Europe’s democratic challenge

RECON outreach conference


RECON events 

RECON organised its second open ‘outreach’ event in Oslo on November 24th 2011. The public seminar was held prior to the two-day academic concluding conference and presented key findings to a broad audience.


Livestream from the seminar

Photo gallery (all photos: Annica Thomsson/UiO)


The aim of the conference was to reach out to the wider public, practitioners and stakeholders. It was held at Litteraturhuset (The House of Literature) in downtown Oslo, a popular venue for public events and societal debates. The seminar was part of the University of Oslo’s 200th anniversary celebration and attracted close to 200 people from Norwegian ministries, parliament and political parties, various embassies, local and regional authorities, trade unions and employer’s organisations, NGOs and media, as well as students and researchers.

The main purpose was to present snapshots of findings that would be of interest to people outside academia. Selected research results from all of RECON’s research fields were presented. In addition, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre, held an opening keynote on Europe’s democratic challenges. Finally, and in order to constitute a bridge between the presentation of research findings and the open debate with the non-academic audience, an independent political analyst, Aslak Bonde, commented upon the project findings.


RECON‘s relevance

RECON’s Scientific Coordinator Erik O. Eriksen (ARENA) opened the event with a short introduction to the project in the context of the current crisis. He pointed to the fact that financial speculation and capitalism is global while democracies remain national. The EU could be seen as an experiment in catching up politically with economic globalisation, but much remains for it to be both democratic and efficient in times of crisis.

Eriksen then welcomed Foreign Minister Støre by challenging him to give his views on what should be done in Europe today: Should we move towards more democratic supranationalism and less national sovereignty in a time when nation-based democracy is not capable of facing up to aggressive financial speculations, and when Euroscepticism and nationalistic sentiments are on the rise? Should more competencies and powers be uploaded to the European level or should we rather go forward with some kind of intergovernmental system, which the more recent handling of the Eurozone crisis testifies to?


Erik O. Eriksen and John Erik Fossum discuss the future of European democracy with Norwegian Foreign Minister Støre

The conference was held at Litteraturhuset in Oslo

Europe’s paradox

Jonas Gahr Støre emphasized the profound interconnectedness in Europe, and that we are all in the current economic crisis together. In his view, the paradox is that Europe is failing in two areas in which it should excel. First, no other region should be better equipped than Europe to develop a common currency area, as there is no other region in the world with so much tradition, skill and able economies to develop the necessary institutions. Despite this, it has not been able to develop suitable technocratic solutions. To keep the common currency, there is a need to fill the institutional gaps on how it should be run, Støre argued. Second, Europe, which is the cradle of democracy, has failed to ensure the legitimacy of decision-making. In this time of crisis we witness that actions are taken, leaders are held accountable, and decisions are made and contested at the national level. On this background, the key challenge to democracy in Støre’s view is the people’s lack of trust and confidence in politicians.

Støre concluded the question and answer session by saying that he was confident that the European project would not be rolled back. In his view, treaty change is not the way to go forward. The circumstances will force through new ways of changing institutions, he predicted, which would have been inconceivable only a few months ago.


Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre

A constitutional future for Europe?

John Erik Fossum (ARENA), co-architect behind the RECON project, started the presentations of research findings by discussing the constitutional status of the EU. Together with Agustín José Menéndez (University of León), Fossum has developed a theory of constitutional synthesis in an attempt to devise an explicit constitutional theory for the EU. Fossum claimed that it is necessary to establish what kind of entity the EU is and what kind of constitution such an entity can have, as there are very different readings of this. A first approach is to perceive the EU as an international organisation unfit for a constitution. However, the EU is clearly beyond this, as demonstrated by extensive research from RECON. Does the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in the 2005 referenda then mean that the Lisbon Treaty is a case of constitutional failure? Or are we dealing with a material constitution, but one with weak democratic credentials?

