European identity at a turning point: alienation between the European Union and its citizens

Maria-Mercedes Hering, Donate Hindrichs, Anna Lena Hohmann, Julius Lang and Alexandra Ugrai

student group at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
Supervisor: Johanna Schmidt-Jevtic, M.A.

Abstract: Over the past few years, the European Union has faced and needed to overcome the threat of euroscepticism; even quite wealthy countries like Germany have witnessed such sentiments emerge. Therefore, this article argues that the EU crisis, and more precisely social disintegration, is not merely a question of economics, but rather a crisis of identity which has led to alienation between the EU and its citizens. In order to overcome fragmentation and scepticism and to strengthen European identity, this paper identifies direct democracy at the European level and enhanced parliamentary cooperation as two strategies to bolster democratic accountability.

Since the financial crisis of 2007 and the recent public debt crisis, the European Union has been confronted with mistrust, scepticism or even outright rejection. But economic weakness is not the only trigger of such sentiments; even strong countries like Germany face euroscepticism. In light of such developments, this article focuses on the importance of social disintegration and political change within the EU, placing particular focus on the alienation between the union and its citizens. This is an extremely important development to consider as a “growing number of people have turned their back on Europe” (Emmanouilidis 2014:12).

This article begins by explaining the EU’s critical condition through the nexus between the consequences of European crises and the rise of eurosceptic parties which are a manifestation of social disintegration. This report then turns its attention to European identity, with democracy as its cornerstone. Here we show that even the beneficiaries of the crisis face social dilemmas. The following section analyses the fragmentation stemming from the aforementioned problem. To put theory into practice, this report identifies two strategies—namely empowering European citizens through direct democracy in the EU and strengthening accountability and legitimacy through enhanced parliamentary cooperation—to bridge the gulf between the European Union and its citizens.

Nexus between the consequences of European crisis and the rise of eurosceptic parties

Europe is currently facing a number of complex and extremely interlinked crises posing a fundamental threat to the continued existence of the EU itself. Besides the economic crisis, which includes the banking and public debt crisis, the EU must handle an institutional crisis in which its citizens display significant mistrust of the EU’s institutions. The social dimension can be seen as the most serious issue, putting the EU under pressure (Stevenson 2014:23). The misery of the social crisis can be seen by skyrocketing unemployment rates, particularly among youth. A further debilitating effect on the EU is the widening gap between wealthier and poorer nations. The EU’s inability to initiate reform and the complexity in decision-making round off this chorus of criticism.

According to the Standard Eurobarometer 82 from autumn 2014, only 14% of the EU 28 “tend to trust” in political parties, compared to 80% of European citizens who “tend not to trust” them (European Commission 2014:38). The scope and seriousness of the aforementioned problems caused by the crisis are also reflected by the outcomes of the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections. 36% of the seats in the EP are occupied by eurosceptics, compared to only approximately 20% in 2009 (The Economist 2014). It is also striking that both sides of the political aisle pose a threat to the EU. Despite their widely different ideological roots most of these eurosceptic parties can be categorised as anti-establishment and populist movements, manifesting themselves in their programmatic stance. By questioning the political system and offering merely populist solutions, these parties pose a threat to the European project itself.

Democracy: The cornerstone of European identity

The legal and political basis for suretyship is the Copenhagen European Summit of 1973 where the Declaration of European Identity was ratified (CVCE 2013). Their definition of a European identity involved a “unity … of the community”, “the European identity in relation to the world” and the “dynamic nature … of a united Europe” (Radeljić 2014:4). The 1993 Treaty of Maastricht was a step towards a stronger European identity, a milestone in the European integration process (Bekemans 2014:36).

One of the characteristics of Europe is that it is the product of a diversity of citizens and their cultural characteristics. Bekemans (2014) argues that “Europe should be seen as an added (enriched) value to our multiple identities. The European identity relates to a community of shared values such as solidarity, … respect for diversity … and human dignity” (24–25).

