Europe's Autumn? Popular Sovereignty and Economic Crisis in the European Union

Article excerpt

At the Strait of Gibraltar, North Africa and Europe are divided by a mere thirteen kilometers. Yet, in the first half of 2011, it seemed that the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea occupied different hemispheres, at least politically. As the Arab Spring blossomed in the southern Mediterranean, Europe seemed to be locked in the midst of a dreary autumn, looking with trepidation at the possibility of a long, hard winter. While popular movements were toppling authoritarian regimes only hundreds of kilometers away, the European Union (EU) and its member states were tied down in an economic crisis and facing questions about the nature and future of a project that has been credited with bringing peace, prosperity, and democracy to the continent since World War II. Celebrations in the streets of North Africa were in stark contrast to the protests and violence taking place in Italy and Greece, as well as the indignados, the protestors who occupied streets and squares throughout the continent to express their dissatisfaction with politics. As the economic crisis unfolded in the EU, it became abundantly clear that its nature was political and that popular sovereignty was both a means and an obstacle to its resolution. Political leaders struggled to find solutions that would not raise social tensions at home. This was due to the fact that they emerged from a political system at the European level which lacked clarity about how to organize political power - and the extent to which that power was to be an emanation of the "popular will" of Europeans.

This is not to suggest that the European Union and its institutions, including the European Central Bank (ECB), are repressive regimes that need to be overthrown. Rather, the aim of this article is to argue that the EU's fundamental problems in the face of the economic crisis are rooted in a lack of popular sovereignty. The consequences for the EU resulting from the post-2008 economic crisis will remain unclear for some time, but one lesson seems to be emerging in its myriad forms, popular sovereignty matters. This holds true even in institutions that seem to go beyond traditional forms of political organization - such as the EU - and citizens have shown this by rejecting the centralization of political power and pushing for a more organic link with those it governs.

This article will be divided into two sections. The first section will give a brief description of the role (or lack thereof) of popular sovereignty in the construction of the European Union. It argues that the basic premise of European integration - that it slowly marches forward, driven by elite consensus and not popular will - became an obstacle rather than a resource in addressing some of the major problems in the EU.1 The second part of the article examines the recent economic crisis and how the difficult relationship between European integration and popular sovereignty contained both the seeds and the constraints for a resolution.


On many fronts, it would seem odd to include the European Union in any discussion that looks to the popular roots of sovereign political rule, as the concept of "popular sovereignty" has traditionally been irrelevant to the EU project.2 In other contexts, such as the Arab Spring, situating the locus of political power with the "people" offers challenges to institutions, constitutions, and elites. In the EU, popular sovereignty faces an additional rival: national sovereignty. The history of popular sovereignty in the Western world has often been inexorably entwined with that of the creation of sovereign national states. In the case of the EU, speaking of placing power in the hands of a "sovereign European people" poses a direct threat to notions of national sovereignty, not least because it implies creating Europeanwide institutions that are the expression of a European political community. Moreover, it means defining a European "people" that have self-consciously formed a political community with a shared destiny. …