Fossum outlined three necessary requirements for a fully-fledged constitution. First, it must be formal – it has to be designated as a constitution; secondly, it must be material – it must work in social practice; and thirdly, it must have democratic credentials – people must understand themselves as authors of the law they are subject to. According to Fossum, the Lisbon Treaty was an attempt to save the Constitutional Treaty. After a secretive and unclear period of reflection, the leaders explicitly claimed that the legal order could not be understood as a constitution. Yet it functions as one, Fossum argued, and the institutions of the Union still understand it as one. But what credibility can it have as a constitution if the leaders and the member states do not fully acknowledge it as such? The current problem is founded in this tension, Fossum concluded.


John Erik Fossum spoke on Europe’s constitutional future

A European representative democracy?
Christopher Lord (ARENA) discussed problems of compound representation in the EU after Lisbon and presented selected findings from RECON’s research on representation and institutional make-up. A claim often made about the EU is that whatever democratic deficits may be alleged against it, it does at least combine several different channels of representation. But according to Lord, we cannot be sure that lumping together different forms of representation will add up to good representation. To explore whether different elements of representation combine well in the European arena, RECON has studied representation from a number of different angles. A democratic audit of the EU has been carried out, and studies have been undertaken on how far the European Parliament and national parliaments interact in a ‘parliamentary field’, on EU parties’ manifestos of the 2009 European Parliament elections, on EU agencies, and finally, on the adaptation of the representative institutions of a new member state to Union membership.
Among the findings highlighted by Lord was, first, that representative practices can be more autonomous at the European level than is suggested by formal hierarchies of political control. Second, actors and not just institutions matter; the behaviour of individual members of the European Parliament (MEPs) does affect their chances of re-election, and MEPs rarely appeal to purely national considerations in order to justify their arguments. Third, the public’s perception of the quality of representation at the European level is overwhelmingly conditioned by their experience of representation in the national arena. Fourth, although it is comparatively easy to adapt the formal representative institutions of an accession country to EU membership, it is harder to adapt the structure of party politics or civil society relations. Finally, Lord emphasized that there are large unresolved issues as to whether it is possible to combine a form of collective responsibility with a compound form of representation.


Christopher Lord discussed problems of compound representation in Europe

Contesting Europe

Ulrike Liebert (University of Bremen) looked at the EU’s democratic challenges from below by discussing findings from RECON’s research on civil society and the public sphere. She presented examples of how the EU is publicly contested: in national referendums on EU accession or treaty ratification, media contesting the EU’s legitimacy, Euroscepticism, European Parliament election campaigns and public intellectual debates about Europe. Findings suggest that national parliaments have become key arenas in EU constitutional and institutional politics, also in terms of public information, communication and debates. Mainstream political parties contest specific institutional competences and policy reforms, whereas radical and extremist political forces more often contest European integration and legitimacy itself.

The research testifies to an emerging transnational pattern where political parties debate Europe at the same time and on the same issues with similar arguments – a European public sphere. A transnational space of communication can also be identified in the media coverage of EU affairs. A third finding concerns civil society organisations and how they perceive the European order. The differences in their positions on how to strengthen European democracy are conditioned by their conceptions of the EU as a political order, but also by the access they have to influence EU decision-making.

Finally, Liebert argued that the ‘no demos’ thesis; which states that the EU cannot be a democracy as long as there is no European identity, and no homogeneous and integrated European public sphere; is a misleading assumption. She asserted that contestations over Europe are troubling and present challenges, but that they also contain the seeds of ideas and practices that may show the way out of the present paralysis. They could contribute to developing a new type of European political community with a living democracy, with manifold forums where people can debate European issues, where national democracies are closely linked with European-level democracy, and with opportunities for direct political participation by citizens which complement the current modes of representation. The contestations might thus be interpreted as contributing to a revival of the EU rather than to the fall of the euro zone and the delegitimation of European integration, Liebert concluded.


Ulrike Liebert presented research on EU contestation

European or national identity?

Zdzislaw Mach (Jagiellonian University) picked up on the ‘no demos’ thesis and presented research on changing identities in Europe. He started by discussing how to approach the concept of identity, arguing that it should be perceived as a process, not as an essentialistic assumption based in culture and tradition. Identity evolves through dialogue and negotiation. He moreover pointed to the mutual relationship between democracy and identity: not only does democracy need a collective identity; if identity is perceived as a process, we also need democracy in order to have identity. RECON has mainly studied the ‘new’ member states, and Mach argued that EU enlargement created a new reality in Europe by encouraging mobility and dialogue, which is the essence of a process of identity formation. This has contributed to supplementing and reshaping national identities, in particular among younger generations. Research findings from Polish cities also suggest that people see themselves as belonging to a wider space beyond national borders, and that this has an effect on local and regional identities.

