The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: Legitimating the European Union

  • Justus Schönlau
Part of the Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics book series (PSEUP)


The European Union has a legitimacy problem because some people think it has one, and react accordingly. Like any form of political organisation, the European Union has to find a balance between the growing diversity of its constituent elements and the unity which is necessary for their co-existence, between the flexibility to continuously adapt to change, and the stability which provides security. Only if such balances are found, adapted when necessary, and maintained over time, and if they are seen and accepted to be so, can the EU be legitimate. The current debate about the ‘future of Europe’ and the finalité of European integration is part of the ongoing search for these balances, and it is significant because it acknowledges more clearly than previous rounds of the same political process that the legitimacy of the EU as a political order is a ‘make-or-break’ issue for the integration project. Not only its further development, but its very existence are potentially at risk if the problem of legitimacy continues to grow. The challenge is more tangible now because of successive enlargements which disturb delicate balances within the polity. Yet, the problem of legitimacy is not new: political actors in the EU have tried to address it in a variety of different ways over the years. At the same time, the opening phrase of this paragraph also alerts us to a number of essential difficulties in responding to the legitimacy problem with political action: the legitimacy of a political order is in large parts a subjective issue, it forms part of a highly complex pattern of social relations, it usually becomes visible only when there already is a problem, and it cannot be measured.


Political Process European Council Political Debate Political Order Polity Legitimacy 
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  1. 1.
    The expression is taken from Gráinne de Búrca, ‘The Quest for Legitimacy in the European Union’, Modern Law Review, 59 (1996), 348–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    The 2001 Commission White Paper on ‘European Governance’ substituted the term ‘good governance’ for ‘legitimacy’ but was concerned with many of the issues discussed below, see European Commission, European Governance: a White Paper, COM (2001) 428 final, Brussels (2001).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Such scepticism was voiced more clearly during the debates of the Convention itself, but it has also been expressed since, see for example T. Kirkhope ‘Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Enhancement of Humans and the Curtailment of Human Rights?’, in K. Feus (ed.) The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: text and commentaries (Federal Trust for Education and Research, London, 2000).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    This is the criticism formulated by Richard Bellamy for example in ‘The “Right to Have Rights”: Citizenship Practice and the Political Constitution of the EU’, in R. Bellamy & A. Warleigh (eds) Citizenship and Governance in theEuropean Union (Continuum, London, 2001);Google Scholar
  5. and by Joseph Weiler ‘Does the European Union Truly Need a Charter of Rights?’, editorial in European Law Journal, 6 (2000), 95–7. See Ch. 5 for a more detailed discussion of these criticisms.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 9.
    Most theories of legitimacy seem to follow this three-pronged approach, albeit differing on the three individual elements. See D. Beetham, The Legitimation of Power (Macmillan — now Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 10.
    This understanding is particularly influential in the international human rights discourse (discussed in Ch. 2), see F. E. Dowrick (ed.) Human Rights: Problems, Perspectives, Texts (Saxon House, Farnborough, 1979).Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    This distinction is developed by Bellamy and Castiglione in: ‘Normative Theory and the European Union’, in L. Trägårdh (ed.) After National Democracy: Rights, Law and Power in America and the New Europe (Hart, Oxford, 2002); see also Ch. 2 and pp. 156–7 in this volume.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    J. H. H. Weiler ‘European Democracy and the Principle of Constitutional Tolerance: the Soul of Europe’, in F. Cerutti & E. Rudolf (eds) A Soul for Europe: a Reader (Vol. 1) (Peeters, Leuven, 2001).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Justus Schönlau 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justus Schönlau
    • 1
  1. 1.European ParliamentBrusselsBelgium

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