Citizens of the Union

As a final subject in our series “A United Europe?”, this week we will be looking at the citizens of the European Union, their attitude towards it and how this attitude is a major obstacle to achieving a truly unified Europe for those wanting this.

Protest march in Barcelona against EU. (Photo by Grey Barkley on Flickr)

Currently, the 27 member states of the EU have a combined population of more than 500 million citizens. It goes without saying that all of these do not share the same attitude towards the union, but there are some issues on which the EU is negatively perceived in the general public, or at least among a large part of its citizens.


First of all, though, the vast number of citizens creates a problematic for integration itself. It is obviously not an easy task to gather half a billion people under one flag and unite them as one people – especially not when they don’t feel much allegiance to that flag, but more on that later.

The large number of citizens is further complicated by the fact that these come from many and very different backgrounds; with 27 different national cultures and 23 different official languages, there is a huge psychological distance between e.g. Sweden and Slovakia, or Germany and Greece for that matter.

There is, in other words, no real European culture or identity that is common for all. One move the EU has made towards some sort of European identity came with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 where ‘EU Citizenship’ was introduced. With this initiative every person holding the nationality of a member state of the EU is also a citizen of the Union, which gives that person certain political rights and rights of free movement. The EU Citizenship is only an addition to one’s national citizenship, however, so the nationality is not replaced by any broader sense of European ‘nationality’.

The question is also whether it is even possible to create a true European identity without annihilating the citizens’ national identity, thereby destroying centuries of national culture and cultural history.


Apart from a growing interest and media coverage of the EU since the breakout of the financial crisis, which put the euro and EU’s fiscal troubles high on the agenda, most citizens of the union have not taken much interest in it. Many people have a picture of the EU as being an institution of elites and endless bureaucrats for whom no issue is too big or too small to dictate; anything from fiscal discipline to how big cucumbers farmers are allowed to grow is governed from the EU, to great frustration for its citizens.

Moreover, the perception of the EU as a distant bureaucratic institution is simply a boring one, and many people therefore do not take any interest in it, nor can they be bothered to try and figure out the very complicated structure of such a huge political body. This notion is strengthened by the lack of feeling of having a voice in EU-matters, due to the bureaucratic and technocratic nature of the union.

Media coverage of the EU’s day-to-day agenda is very low compared to the power of the EU, and people’s lack of interest is self-perpetuating.


The general citizen’s lack of feeling of having a voice when it comes to the EU is one of the greatest challenges for the union. It is of common opinion that the European Union suffers from a huge democratic deficit, which undermines its legitimacy.

The only democratic institution within the EU is the European Parliament (EP) for which politicians are elected directly by the citizens, and the power of the EP is quite limited in comparison to the degree of decision-making in the EU (although the EP gained power through the latest treaty). Commissioners are thus appointed in office, and candidates to such titles as President of the European Council (Herman Van Rompuy) and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Catherine Ashton) are chosen behind closed doors.

There are a whole lot of issues on which the EU is accused of being undemocratic. We will not go through all those issues here, but just want to make the point that there is a growing opposition to the bureaucratic and technocratic EU of today. This opposition includes intellectuals and politicians within the EU as well. What those who wish for more democracy mostly miss is a public sphere. There is simply not enough debate, criticism and questioning between the Union and its citizens, for one reason or the other. The lack of democratic possibilities is also self-perpetuating in that it causes indifference in the citizens and a general lack of public interest in EU politics.

With the Lisbon Treaty the EU introduced a way for citizens to participate democratically with the ‘Citizen Initiative’, which means a group of citizens can make the Commission propose legislation before the Council and Parliament. Being implemented on April 1 this year, one could have presumed this initiative to be an “April Fool” since the requirement of collecting signatures for a proposal from 1 million people in at least 7 different EU countries seems far from possible. However, the Citizen Initiative has actually already been utilised, as a group of 1 million citizens from 7 different countries wants to “enhance different exchange programs”. In any case, the initiative is a sign that the EU realises the democratic deficit of the union and acknowledges that something must be done.

One relevant issue where a democratic process is hard to find is the case of the current financial crisis and the EU’s solutions to it. During the past few years a strict fiscal discipline, budgetary cuts and austerity measures, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been the top priority on the European political agenda. The public haven’t been heard on this issue, though, and it is not even a European construction, but a German one. It is often the reality that those in power only feel they are doing the right thing and do not fully comprehend their use of power, while those being ruled experience that power in a whole other, mostly negative, way; so when Angela Merkel does what she thinks is best for Europe and wants Germany to act as a ‘good European’, paying a large part of bailouts for debt-stricken countries, the citizens in these countries only feel rage against the requirements of austerity forced upon them. The lack of a public voice is then seen on election day when the citizens finally get to speak up, and we have thus seen several protest elections, most recently in Greece, and a string of European governments that have fallen. Several technocrats have also been installed in government posts in economically struggling countries in the EU, attaching more importance to efficiency than legitimacy since the citizens apparently do not know what is best for them – a highly undemocratic point of view.

In an open letter in the Guardian a couple of months ago signed by a whole range of people including former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, current President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz and such great thinkers as Jürgen Habermas, Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, just to name a few, a plea was made for national and EU politicians to redefine the European project and create a bottom-up European Union where citizens actively participate in a democratic process. Read the letter here:

The EU was an elitist project from the very beginning, but it seems the union will not be able to unite the citizens it governs without giving them a louder democratic voice. Public support of the European project also requires democracy, and that public support is crucial to the legitimacy of the European Union.

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