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102 Working Paper

Does the process really matter? Some reflections on the " legitimating effect" of the European Convention

Jun 2, 2023 – Paul Magnette


The European Convention, set up by the Heads of state and governments during the Laeken Summit of December 2001, was presented by its initiators as a means of strengthening the legitimacy of the EU. Is this a rhetorical argument of politicians, which could be explained by the intense electoral cycle of 2002- 2004? Or is there something, in the process of the Convention, that could change the nature of the EU constitution? This paper argues that the Convention is not likely to transform the nature of the EU. The arguments put forward by its members, and the partial compromises reached at this stage, show that the conventionnels are willing to rationalize the acquis, rather than launch a new phase of integration; this Convention will not be remembered as a European Philadelphia. I then turn to the process of the Convention in order to assess its potential effect in terms of legitimation of the EU. I argue that the EU’s alleged “democratic deficit” is merely a problem of standards: though the EU can be seen as a fully accountable and legitimate polity in Madisonian terms (Moravcsik), it is still seen as an unsatisfying arrangement when interpreted in more demanding “republican” terms (Habermas). This is the reason why the Convention might be useful: if it managed to reduce cognitive and normative dissonance, it could help soften conflicts of interpretation of the nature of the EU among leaders. Moreover, by clarifying the role of the EU, it could reduce public expectations and the frustrations they engender. I conclude that the Convention is an exercise of reappraisal and confirmation of the EU’s founding pact, but that even this rather modest role is important in terms of legitimacy because of the nature of the EU constitutional process: since the existing treaties are the result of a long piecemeal and instrumental process of bargaining among member states, the EU lacks clear and accepted normative foundations. Even if it only clarifies and confirms the status quo, the Convention, and the public debates to which the ratification of the treaty might give rise after the IGC, might help root the EU’s founding pact in the public’s conscience.