British Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement that the United Kingdom may hold a referendum on its membership in the European Union could push other members to re-evaluate their roles as well. Although it is uncertain whether the referendum will actually take place, the mere possibility is generating unease on the Continent. Most important, when Cameron described the European Union as something that has been "imposed" on the European population, he brought to light a profound issue: the question of the democratic legitimacy of the European Union.
Europeans have a rough relationship with referendums. Referendums on EU-related issues are rare, since most countries usually approve reforms to the European Unions' legal framework through their national parliaments. The few times that the European Union organized referendums, the process was traumatic; the ratification of EU treaties requires the approval of all the members of the bloc, so a rejection by only one member could halt the entire process.
Only France, Denmark and Ireland held referendums to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, which was signed by EU leaders in 1992. This foundational document created the European Union and set the basis for introducing the euro. It took two referendums for Denmark to approve the treaty, and Copenhagen was granted special opt-outs to support it. It also took two referendums for Ireland to approve the Treaty of Nice, signed in 2001, and the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007. The Irish population originally rejected both documents.
The European Union's traumatic relationship with referendums reached its peak in 2005, when the populations of France and the Netherlands — two founding members of the European Communities — voted against the European Constitution. The rejected document would have replaced the existing EU treaties with a single text, as well as expand the system of qualified majority voting and give legal force to the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The question over the European Union's democratic legitimacy has been central to the European political agenda since the birth of the European Communities. The Treaties of Rome in 1957 created the European Economic Community — the predecessor of the European Union — as a trade agreement between France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The populations of these countries were not consulted before the creation of the European Economic Community because the European elite have controlled the European project since it began.
To address what European leaders perceived as a democratic deficit of the new supranational institutions, the Treaties of Rome created a European Parliament that would technically have to be elected by a direct vote in each member country. But the Europeans failed to reach an agreement on what voting system should be used, and the first direct elections for the European Parliament did not take place until two decades later, in 1979. Since then, the European Parliament has gained additional powers that consolidated it as a co-legislative chamber alongside the Council of the European Union.
Despite this progress, the European elite encountered two unexpected problems. First, popular participation in elections for the European Parliament has fallen almost continuously over the past three decades. On average, only four out of 10 Europeans voted in the latest European Parliament elections in 2009. Second, campaigns for the European Parliament generally are based on domestic policy issues, with few parties offering a European-wide vision. Although the European Union affects the daily lives of its people, the European elite have failed to communicate its goals and mechanisms to the population.
The European Union is often accused of lacking democratic legitimacy, but ironically it is also criticized for its slow decision-making process. The need for unanimity on critical issues — such as the ratification of treaties — makes the process of institutional reform extremely slow and full of concessions and special clauses for members.
Even without referendums, the process of having 27 national parliaments debate and approve institutional reforms substantially slows the reform process. Moreover, it allows member states to use their vote as leverage to negotiate concessions from the European Union.
At the center of the debate between the democratic deficit and the need for more efficient institutions lies a crucial shortcoming of the European Union: it is a hybrid structure, where countries share sovereignty with supranational institutions. The European Union is not a federal state ruled by a constitution, in which popular sovereignty is transferred to democratic government institutions. On the contrary, the European Union is an agreement between states that can eventually decide to abandon the project or reclaim sovereignty they previously conceded.
The European Union is fundamentally an elective relationship, created for the convenience of its members. Largely, the European Union is an economic bloc built upon the promise of prosperity. With that promise now in doubt, it is natural that foundational problems such as the lack of democratic legitimacy and the slow decision-making process in the European Union should resurface. As a result, it is also natural for states to rethink their role in the union.