The Revolt of the European Masses: the disintegration of accountability in supra-national politics

With forces such as identity politics and supra-national bodies gaining traction across Europe, the concept of the nation state has never been more important.

A painting of the Dutch envoy Adriaan Pauw entering Münster around 1646 for the peace negotiations, painted by Gerard ter Borch. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Stadtmuseum Münster
A painting of the Dutch envoy Adriaan Pauw entering Münster around 1646 for the peace negotiations, painted by Gerard ter Borch. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Stadtmuseum Münster

This essay originally appeared in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, published by Bokförlaget Stolpe with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit, 2017.

The advanced democracies of Europe are undergoing profound change and experiencing great instability. The existing order, based on steady European Union integration, is heavily upset by support for parties that are highly critical of supra-nationality and open, globalised markets; Brexit is a fact, and migration is an external shock that created chaotic conditions across much of Europe in 2015 and may easily do so again. In addition, state security as a first order concern is back after a strategic ‘vacation’ for almost 20 years. Russia is a revisionist power testing Europe with the use of military force, seeking to upend democratic stability and to weaken Nato and the EU. And terrorists are seeking to bring about political chaos and disruption.

This political agenda leads to a renationalisation of politics and an emphasis on hard security issues such as border controls, security, and defence. The open market aim of the EU is not easily reconciled, if at all, with these political imperatives. As in Hobbes’ Leviathan, citizens now seek the classical ends of policy – physical security within and between their states.

However, security concerns extend to more than police and the military. Due to migration, internal market mobility, and general globalisation, citizens also seem to seek ‘secure’ national identities. The working-class families who may lose their jobs to international competition typically live in neighbourhoods where their children go to schools that are multicultural to such an extent that national language, national history, and the transmission of societal values are at risk. In Oslo, to take one example, families in Groruddalen in the east of the city, where schools sometimes have more than 90 per cent immigrant pupils, experience this problem at first hand. Their Norwegian children are such a small minority that they do not learn Norwegian properly and the school’s traditional Christmas visit to church is contested by a majority. The families that can afford to move away, do so; those who cannot, must stay. When many move, this may lead to ‘parallel’ societies where integration into the majority culture does not take place.

Anti-EU, anti-globalisation and anti-immigrant preferences therefore overlap in voter choices, but mainstream politicians are wary of dealing with this difficult agenda and are personally able to remain aloof from it. In Sweden, the ‘cognitive dissonance’ regarding these problems is very evident. The populist right-wing party, the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), is therefore able to set the agenda on this issue to their advantage. Boycotted by the main parties, it is nevertheless the fastest growing party in Sweden, according to several polls. Similar situations exist in other European states.

Security of state and citizen: back on Europe’s agenda

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Europe was beginning to realise, the hard way, that it faced the twin strategic challenges of global terrorism and old-fashioned geopolitics. Strategic terrorism and geopolitics descended on Europe at the same time, and 2014 marked a turning point with regard to both. As Putin annexed Crimea, accompanied by heavy fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine, Isis and other terrorist actors stepped up their activity, attacking in Europe and elsewhere. The killing of almost the entire staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris early in January 2015 and the massacres in the French capital on 13 November of the same year marked a turning point. The values of liberal democracy were, literally, under fire. Russia’s sabre-rattling continued at a brisk pace, and it intervened militarily in Syria in the autumn of the same year and continued to prod Nato reactions around the Baltic, with mock attacks on American ships and planes and transgressions of airspace.