In fact, it is striking that most contemporary research neglects the relationship between political elites and their demos — the core of democracy. Therefore, it is advisable to connect democracy with the European identity, and we believe that democracy is the cornerstone of Europeanness. The EU integration process has been an elite project from the very beginning — without direct democratic legitimation. This was acceptable in times where the remit of the EU was limited in its competences and its decisions were indirectly legitimized by the national parliaments due to the dominance of the principle of unanimity in the Council. Nowadays, the EU is equipped with a wider range of competencies, causing a lack of democratic legitimacy. Additionally, the increased use of majority decisions weakens the control of national parliaments over EU decisions. We conclude that the EU needs to develop its own democratic legitimacy.

European identity at a turning point

As stated above, the current EU crisis is not merely a question of economics. Indeed, it is mainly an identity crisis, the diminished trust of European citizens in the EU reflected by the last European Parliament elections. As the democratic principle lies at the core of European identity, the enlarged competencies of the EP and its comparatively decreased democratic legitimacy deprive countries and citizens of the right of consultation. When countries, parties or citizens turn their back on the international arena, fragmentation occurs, putting the European identity under pressure.

We regard the so-called politicisation of European integration as the theoretical framework of the growing tendency toward euroscepticism, described by Wilde (2011) as “an increase in polarization of opinions, interest or values and the extent to which they are publicly advanced towards the process of policy formulation within the EU” (560). The main indicators of politicisation in the EU, according to Schimmelfennig, Leuffen and Rittberger (2015), are mass level salience and opposition to European integration, the mobilisation of eurosceptic public opinion by eurosceptic parties and opportunities to voice eurosceptic opinions in national referenda or EP elections (771).

Germany is perceived as one of the main beneficiaries of the eurozone and coped successfully with the European debt crisis (Young & Semmler 2011). Meanwhile, EU member states like Greece, Spain and Italy have suffered enormously from the consequences of the crisis and are still struggling to overcome the critical economic situation. Despite the economic strength Germany has maintained throughout the European crisis, eurosceptic sentiments have emerged within the country while positive attitudes towards the European project decline, evidenced by the rise of the eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Therefore, an economic explanation alone is insufficient at this European turning point. This leads to the conclusion that other factors beyond economic issues determine European citizens’ attitudes towards European identity. EP campaigning in 2014 has shown various anti-European and eurosceptical sentiments on both edges of the landscape of political parties in Germany.

 The difficulty of fragmentation

An analysis of fragmentation will enable us to focus on this question: What is European identity and how does fragmentation challenge European unity? Even in relatively prosperous EU states like Germany, euroscepticism has increased. Therefore, we assume that fragmentation threatens further European developments and its existence in the long term.

Globalisation and fragmentation work in opposite directions. Globalisation leads to a widening and deepening of interdependencies between states, thus forcing states to harmonise their policies with one another. In contrast, fragmentation means a reduction of these connections, thus decreasing the need for states to harmonise. Similarly, globalisation lessens the importance of state borders while fragmentation fosters their meaning. If a country is forced to globalise faster and deeper than it wants to, the loss of sovereignty can lead to scepticism concerning further developments (Rittberger 2010:78–80). Decisions made without or against a state can increase fragmentation, too, as the state may be driven to oppose the deciding entity. But as globalisation does not reach all parts of the world with the same intensity, some states are less globalised than others and witness fragmentation over a longer period of time. Also, democratic deficits and feelings of impotence concerning international relations can wear out states’ trust in international organizations and lead to an intended fragmentation (Rittberger 2010:106–09). These mechanisms of fragmentation occur in Europe today.

Currently, Europe is witnessing increasing fragmentation. Recently, eurosceptic parties have gained more and more power in the EU, especially in the EP. Fragmentation is certainly not a new phenomenon in the European party system, but recent developments “provided a fertile ground for populist ‘anti-forces’ — anti-EU, antieuro, antimigration, antiestablishment — on both the left and right of the political spectrum” (Emmanouilidis 2014:99).

The economic crisis is still having a big impact on Europe. The solutions to this problem have often been changed, corrected and decried as failures. Insecurities endanger the unity of the EU. For this paper, the fragmentation between EU citizens and the political decision makers is of special interest. “There is a widespread feeling that the EU has … been ‘part of the problem’, poisoning national debates and public attitudes” (Emmanouilidis 2014:98). Europeans are wondering whether the EU and the decisionmakers represent their country well. Meanwhile, fragmentation between the EU member states and their national societies has caused a wave of reinforced nationalism and prejudices, leading to a stereotype-biased mistrust between nations. Interpretive fragmentation is another concept whereby the varying living conditions of EU citizens challenge their understanding of the circumstances in other countries (Emmanouilidis 2014:99). All of these forms of fragmentation can affect a state itself, causing fragmentation between the nation state and its citizens. In the EU, these problems are more important than elsewhere, as the opinions of each member state and its parties can affect their opinion on EU policies heavily.

