Why is European governance so problematical?
First, because revitalising the Community method proves to be a dead-end street because the remedies of the past will not cure the problems of the future. The EU has definitely moved from negative integration to a political enterprise. With more problems of high political salience on the agenda and profound cleavages still along national lines,4 Member State governments are key players for three reasons:
(1) with few exceptions, the average citizen, or at least the majority of citizens, trusts their government to be able to "deliver" and, when they are frustrated, they have the choice to vote for the opposition in the next election;
(2) they enjoy institutional legitimacy, i.e., apart from the electoral legitimacy, they are part of an uncontested institutional system;
(3) the nation state is still considered to be the only "truly" legitimate place for hosting a society.
Compared to governing a nation state, legitimate governance in the European Union is precarious. As an example, let us take the model conception of EU common policy. It start from two assumptions:
(1) Member States agree to formulate a common policy because joint problem-solving provides some added value. In terms of policy performance, the EU is, from a systematic point of view, not inferior to domestic policies; the process may be more cumbersome and the compromise agreed upon not as close to the median voter as it may be in a national setting. Yet, despite this, the policy is expected to be more effective.
(2) Despite public debate on the Union's democratic deficit, there is still a widespread belief that the EU is the appropriate level for coping with quite a number of political issues and that - in principle - the institutions are apt to do it.
So far, there is little difference between both systems. Concerning the third dimension, however, the EU is evidently deficient. The orthodox reading is that we neither have a European demos nor a European state, and without achieving one and then other (which should come first is object to intense controversies) the EU will lack legitimacy.
In my reading, this orthodox view is outdated. In Europe, we live in a `post-Westphalian' system; the state of `modern times' is a construction of the late nineteenth century which is not longer a valid model to capture reality. Nevertheless, it is still occupying people's mind. The vision of a hierarchical, unitary entity is present in the White Paper, too. It implies that there has to be a political body (the Commission) to act as the guardian of the "common interest", to be in charge of speeding up decision-making, and engaged in strategic planning in order to set the long term objectives for the political community.
However, what is needed instead is the vision of an EU with nation states not just as a transitory but as a permanent type of polity; a construction as legitimate as the state. This EU polity is both: a compound and a unitary system. Some actors are still confined within their nation states and rely on national governments to pursue their interests through multi-level governance. Others move more easily across boundaries, address EU institutions directly and take the EU as single playing field. In order to function, this kind of polity does not need citizens with a predominant European identity. The ("imagined") political community is still the nation. The Union will be based on a "political society" with national, though `Europeanised', identities.
From this perspective, many of the White Paper's propositions could be read in a different way. `Better involvement' would not aim at enhancing the European Union's legitimacy in terms of making the decision-making process more democratic (which it does not). Instead, it might contribute to a learning process that might trigger a Europeanisation of identities and it might activate trans-national intermediary organisations that could contribute to the evolution of a European public space. Involvement, not just in consultations with EU institutions but also in the activities of European networks, would transport the idea of a legitimate polity that was different from the concept of the modern state. However, this will only happen when we give up the idea of the state as the one and only blueprint for the political organisation of a society. What is called for is a new "referentiel" (Jobert) to be elaborated jointly by both scholars and politicians.
4 Just take the example of the reform of the national pension systems; (Scharpf 2001:4)