In many ways, Europe was left alone in the face of these developments. The US had announced its so-called pivot to Asia two years before, along with major cuts in its defence spending. President Obama was reluctant to embrace a leading role in security and defence policy and asked Europeans to take much more responsibility for their own security needs. He made the point that he did not want to ‘follow the Washington playbook’ in using military force to take the lead in world politics. In not following through with a military attack on Syria – after the so-called ‘red line’ he had announced on the use of chemical weapons was crossed in August 2013 – he did not weaken American extended deterrence, he argued, for his was a different type of foreign policy. One may add that this foreign policy looked more like Europe’s – the US would no longer be the world’s policeman. The surprise election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 brought even more uncertainty to this picture. He seemed to advocate isolationism and protectionism, but he was also active and took seemingly radical positions on both Russia and China, and on Nato. Pointing to burden-sharing, or rather the lack of it, as a key problem, he demanded that the European members of Nato pay up and reach the self-imposed 2 per cent of GDP spend very quickly. The pressure was on Europe in a clear and unmistakable manner: carry the burden in terms of cost and risk in your own region.

The American retreat from being the world’s policeman represented a development that had long been coming, but it could not have come at a more unfortunate time: Europe was also cutting defence spending across the alliance; partly because it assumed that the US would pick up the bill as usual and partly because the economic crisis was so severe. The euro crisis was one thing; far more severe, however, was long-term youth unemployment. Spending on defence was certainly at the very bottom of the political list of priorities. In addition, mass migration across the Mediterranean exploded, and the Greek crisis became a Greek drama.

In this setting, Europe was put in a situation where it had to react to two strategic challenges simultaneously. It became the protagonist in a strategic game with Russia and had to deal with strategic terrorism as well as mass migration. Instead of working in partnership with Russia, it was forced to deal with Russia as an adversary. It also had to fight terrorism and the migration crisis that picked up in the autumn of 2016, adding a third strain on borders, policing, and control of territory. Russia, terrorism, and mass migration required command of, and the ability to use, hard power tools for a generation of European politicians unused to thinking strategically and ill at ease with using such tools.

The common understanding of foreign policy in Europe is incentive-based, so-called ‘win-win’ diplomacy. When Crimea was occupied, in February 2014, the Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende repeatedly said that Putin had simply not understood that the world is a ‘win- win’ place where dialogue and cooperation resolve problems. He was not alone among Western leaders. They have been reluctant to accept that Putin is apparently serious in not wanting to adopt this ‘win-win’ modus operandi. Europe is a security community where state-to-state interactions are co-operative, but this entity now interacts with states that are not part of such a community. This interaction is based on a zero-sum rationale – you win and I lose, or vice versa. In addition, the role of small states is lessened and great powers return as a category of states that claim special sovereign rights in what they regard as their sphere of interest. This is classical realpolitik or geopolitics. The relative importance of Europe and its model of integration and rule-based order diminishes while reemerging ‘great powers’ claim special rights. There is a transition from Western dominance towards a multipolar system of states where several great powers compete. This enhances the risk of extended hard power use, such as coercion and deterrence, and of actual military conflict.

Taken together, external threats and risks and growing dissatisfaction with the response to both migration shocks and terrorism has led to major political revolt in Europe. The remainder of this essay takes issue with the facile and condescending labelling of this as populism and argues that all democracy must be based on a common identity – national identity for the most part – and is only possible in a system of checks and balances which typically exists only at national level.

The elites that assume that the world is the basis for citizenship and democracy are wrong and lack basic civic education. The problems of the EU are genuine in terms of its lack of democratic accountability, and the reaction against the EU at present is perfectly sound. If borders cannot be controlled in the face of a mass influx of illegal migrants, the governing bodies are failing their primary obligation, which is to their voters, ie their fellow citizens. If terrorism is not fought effectively, the same applies – as it does if the state’s security itself is at risk.

The nation state as the basis of democracy

Ideally a democracy is a quest for the summum bonum, a place where human beings can realise their potential as social beings. As the Ancient Greeks saw it, the highest form of human life after the philosophical life inheres in politics, understood as the quest for the common good. Participation is therefore important for the quality of society as well as for the development of the person. In German there are two words for community – Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. The former is the ‘thin’ version of society, based on interest and instrumentality; the latter is the ‘thick’ version where there is real commitment to the general welfare of society.