Empowering European citizens through direct democracy

In order to address the EU’s direct democracy deficit, the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) included an element of direct democracy at the European level for the first time (Obwexer & Villotti 2010:108). The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), as “the first supranational instrument of direct democracy, creates an additional direct link” (García et al. 2012:2) between EU citizens and the institutions of the union. We see great opportunity in its ability to strengthen transnational democracy.

Since its introduction in 2012, EU citizens are able to participate directly in political decision-making. The establishment of the ECI thus raises the question whether it can diminish the direct democracy deficit and whether it is an efficient tool for generating participation and thus fostering European identity. In order to answer this question, we evaluated whether the ECI is a newly established input mechanism conveying citizens’ concerns with higher efficiency into European politics. Therefore, we measured the efficiency of the ECI by referring to the input and output model of EU legitimacy by Scharpf (1999:16). He assumes that the EU possesses a lack of input efficiency because socioeconomic, institutional and cultural diversity interfere in the development of an overarching European identity. Three criteria that appear relevant to us helped us to measure the ECI’s efficiency: enforceability, relevance and motivation. We have chosen the four most popular citizen initiatives in order to create validity and have analysed them on the basis of the three aforementioned criteria. Even though these four initiatives have been civil concerns since the introduction of the ECI, the EU citizens’ concerns raised neither public attention nor awareness due to a lack of an enforcement mechanism. Our evaluation of the input efficiency of the four initiatives shows clearly that EU citizens’ concerns have been addressed with greater frequency since the implementation of the ECI, but there have yet to be any concrete policy changes on these issues.

To summarise, the lack of input efficiency has been addressed in the first real direct-democratic instrument, the ECI. This leads us to the assumption that the ECI has the capability to establish governance by the EU citizens. However, it is debatable whether the ECI is a well-constructed mechanism with the ability to convey citizens’ concerns into EU politics. Currently, EU citizens may launch an ECI but the Commission can refuse these proposals. This mechanism unfortunately does not bridge the gulf of the direct-democratic deficit of the EU due to organisational and technical problems. Thus, the chain of command has to be changed from a top-down to a stronger bottom-up process. So far, we do not see the ECI as a real direct-democratic instrument.

How can direct democracy be improved and European identity strengthened? We are in need of a stronger participatory union equipped with involvement of citizens in EU policy-making. As demonstrated above, we should avoid high expectations concerning the political potential and the direct democratic influence of the ECI. But current literature offers recommendations as well as reasons why it definitely is favourable that the ECI continue to develop. Our first recommendation presents the most promising measures to overcome major obstacles currently facing the initiative. Firstly, a Citizens’ Initiative Centre could be established “as a one-stop shop for support and information to ECI organisers” (Ballesteros et al. 2014:53). Consisting of an office and an online platform, such a centre could offer services such as supporting the search for potential partners, replying to information requests of any kind and providing detailed guidelines on the rights of the ECI organisers and all administrative procedures through the ECI process (Ballesteros et al. 2014:53). Secondly, ECISs should have the ability to require implementation through treaty amendments (ECI Campaign 2015). There are innumerable issues that are important to citizens requiring EU treaty changes. As the Commission has the right to do so on its own, the ECI should also have the power to propose treaty alterations. This measure would strengthen bottom-up developments, as citizens would have influence in adjusting treaties and therefore a say in EU politics. With these recommendations the ECI’s influence will undoubtedly be increased so that in the future the ECI will become a more successful connecting mechanism between European citizens and EU institutions like the Commission.

