Book Review: The European Union

Simona Piattoni, The European Union. Democratic Principles and Institutional Architectures in Times of Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 320 pp., £55,00 (hardback), ISBN: 9780198716273.

Since its foundation, the European Union (EU) has been an innovative experiment that challenged many traditional principles of Western politics such as sovereignty and statehood. From the perspective of political science, the EU is a formidable research lab for a long list of classical topics. Among these, one of the most exciting exercises for scholars is to determine “the nature of the beast” by finding a new or existing political and institutional format that fits with the characteristics of the European Union. A second “cool” topic is the legitimacy of the EU in terms of both common values and democracy in the political processes. Nevertheless, in the last years, the crisis has presented complex challenges to the European Union and to scholars involved with analyzing its political system.

Moreover, the euro crisis necessitated a joint response to save the single currency, and European politics became more salient; for the first time, it was collectively perceived as strongly intertwined with domestic politics by European citizens. This edited volume explores the impact of the euro crisis on the institutional structure of the EU and proposes a theoretical frame for understanding the institutional changes that should take place in response to the existential threat that the Eurozone crisis represented. The book’s basic contention is that the crisis was a push factor for reforming the institutional structures of the EU and for increasing the level of citizens’ participation. Simona Piattoni, editor of the book and an Italian scholar with deep knowledge of and research experience on the European Union, has framed contributions from outstanding scholars in order to connect the topic of the EU’s institutional and governance structure with the problem of legitimacy and accountability of the Union’s political system, taking into account the shock effect the last economic crisis had on the people and governments of the member states. Based on the premise that in time of crisis, “the future of [the] EU will depend on its capacity to address broad societal problems in a way which is consistent with EU citizens’ preferences,” this book challenges the theoretical perspective of the EU’s “output legitimacy” and stresses the need to “stick to democracy as a basis for legitimacy.”

The substantive scope of this analysis means that the book addresses a number of ongoing debates in EU political science scholarship by providing a common frame for the analysis and evaluation of the quality of EU democracy. In her introduction, Simona Piattoni identifies six democratic principles, delegation, accountability, representation, transparency, responsiveness, and participation that serve as theoretical and methodological guides for contributors. The classical debate on the EU’s democratic deficit is discussed by Fossum and Pollak with a new perspective. They evaluate the democratic performances of the EU in the light of the six abovementioned principles without underestimating the challenge of “accommodating diversity” that the EU must face in designing its institutional structure. Agné and Neyer debate the notion of legitimacy in two different chapters. Agné’s contribution criticizes the actual institutional architecture of the EU because this latter does not provide citizens with the power to influence the common institutions and their work. Neyer argues that the EU should increase the role of national Parliaments in order to legitimize policy outputs, with particular regard to monetary and finance policy. Crum and Curtin and Nicolaïdis, Burgess, and Fabbrini analyze the Union’s actual institutional structure.

In particular, Crum and Curtin evaluate the accountability of the EU by analyzing executive power and decision-making procedures. They argue that the EU suffers from institutional and political ambiguities that determine lack of accountability. Nicolaïdis applies the notion of “demoicracy” to the EU’s political system in order to highlight the EU’s specific needs in organizing its political system, with particular regard to the necessity of conciliating different and, in some cases, opposite requirements. Burgess approaches the democratic dilemma of the European Union from a federal perspective that is combined with a revisited version of historical institutionalism. In this perspective, he argues that some federal objectives as stated by the Founding Fathers marked a path that is still valid and they could contribute to establishing a political and institutional strategy for moving the EU forward.
Fabbrini, in his contribution, focuses on the double logic underpinning the EU’s actual institutional arrangements: the supranational Union and the intergovernmental organization. Both logics coexist in the Treaty, but in times of crisis, they can be uncomfortable for the system in terms of both effectiveness and democracy.

In this perspective, Fabbrini argues the need for a Treaty reform in order to substitute the double logic of intergovernativism and supranationalism with a coherent model of compounded democracy that can reconcile the union of states and the union of citizens.

Smismans and Kröger analyze the Union’s interest representation system. Smismans, in his contribution, discusses the main debates on modes of participation in the EU and identifies some basic principles that should be considered for every future reform of the EU’s institutional architecture. Kröger frames the topic of democratic representation in the larger perspective of political equality and introduces the issue of representation deficit in the EU policy process as one of the main concerns for the EU’s political system. Benz’s chapter is focused on a further classical concept in EU studies: the multi level governance model (MLG). His analysis is centered on the reconciliation between representative democracy and the multilevel governance system in order to demonstrate that that MLG can be a democratic mode of governance.

The main value of this text is that it incorporates the institutional analysis of the EU into the debate on the legitimacy of the integration process with particular attention paid to the challenge posed by the economic crisis. It highlights the crisis’s crucial role, not only showing that the crisis determined a request for more participation but also investigating how and by whom the institutional architecture of the EU should be reformed in order to face the new European environment.

The result is a collective volume that makes compelling reading and that will prove a valuable resource not only for EU scholars but more broadly for researchers in comparative politics.

Francesca Longo, University of Catania

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