This is Part Two of the interview with Dr. Tom Theuns, assistant professor of Political Theory and European Politics, on the complexities of decision-making procedures in the European Union. Read the first part of the interview here.

Dr. Theuns, the EU is frequently criticized that it is not a fully democratic institution and cannot tell states what they have to do in order to be democratic. What is your view?

The EU is not democratic in the sense that, first, it is not ‘a’ democracy, and, second, it now has at least one member state that is not a democracy. But the EU can be seen as a democratically legitimate actor, when EU institutions hold a derivative, delegated democratic mandate. When it exercises power and authority based on democratic mandates that are in themselves legitimate. The primary delegation of authority comes from democratically legitimate governments of the member states, and elections for the European Parliament. That’s the main chain of EU democratic legitimacy. And this is what has been severely undermined by anti-democratic developments in some member states. So, I don’t think many of the arguments against the democratic legitimacy of EU law- and policy-making hold up to scrutiny – with one exception: the democratic deficit due to democratic backsliding of some member states.

What about Orbán’s argument that the EU has no democratic legitimacy to act against Hungary?

There are very few cases where EU action is entirely “divorced” from the democratic processes. Let’s not forget: the Commission president is proposed by the EU member state governments, which are elected. As well as approval from the European Council, the Commission as a whole must be approved by the European Parliament, which is directly elected. So, this whole rhetoric from Orbán that the EU has no legitimacy is just bogus. Moreover, the EU has a fundamental interest to defend the rules of the game, especially when it comes to questions like whether or not a country is democratic or whether or not the rule of law is upheld. EU law is applied almost exclusively by national judges and courts. So, if we completely undermine core principles of the rule of law, the coherence of European law is also undermined.

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Informal meeting of heads of state or government – 07 October 2022. Arrivals and doorsteps – Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary. Photo: Council website, European Union.

Could it not be argued that, at least as long as authoritarian countries are a small minority and as long as there is majority voting, the EU can in a sense “pull them along”?

This would mean overlooking the many areas where each member state has leverage, such as a right to veto important decisions. The “rotten apples” in the basket have a strong impact on the others.

Does the United Nations not teach us that it is preferable to have the “bad apples” inside the club rather than on the outside?

Yes, but the United Nations does not legislate like the EU does. A fundamental problem in the EU is that autocrats, or “bad apples” as you call them, are empowered to legislate on behalf of EU citizens in a way that subjects all EU citizens to the results. That means the freedom of each individual EU citizen is tied to the democratic character of each member state government.

Does the EU not apply double standards? It seems to treat its members in a “lighter” fashion than the countries that want to become members of the club…

It is true that the EU is stricter towards candidate countries than towards its own member states. With hindsight, the hasty eastern expansion of the EU in the early 2000s meant that those countries were fragile democracies when they entered the bloc. Now many member states and the Commission, considering the state of Hungary and Poland, are worried about a repeat of that situation. Hence it tries to be more careful towards future member states.

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EU-Western Balkans leaders meeting in June 2022. Press conference of the leaders of Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia. Photo: Council website, European Union.

You proposed to use Article 50 of the EU Treaty, the famous Brexit clause, whereby everyone leaves the EU in a coordinated fashion and a new union is then created without the autocratic states. How would this work in practice?

Member states that are committed to democracy and the rule of law could invoke Article 50 one after the other. Given they have a qualified majority in the Council they can control the process. The reason I floated this idea is the prevailing fatalistic attitude that countries cannot be excluded from the EU no matter how authoritarian they become. By discussing options, by stating that there are legally coherent avenues, one can send a political message. I’m not saying it should or will be done this way. But we need to think outside the box. What if this “autocratization” of Hungary increases in speed? What if Orbán’s ”soft authoritarianism” is slowly replaced by the harder, more oppressive style of Alexander Lukashenko? What would the EU’s response be to that? Fatalism about membership empowers autocrats.

Recently, the Conference on the Future of Europe was organized, with citizens’ panels that came up with interesting proposals. Yet not much has moved on this front. Can and should the EU really get closer to citizens, as is always said?

For me, this drive of trying to ensure that the EU is closer to the citizens is largely misguided. The attempts undertaken to decrease the supposed distance between the EU and its citizens are often slightly ridiculous in how they play out. And they are very ineffective. The only valuable thing we have achieved in the drive for a union closer to its citizens is more transparency of processes and decision-making procedures. That is fundamentally important if citizens are to hold EU institutions and their own governments accountable. And this should be pursued further, by making the complex decision-making processes more transparent. But EU podcasts, social media drives and apps seem like a costly distraction.

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Citizens attend the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) in Strasbourg, France, April 8th, 2022. Photo: Elyxandro Cegarra, European Union, 2022.

Why is EU decision-making so complicated?

For one, this is because some institutions and people have an interest in appearing complex. It is sometimes easier to make decisions when public scrutiny is limited by procedural complexity. The other, more mundane reason is that there are lots of interests to be negotiated. Substantial differences can exist between the 27 member states across a wide range of policy areas. And then, the complexity of procedures reflects the complexity of the negotiations between the member states. However, I still think when procedures are overly complicated, they obscure the lines of authority, responsibility and accountability. That’s a problem for democracy.

In its present shape, can the EU achieve treaty change, i.e. constitutional reform?

No. Substantial Treaty reform is over for the time being. It requires unanimity as well as referendums in many countries, and that is unthinkable at present. This doesn’t mean that it will be the case forever. But don’t forget, treaty reform is not the only way that EU can move forward. There are many other ways: mechanisms for further integration, for example, which allow certain countries to move forward with more integration while others do not.

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Dr. Tom Theuns is assistant professor of Political Theory and European Politics at the Institute of Political Science of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

He also serves as associate researcher at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po Paris.

Alongside his academic work, Dr. Theuns is also a frequent commentator on European political affairs for EUobserver, Euractiv, Euronews and Le Monde Diplomatique.

He tweets @TomTheuns

The interview was conducted by Michael Thaidigsmann and Nenad Jurdana.