Our second proposal is the establishment of real direct-democratic instruments following the Swiss model. Switzerland offers its citizens three mechanisms to participate in political decision-making and increase their discretionary competence. Popular initiatives for constitutional amendment and obligatory or optional referenda ought to be introduced on the European level (Baglioni 2004:93). This approach could increase the union’s democratic legitimacy and should strengthen a pro-European direction as one can assume “a more vibrant political participative landscape” (Baglioni 2004:93). We are convinced that a participative EU can stimulate citizens’ interest in politics and potentially weaken citizens’ scepticism of European institutions. Real direct-democratic elements can halt political apathy in Europe.

We highly recommend introducing participative elements on the European level to generate a prosperous future for a common Europe. In our opinion, European identity can be strengthened in this manner, thus setting a pro-European direction and shifting the turning point from social disintegration to social integration.

Strengthening accountability and legitimacy through enhanced parliamentary cooperation

Many EU citizens feel uncomfortable with ongoing EU integration and the increasing significance of the decisions made in Brussels in their daily lives because they “feel they cannot influence the formulation of policies” (Emmanouilidis 2014:12). The opaque, often incomprehensible and complex decision-making system is not only a breeding ground for eurosceptic parties, but it also has the potential to create a lack of democratic accountability and legitimacy. In order to heal this deficiency we argue for a strengthening and deepening of the cooperation of the EP and the national parliaments. Although treaty after treaty has progressively empowered the EP (Mayoral 2011:1), unilateral reinforcement of the EP has proven inefficient.

A cooperative approach between the EP and the national parliaments would consider that both — each at their level—represent the very same citizens. Working together would ensure respect for the principle of subsidiarity and would enable them to reconstruct democratic legitimacy. By incorporating both levels, the consideration of their citizens’ various needs could be guaranteed, thereby reinforcing the ties between representatives and the represented.

Interparliamentary cooperation has progressively improved. Since the Maastricht Treaty, the importance of deepening relations further has been acknowledged, and the Treaty of Lisbon endorsed the relevance of the involvement of national parliaments in EU parliamentary activities. Nevertheless, academic research on cooperative approaches offers some criticism. Winzen (2012) , for instance, raised the obvious question of how it could be measured effectively. Acknowledging such criticism, we still see the cooperation of the EP and national parliaments as a way to strengthen democratic accountability and legitimacy.

As demonstrated, solely advancing the existing cooperation procedure will not solve the democratic deficit. As the European project comes to a turning point, it requires a revolutionary change in its understanding of European parliamentarism.

European identity is at a turning point. Social disintegration, in our view the alienation between the EU and its citizens, is the primary threat to the continued existence of the EU. We outlined the nexus between the consequences of European crisis and the rise of eurosceptic parties contributing to social disintegration. It has become clear that the democratic principle is the cornerstone of both identities—European and national.
In our opinion, democracy must be practiced and experienced at the European level and not solely at the national level. If the latter remains the case, fragmentation will expand. We believe two strategies could bolster EU democracy. The EU must reinforce direct democratic elements while guaranteeing and deepening cooperation between the EP and national parliaments. In the end, the EU must accept that only a change in its behaviour
can lead towards a communitarian future.


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It’s participation, stupid? No, it’s not

commentary from European Democracy Lab
Dr. Ulrike Guérot (Founder & Director) and Victoria Kupsch (Co-Founder & Programme Officer)

It has become quite trendy to call for more participation and blame European citizens for their lack of engagement and interest in European politics. European citizens’ initiatives sought to cushion this reality and trigger more bottom-up activity. And yet, we are chasing the wrong debate. More participation and ultimately a fully direct democracy is nothing more than the erosion of representative democracy, thus far the only system capable of allowing polities bigger than Switzerland to organize their common economic, political, social and cultural realm. Rousseau reminds us that the general will is not the sum of individual interests: direct democracy has never worked, and it is time to remember this in Europe today!

Direct democracy has never worked, and it is time to remember this in Europe today!

What we really need is a functioning European system in which the promise of political power is achieved: dysfunctional policies can be changed, government can be voted out and opposition is possible without being against the entire system as such. That kind of system would be one set-up under Montesquieu’s principle of division of powers. For Europe, it is time to adopt this and end technocratic trialogue meetings, which are nothing more than a bumpy median leading to a dead end.

The technocratic interim solution of governing Europe has become “business as usual” and is the best example of a hollowed-out polity. British political scientist Colin Crouch has described it as postdemocracy: a system where “you can always vote, but you have no choice”.