Learning about what politics entails is what we term civic education. To be a citizen is a right which entails duties. A democracy belongs to its citizens; all power is the people’s, with the exception of fundamental human rights that are non-political. Today there is very little emphasis on Bürgerpflichten, namely the duties of a citizen. Bürgerrechten – the rights of citizens – are much more familiar, and often confused with what is claimed to be human rights. Yet citizenship rights and duties are stipulated in the social contract of the state, mostly in its constitution. But if the common good is to be realised, each citizen must be taught to take responsibility for advancing politics beyond narrow self-interest.

Democratic participation is tied to the state, first the territorial state and later the nation state. The latter becomes the basis for the development of democracy, which is late in appearing – the consolidation of the territorial state only really started with the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück in 1648, following the Thirty Years’ War.

Gradually, social contract theory is developed in the aftermath of the revolutions that bring the middle class to the fore. The political community is being constituted by the concept of the nation. The nation plays a vital role as the condition for this community – it is no longer Christendom and/or empire, but nation. Horace’s old dictum – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – reappears as a duty to the political community of the nation state; and mercenaries, hitherto the norm in the territorial state, are replaced by the citizen-soldier.

The nation is characterised by a common language and history, common currency, common flag and common culture. Duties under the social contract include potentially dying for the nation; as with the institution of military conscription which still exists in several European states today and which was reintroduced by Sweden in 2017. The duty to pay taxes to support the nation and the state is as certain as death, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin. The taxman still cometh.

These duties are balanced by rights: the state is obliged to ensure citizens’ safety, provide a modicum of social benefits, and keep order within the territory. The state, governed by an elected government, must first defend its citizens, then secure order and, later, provide for the welfare of its citizens.

Participation and rule of law

Participation presupposes a political community where one has rights and duties (as in a social contract) and where the rules do not allow for majority tyranny or the arbitrary exercise of power. Decisions must be based on law, and there must be an independent legal system that can keep both the populus and the executive within legal boundaries.

Rule of law is older than democracy. When we look at the earliest Nordic proto-parliaments, or Tingwe find rule of law as the key to civilised decision-making. Where there is law, there are arbitrators in the form of judges, and people submit to their judgment. In Norway, we find legal regions as early as around 900 AD; in Iceland likewise. The names of these legal regions are the same today in both countries: Eidsivating, Borgarting, Gulating, etc., where the word ting means the meeting place for decision-making, being the name for the Nordic parliaments as well.

There can be no democracy, regardless of the level of participation, outside a political community, and the latter has to have checks and balances as well as accountability. Effective accountability requires the opportunity for validation or rejection through periodic elections, and this presupposes a public sphere where citizens are aware of what goes on. Without accountability, participation has little value beyond agenda-setting and the shaping of public debate.

Democracy at national and sub-national level only

Federalism – the system on which the EU is built – has no theory of democracy as such, but most nation states have local, regional, and national governance structures where the national level is the most important. In federal states, the national level is called the federal level – as in the US, Spain, and Germany. The EU has a confederal structure rather than a federal one, since the national level remains of primary importance. There are two forms of democratic accountability in the EU, a European Parliament (EP) and the European Council, which remains intergovernmental.

Federalism is a theory of political decentralisation, but today there is little consideration of this vital aspect of the EU legacy, although ‘subsidiarity’ is enshrined in the treaty as the principle to be applied for determining the correct level of decision-making for a given policy area.

The long-standing German demand for a Kompetenzkatalog has never been accepted since federalism is highly contested as a model for the EU by many member states, but it is a logical idea. Subsidiarity requires that there is a reasoning behind the ascription of policy areas to levels of government based on the criteria of closeness to those affected by the policy and the nature of the policy itself. Defence policy can only meaningfully be made at the national level, perhaps in some cases at the supra-national level. City regulations are best made by the cities that are affected by them.

