Who rules in Europe?

The European Union is facing a crisis of democracy. Will we choose the future or the past?

At the heart of political science is one key question: who rules? Pericles answered in 431 BC: “We decide public questions ourselves, or at least come to a sound understanding of them.” Abraham Lincoln in 1863 weighed in with his classic definition of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, an understanding still in force today in Article 2 of the French Constitution. In both cases the answer is the same: we rule ourselves.

In Europe today, the core question of democracy has no clear answer. If we rule ourselves, then who are we? In other words, where are the people (demos)? And who rules us? That is to say, where is the power (cratos)? Is it the Commission that governs? The European Council? Germany? The Troika? The European Central Bank? The markets? The problem is not just the specific answer, but also the question. If, in a democracy, we cannot say who rules, then we cannot hold those in government responsible for their mistakes. We can neither control their actions nor can we take part in the democratic election of representatives. We cannot trust in the separation of powers, we cannot properly articulate public opinion, and we cannot create spaces for reflection.     

The purpose of elections is to choose those who will govern and legislate in our name. Our vote, the ultimate expression of a nation’s sovereignty and of the equality of its citizens, has a dual function. It acts to reward or to punish those who have ruled us, and it serves to designate who will rule us next. Both functions act together to indicate how we wish to be ruled. Therefore, there must be alternatives, and those who govern must be able to bring them into force. But if, as we have increasingly experienced in recent years, alternatives do not exist because they either evaporate or are unviable, then democracy is stripped of all meaning. The ability to kick out bad rulers is good – it is the great advance that democracy has brought. But democracy’s real sense lies in government according to the will of the majority.     

The euro crisis has enormously complicated the relationship between democracy and the process of European integration. Our democracies were already afflicted by a number of well-known problems, notably a stagnation in our systems of political representation and participation. Beginning in 2008, the crisis added a specifically European problem to the list: how to govern the euro in a way that is both effective and democratic. The euro has been poorly administered, both procedurally and in terms of results. Therein lies the source of what could be called the European Union’s democratic malaise: the sense that democracy has vanished from the national sphere but has not reappeared in any coherent sense within Europe.

Some may view the idea with horror, but for many it would be a relief to think that national democracy had been substituted for a genuine European-level democracy, in which citizens could choose between distinct options that each had a real chance of being put into practice. But the EU has not superseded national democracy and imposed an equivalent structure of government. That vision is a caricature, as false as it is disingenuous.        

The problem is that the political playing field has narrowed, both within each nation and in Europe. The euro crisis has altered Europe’s political configuration and redrawn the lines in democratic politics to an alarming degree. On a national level, politics is fragmenting and becoming polarised in relation to European integration. In Spain, for example, for the first time in their country’s democratic history, many Spaniards believe that their capacity to make decisions has not increased by being shared with their European partners, but rather that it is being reduced. The transfer of new and broader powers to the European sphere was justified by the need to save the euro. But this transfer has led to the hollowing out of national politics. Unable to set monetary or fiscal policies and subject to the vigilance of national and European institutions, governments have begun to look like Odysseus strapped to the mast.    

At the European level, the traditional institutional balance has been altered. Power and resources are shared anomalously between old and new institutions. The Commission has lost its capacity to drive policy. The Parliament is marginalised by governments that have chosen to ignore it and instead to place their trust in their membership of the Eurogroup, the Troika, or the European Central Bank. In this way, the EU is a victim rather than the cause of this new democratic deficit. Throughout the crisis, the European institutions that are most representative of the EU’s citizenry and of the union’s general interests have been stripped of their democratic decision-making capacity.       

There has always been and there will always be a tension between democracy and effectiveness, especially in societies that are technically complex and interdependent. There is also a tension between these societies and global markets. If interdependence limits democracy, there are two possible alternatives. Democracy could be reconstructed on a higher plane in which the decisions taken would represent and benefit the majority. Or alternatively, democracy could be restored to the national ambit, which would reduce interdependence to a minimum and, therefore, would undo or limit European integration.

The first option is supported by federalists: it is time, they say, to toss aside the useless old shell that the nation-state has become. The second option is favoured by the populist Europhobes, represented by the political forces that emerged all over Europe in the European Parliament elections. Despite their differences, these Europhobes put forward a common programme: do away with the euro, return to national currencies, recover lost sovereignty, defend national identity, and halt immigration.


Both options represent leaps into the abyss, although in opposite directions. The first would take us into a future about which we know almost nothing. The second would bring us back to a past for which many yearn. However, this past has been idealised; in reality, it would have many problems. Europe is trapped between these two visions: a leap into the past, which sadly seems possible even if undesirable, and a leap into the future, which to many of us seems desirable but impossible in the present circumstances. 

What should be done? How can we extricate ourselves from the current situation? We could launch, alongside the debate over whether we should have more Europe or less Europe, a debate about how much democracy we want to exercise, where we want to exercise it, and with whom. Europe is not yet a democracy, but it is a distinct political space in which policies and politicians operate. With these ingredients, we could create a democracy. All that is needed is for the European political space to be broadened and furnished with the right instruments and resources. Rebuilding democracy and re-engaging the citizenry, both domestically and in Europe, can only occur if more rather than less space is given to politics, so that citizens can elect real politicians and choose real policies.  


¿Quién gobierna en Europa?: reconstruir la democracia, recuperar a la ciudadanía by José Ignacio Torreblanca, published by Catarata, is on sale now. 

This is a translation of an article that appeared in Spanish in El Pais.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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