This is bluntly visible in the Greek case as well. A renewed government has close to no choices and is ultimately subjected to following the very logic it wanted to overcome in order to avoid the same mistakes again.

The answer to the malaise of the European trilogy producing unsatisfying results is thus not to have greater participation, but rather to create a functional political system on the European level—not least because we currently witness that even millions of signatures against TTIP will probably not prevent the treaty.

The so-called democratic deficit cannot be solved with more transparency or more participation — that is, with the very terms the current European discussion is zeroing in on. One could also say that debate has stalled. More participation will not make France’s Marine Le Pen disappear, more transparency will not deprive Hungary’s Viktor Orbán of his power. Democracies that are merely formal in nature cannot provide any of that.
The political system in Europe—and beyond—must keep its functional promise.

Empirical studies now show a clear correlation between poverty and voter turnout, even in Germany. Formal participation in elections offers no real political alternative and therefore no hope of possible improvement in one’s own life, which is why people do not vote in the first place. Politics is no longer functional. The crucial point is that democracy has deteriorated into a formality. In this sense, today’s question is about the return of the political power to shape processes as a reaction to the postdemocracy world we are living in.

In The Society of Equals, Pierre Rosanvallon gets right to the heart of it: “We thought democracy is about participation, but actually it is about equality” (2013), recalling the motto of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Freedom is only conceivable in conjunction with equality. If formal democracy is on offer but the social question is not answered or society’s promise of equality is not honoured—at least to a certain degree—
then the democratic system has failed because it no longer fulfils its function. Democracy is about preserving social bodies.

An installation artist recently produced a small art performance and documented the following in a series of videos: five people were given the task of making a bowl together on a pottery wheel. They could not do it. Perhaps it is better to give the power to one to form a bowl out of which many can drink and change the potter when the bowl becomes crooked? This is at least the message of the art performance. In other words: European citizens didn’t (and don’t) turn their back on Europe; they turn it—and rightly so—on a dysfunctional European system.

Delivery and governance, not identity, are the real problems. The real disconnect of today is not the one between European citizens and the European project—as this paper argues—but the disconnect of national political elites obsessed with populism and lost in an incomplete system. The political decision-makers today are bound to destructive structural ties and their own lack of courage to do the obvious: decisively pursue the path of European treaty change to get a more functional European polity instead of greater participation.

The so-called populists, meanwhile, have well learned their lesson. Offering guidance or rather authority combined with catchy stories works better than pragmatism and formal offers of participation.

In certain respects, the populists are traditional and thus better fit a political system that is still analogue. They set up parties that function in the European political system. The generational dynamic in this debate is an important factor: A countervailing civil society entity would need to be politically bundled to be able to induce change. It seems as if civil society, or the young protestors, can no longer manage to pool interests. Hierarchies, asymmetrical structures and long procedures—the essence of party politics and leadership—are no longer accepted.

A countervailing civil society entity would need to be politically bundled to be able to induce change.

The real answer to populism—which has been called a European identity crisis but which actually conceals a European social crisis—would be to tackle the social problems at our society’s roots. Addressing the social and cultural exclusion disempowering large numbers of citizens all across Europe today—especially those living in abandoned, mostly rural regions and areas—offers a much more functional solution: an interconnected European people. A commitment of the European government system to attack this reality upfront and strive for change would do a lot more against the populist threat than the promise of merely formal participatory procedures. Moralization against populists while negating their arguments does not help either. It only leads to further polarization, restarting the populist vicious circle.

The real answer to populism—which has been called a European identity crisis but which actually conceals a European social crisis—would be to tackle the social problems at our society’s roots.

To conclude, it is not a lack of European identity that is to blame, but rather the elitist and misguided setup of the EU that has created an incohesive European populace, lost in the many details of a European polity and an incoherent political system which appears both foreign to and far away from reality. Solving the problems arising therefrom through greater participation cannot be a European remedy. It can, however, spark an understanding of the underlying structural problems. To solve these, Europe needs a fully functional political system and a social system in which the European people are the core of all political decisions—both their own and those of their elected representatives.

European Democracy Lab is a young, cross-generational, inter-disciplinary think tank, independent of any political party and working on new ideas for the future of European politics, its economy, and our shared society.