The Struggle for EU Legitimacy: Public Contestation, 1950-2005, by Claudia Schrag Sternberg

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The book explores ‘what legitimacy (and its lack) mean in the case of the EU’ (p. 1). In contrast to commonly used quantitative opinion surveys, with little insight into what legitimacy means to the respondents, the author opted for a qualitative cross-textual analysis. Claudia Schrag Sternberg analyses long-term patterns and critical shifts in the discourses within, mainly, the European Commission, Council, Parliament and Court of Justice through official documents, speeches and press conferences. In addition, she analyses short-term case studies in the national public sphere – namely France and Germany – based on newspapers and intellectual essays.

Schrag Sternberg's work highlights the shift from an output-oriented discourse on legitimacy in the EU to an input-oriented discourse. Integration cannot be seen as a Pareto sum game where everybody wins, as the early legitimacy strategies (harmony, consensus and the convergence of interests in a European common good, pursued on the basis of expert rationality) suggested, but one where input-related issues (such as identity and democracy) also become important. Schrag Sternberg has analysed the mainly elite-dominated discourse of the 1950s up until the 1970s, the first changes in the 1980s, and finally the French and German debates before and after Maastricht. Conclusions in each chapter make the work easily accessible.

The author describes her research design as being exploratory rather than explanatory, where ‘the history of discursive contests over EU legitimacy is not investigated as a dependent or an independent variable’ (p. 8), and she makes explicit that she does not aim to generate testable hypotheses for future research. It remains unclear where Schrag Sternberg defines the added value of her work, if her work is neither identifying causalities nor generating hypotheses. The author points out that she focuses on the terminology, the vocabulary and the semantics used in constructions of a legitimate order of society. The author claims not only to include ‘top-down legitimation discourses, but also their resonance, reception, and contestation in the discourse or their addressees: the member-state publics’ (p. 10). But limiting her analyses to the level of official documents and newspapers, the results are restricted to the elite's understanding of what legitimacy means in the EU. It would be interesting to explore not only the elite's perception, but also people's understanding of legitimacy in the EU. While Schrag Sternberg comments that the research design should go beyond survey research, she does not offer an alternative approach to overcome these limitations.

Keeping these limits in mind, The Struggle for EU Legitimacy is an excellent starting point for everyone interested in the EU's legitimacy, what legitimacy means for the people and how legitimate the EU is.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPolitical Studies Review Journal
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)453-454
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 08.2015