The norm of participation works well with a federal system, but not with a large supra-national polity. In a truly federal system there will be keen attention to the size of the political unit, and the guiding idea is not only that policy naturally belongs to a certain level of decision-making, but that participation is optimal if the citizens have knowledge about their representatives, the issue areas, and can partake in public debate. The implication is this: the closer decision-making is to the citizen, the better for democracy, and probably the better in terms of the quality of decisions made. A counter-argument is that experts make better decisions than informed citizens, and that experts typically are found at the national and supra-national level. The EU Commission is just such an expert body.

There are only two instances of supra-national governance in the world – the EU Commission and European Court and the so-called ‘community procedure’ whereby majorities can outvote minorities – and here I should also mention the permanently supranational monetary policy of the EU which is not subject to any political governance, only expert rule. In addition, we could count the decisions by the United Nations Security Council as being supra-national because they are politically binding on all member states.

In all other international organisations (IOs), the decision-rule is unanimity or ‘consensus minus one’. This means that democratic accountability is to be taken care of at national level – the foreign minister has a mandate from the parliament. IOs may have so-called parliamentary assemblies, consisting of parliamentarians from member states, but they typically have advisory power only. The parliamentary assemblies of Nato, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Nordic Council are examples of this, and the European Parliament was such a consultative assembly until 1974.

There are no supra-national democracies. The nation state with its local and regional government remains the key model. In federal systems, the regions or Länder/states have much competence; in more unitary state systems like France or the Nordic states, the norm is for most matters to be decided at the national level. It overrides other levels, taxes and manages the welfare state, runs foreign and defence policy, conscripts citizens, and sends embassies to other nation states. It also levies taxes, along with the local level.

The main rule of democratic accountability for policy-making beyond the nation state is therefore the mandate to the minister representing the state at an IO. Thus, democracy works via indirect representation through parliament to government. This enables national-level public debate.

So, it is the nation state and political levels below it (local and regional) that constitute the realistic framework for democratic participation. The national level remains the most powerful because sovereignty belongs to the state, not to the local or regional levels. I have also pointed out that local democracy may stand the best chance of realising the common good in a close-knit community, but that the national level nonetheless is the more important because most political issues are international and because the state’s duty is to protect the security and well-being of its citizens. One’s citizenship is national. One cannot take up local citizenship without national citizenship, and it is the privilege of a state to determine who should become its citizens.

Given this, every individual must deal with his or her own nation state and has duties and rights pertaining to it. It is the formidable task of each citizen to build the national and local political community, and one could argue that citizens should not leave their own state, as refugees so to speak, unless their life is in danger. However, people have always migrated in search of better lives, and today a vast number do so. Yet, if they are citizens eager to build a better political community, they ought to stay. If the national population of a state will not build its own political community, no one else will. There is very little success in imposing democracy from the outside.

The revolts of the masses: a diagnosis of European politics

From the point of view of the quality of political participation in Europe, several arguments can be made. First, the common good is not served by populist politics, which is opportunistic and superficial. The weakening of the traditional party structures based on ideologies along the left-right spectrum in Europe therefore represents a major problem. If parties are not based on ideology, voters have no guarantee of representation of their choice of political principles. The very notion of representation is jeopardised and elected politicians become effectively unaccountable. Anything goes, including the abuse of power. Populist politics represent an extreme weakening of the link between voter and elected representative. Such political candidates say whatever they think voters want to hear, but are unable to deliver on their pledges – witness Donald Trump.

Further, populism allows for very pernicious agenda-setting and framing of issues in Manichean terms. This makes reasoned political debate impossible, and the internet allows for confining one’s public debate to sites where one finds like-minded opinions. There is thus no common public debate, but ‘alternative worlds’ with ‘alternative facts’. Populism seeks confrontation and division through agenda-setting that is not aimed at the common good, at what unites, but the contrary, at what divides.