Mach, however, also warned about the conservative option which arises when younger generations take advantage of the freedom of expression and choice to construct their identity. Global changes and rapid societal transformations may result in mental and material insecurity, which in turn may lead to the emergence of a traditional, and sometimes even religiously fundamentalist or nationalistic identity. Finally, Mach pointed to research on sexual minorities, which testifies to the fact that also minority groups use the European scene to find security and express their identity. Not only are they able to find possible support in European institutions, they have also found a new platform for promoting their interests, which may not be available at the national level.


Zdzislaw Mach discussed the transformation of identities in Europe

Security – beyond democracy?  

Helene Sjursen (ARENA) discussed the possible democratic challenges to the EU’s foreign, security and defence policy. Sceptics may counter that democracy is of little relevance to this field because it has traditionally been the prerogative of the executive, in line with established practices at the national levels. In Sjursen’s view it is, however, difficult to find any principled arguments as to why this policy field should be exempted from democratic control. Although there may be good reasons to establish secretive procedures, the definition of the kind of issues or situations this should apply to should be agreed upon through democratic procedures, she argued. The main concern of RECON’s research has thus been to investigate whether we can still conceive of this policy field as intergovernmental, or whether it has been stretched too far as to become another form of cooperation. If so, what would the democratic implications of this be?

Findings suggest that the ability of member states to control decisions is challenged. It is hard to identify who actually decides in this policy field. Key actors are national bureaucrats permanently based in Brussels who make cross-national decisions in a collective manner. Member states are thus not found to bargain on predefined interests. Moreover, although the national veto is still formally in place, researchers observe that member states increasingly refrain from using this right, or they change their position, in order to facilitate a common policy. The reasons and justifications for policies also refer to some idea of European values and interests. According to Sjursen, findings testify to a policy-making process which is something between supranational and intergovernmental. It is a kind of transgovernmental policy area, which it would be difficult to put exclusively in the hands of a federal parliament. Simply strengthening the powers of the European Parliament would therefore not be sufficient in order to reconstitute democracy. There is above all a need to clarify lines of authority and power. 


Helene Sjursen discussed the democratic nature of the EU’s foreign and security policy

Gender democracy?

Yvonne Galligan (Queen’s University Belfast) asked whether gender democracy in the EU is a dream or reality. In a gender democracy, women’s perspectives, voices and interests are fully integrated and recognised (inclusion), women’s spokespersons are held accountable for the positions that they hold (accountability), and there is an understanding and respect for the claims to equality expressed by women (recognition).

Research on the democratic quality of EU decision-making and the transposition of EU directives at the national level shows that there are multiple access points for the inclusion of women representatives and the expression of women’s views at the European level. At the national level, however, there is an elitism that leads to the inclusion of women as discretionary rather than necessary. As for the accountability of women spokespersons at the EU level, reason-giving and justification for positions in the debates are in general highly developed, however, the effect of European norms of gender equality is limited at the national level. Although deliberations in national parliaments were often characterised by a wide range of views on women’s social roles, the issue was often framed around national concerns and the equality content was absent. Gender equality is also recognised as a public good in debates at the EU level, but this common good comes into conflict with sectoral interests, in particular economic imperatives. National deliberations focused only on formal, not substantive, compliance with EU norms. Very little recognition was accorded to the issue of equality, which was open to being dismissed.

Galligan concluded that the effects of European integration on gender equality are limited by the conflict between member states and the EU level, stemming from different understandings of gender equality. There is an implicit rejection of EU equality norms at the national level. Finally, when the transposition of EU directives is substantive, it is because equality is part of the national discourse and the transposition is used as a support to the national legislative efforts.


Yvonne Galligan assessed the status of gender democracy in the EU

Is the monetary union inadequate?

