spreading to the Eurozone countries, the EU and its output legitimacy were put to the test. The EU embraced strict regulation and punitive measures as its solution to the problem, along with huge austerity packages for member states. In the UK, a plan was announced to cut 490,000 public sector jobs, and introduce the biggest spending cuts since the Second World War. In France it was announced that spending would be decreased by 39 billion pounds (Kitson, Martin and Tyler, 2011). It also appeared to have misjudged the reason for the crisis, while critics now argue the issue was structural, the EU had claimed it was behavioral and branded countries like Greece as lazy and Germany as hard working. In reality the ECB imposed rules on countries without recognizing the complex relation between surplus and deficit economies, and southern economies which were unable to run deficits or devalue their currency because of the euro were forced into a cycle of wage repression. The stereotype of southern countries being lazy and not doing their part was also not in accordance with reality, Spain had been very effective at following the rules on deficits and debts. The macroeconomic results of these policies are very clear, a slowing of the Eurozone economy with deflation becoming a serious risk. Many countries that were targeted with the strongest austerity had their debt to GDP ratio go up, and even in countries that were presented as successful, this was only so because they suffered from large amounts of emigration which lowered unemployment. Periphery countries experienced humanitarian crises, with countries like Spain and Greece reaching record unemployment of 25% and youth unemployment going up to 40% in Italy and 50% in Spain. Furthermore the 2015 Caritas Europe report concluded that austerity had undermined human rights in many areas, it revealed that child poverty and social exclusion had risen while pensions experienced massive cuts. This failure to not only properly recognize the source of the crisis, but also forcing countries to implement regulations that were not effective and caused major issues not just for the economies but for many of the citizens, undermined the trust that people had for the European Unions economic governance, and had a negative impact on its output legitimacy.

Input Legitimacy

Input legitimacy relies on the responsiveness of government to the political demands and concerns of its citizens. Voters want the government to listen and when they feel like their vote matters, the governments input legitimacy increases. This is a problematic area, because of the complex nature of the power relations between national governments and the EU, in the years following the Eurozone crisis, national governments have seen many of their powers being taken away in favor of stronger EU rule. National parliaments have been less involved in new policies and legislation, which makes them seem unresponsive to the electorate which then turns to protest and populism. This divide in responsibility has also created a game of blame shifting, national governments protecting themselves by saying the issues are at the EU level which fed the populist narrative of the EU being at the source of the nations problems. A study of the rise of eurosceptic parties (Treib, 2014) concluded that it could be attributed to the growing worries of the EU and its effects on domestic policies, as well as the increasing alienation of voters from political decisions and leaders. Populist parties have seen an increase in support, even in countries that did not suffer much during the crisis, like the Danish Peoples Party and Sweden Democrats. In the 2012 Eurobarometer report, it was found that 68% of respondents tended not trust their national government and 80% did not trust political parties. Furthermore, it revealed that most did not think the EU was heading in the right direction with 52% saying they disagreed with where the EU was going and 56% saying they did not like where their country was heading. Perhaps one of the most revealing findings focuses on the people’s opinion on how well democracy works in their country and in the EU, the results showed clearly how much discontent had grown, national democracy was not working well for 49% of respondents and EU democracy was not functioning for 45%. The voters feeling alienated from political decisions also showed in the study, 63% did not believe their voice counted in the EU, 46% thought it did not count in their country and 52% said their country’s voice did not count in the EU.

Throughput Legitimacy

This legitimacy is concerned with the process between input and output, it is the quality of politics which depends on the efficacy, accountability and transparency of the process of making decisions. The EU has relied on this type of legitimacy to try and fight the arguments made by opponents concerning the EU and its issues with input and output legitimacy. A effective throughput process however, does not offer the same kind of legitimacy to the citizens, while a bad input can be justified by good output (because as long as people perceive the policies to be good and effective, the government is considered legitimate), and a bad output can be justified by good input (because when people believe their voice has been heard and that they had a say in the policies, they are more willing to ignore negative outcomes of those policies), a good throughput process offers no such trade off yet if it is considered incompetent or corrupt it can undermine both output and input legitimacy. But critics say that even the throughput process has many issues, they have questioned the massive increase in economic and budgetary power of the EU without increasing the input of citizens, as well as Germany being allowed to dominate policy. National parliaments have been increasingly marginalized and EU actors repeatedly reinterpreted rules in secret in response to bad output and worsening input during the crisis. The main problem however, seems to be that this process of supranational policy making is detached from EU citizens, and is not accessible to them. The EUs attempts to increase transparency have had mixed results, when it increased the availability of EU documents, the amount of released information created an overload which made it less transparent (Schmidt, 2013).


It is possible to resolve this legitimacy crisis the EU is experiencing, it will however be a long process of rebuilding trust of national governments and EU citizens. Some good policies could be to restore power to national parliaments and increase the capabilities of the European Parliament, this way national governments will consider the EU more legitimate because they are taking part in making decisions and EU citizens will be able to have more of an effect on EU policy through voting domestically, increasing the EU’s input legitimacy. Furthermore it should have a discussion with member states and try to understand the differences in values and norms, this would allow the EU to be more effective at creating policies that are output legitimate, because they will be in accordance with the values and norms of member states. For the EU to regain its legitimacy it must gain the trust of EU citizens and governments, it must rely on member states to give it legitimacy.


In conclusion, this essay argues that the EU is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy, one of the causes of the damage to its legitimacy was the Eurozone Crisis, which damaged the EU’s input, output and throughput legitimacy. The organization’s input legitimacy was weakened due to an increasing amount of power being held by the EU and National Governments becoming more and more marginalized. Furthermore, citizens felt that they had less of a say in the EU, with more losing trust in their representatives over time. I argued that the output legitimacy of the EU has been challenged due to it implementing ineffective policies during the Eurozone Crisis. Finally, the throughput legitimacy of the union was questioned by an increasing number of critics because it had changed the interpretation of laws in secret, with some saying that the entire EU process is inaccessible to citizens. I then outlined several ways in which the EU could begin to regain its legitimacy and the trust of it’c citizens that it has lost.


Caritas Europe (2015) see:

European Commission, Directorate General for Communication, 2007 "PUBLIC OPINION IN THE EUROPEAN UNION" Standard Eurobarometer 68

European Commission, Directorate General for Communication, 2012 "PUBLIC OPINION IN THE EUROPEAN UNION" Standard Eurobarometer 78

Gabriele De Angelis (2017) Political legitimacy and the European crisis: analysis of a faltering project, European Politics and Society, 18:3, 291-300, DOI: 10.1080/23745118.2016.1229383

Michael Kitson, Ron Martin, Peter Tyler, The geographies of austerity, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2011, Pages 289–302,

Oliver Treib (2014) The voter says no, but nobody listens: causes and consequences of the Eurosceptic vote in the 2014 European elections, Journal of European Public Policy, 21:10, 1541-1554, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2014.941534

Philomena Murray & Michael Longo (2018) Europe’s wicked legitimacy crisis: the case of refugees, Journal of European Integration, 40:4, 411-425, DOI 10.1080/07036337.2018.1436543

Schmidt, Vivien A. “Democracy and Legitimacy in the European Union Revisited: Input, Output and ‘Throughput.’” Political Studies 61, no. 1 (March 2013): 2–22. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2012.00962.x.

Vivien A. Schmidt, 2015. "The Eurozone’s Crisis of Democratic Legitimacy. Can the EU Rebuild Public Trust and Support for European Economic Integration?," European Economy - Discussion Papers

2015 - 015, Directorate General Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN), European Commission.


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Alexander Seling

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