Populist parties in Europe primarily mobilise support on the anti-immigration agenda, but, as mentioned, this is tied to anti-EU sentiment and anti-globalisation, bolstered by a call for national identity that is clear and recognisable. Populist politicians may be said to have hijacked the political agenda of migration, economic inequality, and supra-nationality, but mainstream parties have avoided engagement on those same issues, thereby creating a unique opportunity for these parties. Mass migration is a problem that must be addressed, as are the inequality wrought by globalisation and the undemocratic aspects of EU supra-nationality.

There are also non-populist politicians who ascend to power outside the party structure. Representative democracy is based on the predictability and promise of ideologies. Yet what does France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, represent? How do we, or indeed could we, know when he has emerged from outside the party structure? The problem here is twofold: how can voters make an informed choice when there is no ideological platform? And how can voters hold politicians accountable when there is no ‘guide’ for so doing? Participation becomes the granting of power to the representative who does not represent.

Secondly, the case for civic education must be made. The purpose of politics, the common good, must be taught. Politics is not the pursuit of private interests and power. In this endeavour, the teaching of philosophy, political history, and Western civilisation are the essential building blocks, but such a curriculum is no longer common in Europe’s schools and universities.

As stated, the main form of democratic political organisation today is the nation state. Citizenship is national. Yet today this is a contested concept – through ‘group theory’ or ‘identity politics’, whereby citizens of the same state are held to be unalike minorities which demand to be represented as distinct groups. This is a significant danger to the very concept of democracy, whereby citizens are presumed equal even though they may be unalike in all respects beyond that of their shared citizenshipThis does not invalidate the argument that citizenship presumes a certain degree of economic and other equality, for this must be achieved in order to become equal. Modern ‘group theory’ however argues the very opposite – we are never equal but remain members of minority groups that claim rights. The nation as a concept negates such differences – we are Frenchmen or Americans as citizens, whatever we may be in the private sphere. There is unity in diversity – all citizens are equal in terms of having the vote, regardless of ethnicity, sex, or other factors. Citizenship in the modern age is based on the notion of demos, not on ethnos.

In light of this, it is indeed paradoxical that ‘identity politics’, the politics of underlining differences between groups, has become so salient in Western democracy. But multiculturalism cannot be a recipe for political participation, quite the contrary: citizenship underlines what is common among those who should seek to realise the common good. If little is held in common, there can be no community.

The question is whether the notion of national identity is strong enough to be the basis for citizenship in our time. A person has multiple identities, and this is nothing new: the rational is the European is the global – human beings are, above all else, human beings. Yet one pays taxes only in a state where one has a vote. The national welfare state redistributes to its citizens. Legally and politically, one’s nation state remains extremely important.


In European politics, supra-nationality has become a key issue on the agenda. President Macron of France stated, in a speech of 1 May, 2017, that ‘unless the EU reforms, Frexit will be next’. Britain has opted for Brexit in a referendum where supra-nationality was one of the arguments for leaving; and the Visegrad states (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) are demanding an EU that is intergovernmental.

Participation is not optimal if the political unit is too large, hence the problem of a lack of accountability and recall in a common public sphere beyond the nation state. Supra-national decision-making, such as that made by the EU Commission and European Parliament, is therefore beset by problems, many pertaining to subsidiarity – or, rather, the lack thereof. The EU must either become a federal polity – something which no member state opts for, as it entails a major weakening of the national level – or an intergovernmental one where democratic legitimacy is held at the national level through a mandate.

In the present confederal system, the EP is an anomaly and, I would argue, an undemocratic one at that. The members of the EP are elected with a very low level of participation – around 40 per cent of the electorate as a consistent pattern – and, as they do not really represent parties, the voters also lack a basis for holding them accountable. Moreover, their mission is in fact to not be accountable, as they are required to act in a diffuse European interest. The EP was originally a parliamentary assembly without decision-making powers and, as such, not very important. Today it has 50 per cent of the decision-making power of all EU directives, i.e. its law-making. This makes its democratic accountability extremely important. There are therefore good grounds for arguing that the EP should be abolished if the EU is to become more democratic, unless a fully-fledged federal structure replaces the confederal structure currently in place.