David Mayes (University of Auckland) discussed the political economy of the European Union, with a particular focus on the monetary union and the current euro crisis. He started by pointing to the reasons why the system has fallen apart. The original idea was a monetary union with considerable economic integration, firm admission hurdles, constraints on imprudent fiscal policy, limited fiscal transfers for the disadvantaged, and encouragement to structural change to ensure flexibility. However, the admission hurdles were not followed, and the constraints on an imprudent fiscal policy were poorly designed and weakly applied. This has led to limited structural change and hence limited flexibility in some countries. He concluded that the model is workable but that the execution has been flawed.

Mayes continued to discuss the economic governance measures launched in 2011, underlining that higher growth is essential to debt reduction. The suggested reforms of the Stability and Growth Pact with more emphasis on medium-term growth will improve the game, he claimed, as will the Euro Plus Pact. To conclude, he argued that fiscal prudence is important, regardless of the regime, and cannot be avoided by an exit from the euro area. On the question if closer integration is needed, Mayes stated that it would only make a difference if the richer nations were prepared to contribute more, which is to be expected in a currency union. But the current process is still very much asymmetric, and most of the burden lies on the countries in difficulties. If this were a balanced process, it would have a better chance of success, he asserted. 


David Mayes with RECON’s pamphlet with findings

Constitutionalism beyond the state

Finally, Christian Joerges (University of Bremen) spoke on constitutionalism beyond the state. He discussed some research findings regarding comparative constitutionalism and the regulation of the economy within and beyond Europe, comparing Europe to the rest of the world. The emerging law in this field not only facilitates trade and opens markets, it also regulates the economy, and this needs to be explained. Joerges outlined three schools of thought on constitutionalism beyond the state, and positioned himself in a fourth camp, that of ‘constitutional cooperation’. In his view, the important issue is to organise cooperation between different units in a normatively sound way.

Among the cases studied in depth, Joerges highlighted two studies, which illustrate the tension stemming from decisions taken in the economy being of a highly political nature. The impact of the opening of markets on the Polish agricultural sector has been analysed, studying laws on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). A tension was found related to the constitutional structure, where the EU imposes laws of equal access to markets without considering the impact on society. A second study contrasts the European and the international level, and the impact of the WTO, asking who in the EU are able to take decisions on highly normative and political issues, and at times also highly ethical issues. Such dilemmas are of constitutional nature because they affect our fundamental values and orientations, as well as important economic and social interests. 


  Christian Joerges spoke on constitutionalism beyond the state

Discussions and media coverage

The independent political analyst Aslak Bonde commented on the findings and provided his own take on the current situation, before opening the floor for questions and discussion. He underlined that the financial crisis is also a democratic crisis; it is a politically made crisis more than an economic crisis. These two issues are deeply tangled together, and turning around the conventional claim that economic growth is not possible without democracy, he asked if democracy may not be possible without economic growth?

The conference ended with an open discussion with many questions posed by an interested audience. The discussions further continued over a light lunch, where conference participants could establish further contacts and acquaintances as well as get more information on the research at the well-visited stand with RECON materials, displaying books and reports. 

The conference was attended by several Norwegian media, some of which reported from the event. The press coverage is available in RECON’s Press Room.

An article was also published in, an online newspaper devoted to Norwegian and international research, a few days before the conference. This article related RCON’s research to the current situation in Europe (in Norwegian). 


Reconstituting Democracy in Europe – Snapshots of findings 

Selected findings in brief from all RECON’s research fields are available in this pamphlet (pdf).

RECON publications on display at the conference



List of paritipants (pdf)



 Concluding conference

RECON’s concluding conference What is Left of European democracy? took place on 25-26 November 2011. At this academic conference, keyfindings were discussed and the greater, more overarching implicationsthat this collective research effort has generated were discerned. Dueattention was also paid to the most pressing issue currently facing theEU, namely the financial crisis.


Outreach in Brussels

RECON organised a similar outreach event in the European district in Brussels in May 2011: Where is European democracy heading? wer

See also Erik O. Eriksen’s introductory speech to the May conference


The Oslo outreach seminar was a part of the University of Oslo’s 200th anniversary celebration



The conference was organised by RECON-coordinator ARENA – Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo.

For more information, please contact Marit Eldholm (ARENA): marit.eldholm(at)