Rule of law

A similar argument could be made about the EU Commission and the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but these institutions are very different in not being political bodies. They are therefore not meant to be democratic. The Commission is explicitly meritocratic, although led by politicians that are from member states (but forbidden to act in their interests), and the court is by definition apolitical. What is similar in terms of this argument is related to the power over states that is wielded by these two bodies. There is much empirical evidence of the integrative activity of both bodies, and they are treaty-bound to seek ‘ever closer union’. This is no secret, on the contrary it is the explicit mandate given in the treaties, and driving integration towards political and economic union is something explicitly political that is not found in any other IO.

There is also the political aspect of supranational legal power: the ECJ, whose competence now includes the former justice and home affairs ‘pillar’ of the Maastricht Treaty, passes judgments in an ever-expanding area of law. Its scope widens steadily. Its power over national legal hierarchies is by now well established. The court has been set up as a supranational court through judgments never challenged. In the rulings in two cases the ECJ established rights to litigation directly from citizens in EU member states and the supreme position of the court vis-à-vis national court systems (Van Gend en Loos, 1963; Costa vs Enel, 1964). Legal integration in Europe is now very solid. The court is accepted as supra-national not only in EU member states but also de facto (if not de jure) in non-member states like Norway.

As I have noted elsewhere, law is ‘politics with a time lag’. Supra-national courts, of which there are two in Europe, the other being the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), are actors with major political impact despite being formally non-political.

The ECHR uses a legal method described as ‘dynamic’ which explicitly takes political development in Europe into account when it interprets human rights. This makes its judgments inherently political. The ECJ determines detailed national politics in interpreting EU directives in an ever-increasing policy field, while the ECHR delivers judgments on human rights based on political trends. Neither court is balanced by other institutions in the checks-and-balances systems that exist at national level.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that only British judges will judge British citizens. This is the same argument that the US government makes against the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is an interesting argument from a democratic point of view because it underlines the connection between the various institutional elements that together make up the rule of law: if courts become too powerful, political bodies will correct this and vice versa – if parliaments act unconstitutionally, supreme courts or constitutional courts will act to modify this development. Such systems of checks and balances arguably guard against the politicisation of courts and the legalisation of political issues. But this corrective institutional mechanism is not available at international level. IOs, be they courts or commissions, tend to pursue their own vested institutional interests. They only change under pressure, and are rarely abolished, only marginalised if states protest by not implementing their decisions.

The issue of supra-national courts is a complex one that I cannot deal with here, but I mention the general problems related to it because the theme of EU supra-nationality is on the political agenda in Europe. The usual way of looking at this has been pragmatic: as long as the EU ‘delivers’ effective output in terms of directives that work well in terms of the internal market, and the court ensures common rules of interpretation, one does not raise the issue of democratic participation and accountability.


The democratic bottom line remains that all political power comes from the people and can be recalled by the people, via accountability. The populist reactions are about many things, but one element is the reaction against supra-nationality. The EU ought to look critically at reform and take the protest seriously. After all, the EU and its bodies are only as sustainable as member states allow them to remain.

In sum, European political participation is in many ways in crisis. Populism is a reaction to supra-nationality, globalisation and immigration, but also a way of conducting politics that destroys the ideologically-based party structure that is vital for representative government. Yet the reactions to supra-nationality and globalisation are also arguably sound democratic reactions since it is the working class, especially, that suffers economically in terms of relative income and job losses. The so-called elites gain economically and are not affected adversely by immigration since they can afford to live in affluent areas.

In the current political climate, fundamental questions are being raised about political power: who should govern, where should decisions be taken, and why should supranational political institutions and courts be accepted? Debating the major issues of democracy is of course political participation par excellence, and, as such, the current ‘revolt of the masses’ is, in democratic terms, intrinsically sound.


Janne Haaland Matláry