Saving Popular Sovereignty from a Slow Death in the European Union


by Jan Pieter Beetz (Utrecht University)

On 15 September 2022, the vast majority of the Members of the European Parliament condemned Hungary’s Fidesz government for undermining European values. They proposed that Hungary has become an electoral autocracy. Further, they called for more forceful action against the Hungarian government by the EU.

What authority does the EU have to protect liberal democracy in its member states in the first place? Most empirical and normative studies assert that the EU has a right to act because of existing treaties. Empirically this is an uncontroversial claim, but these scholars do not offer a normative principle to justify this legal right. Militant democracy justifies democracies protecting themselves from anti-democratic forces by denying democratic rights, such as party bans. They assume that the EU has democratic authority, but again do not offer a normative justification. In my recent contribution for JCMS, I bolster the emerging normative case for EU democracy protection by developing a realistic political theory grounded in a democratic principle of EU political authority.

Shared Popular Sovereignty: A Realistic Principle of Democratic Authority

I propose that shared popular sovereignty is the most appropriate principle to theorise the EU’s normative political authority. This is transnational conceptualisation of a core democratic principle of authority: popular sovereignty. The traditional conception holds that a people is the fountain of all authority. Shared popular sovereignty entails that multiple peoples can share their sovereignty: A democratic people can authorize both its national democracy and, together with other democratic peoples, a transnational democracy.

Shared popular sovereignty is the most appropriate conception for the EU, because it aligns with the real-world preconditions: multiple democratic peoples without an EU equivalent, an integrated EU administration and a transnational democracy built atop national democracies.

Two fundamental conditions follow for the political authority of the EU: first, authorization by its democratic peoples and, second, transnational democratic decision-making between Europe’s peoples. The former requires Europe’s peoples to directly authorise the EU’s institutions. The latter aims to ensure that the peoples remain democratic equals in EU legislative processes.

The EU has a Duty to Protect Democracy

Democratic backsliding involves a member state government intentionally weakening core liberal and democratic institutions with the aim of consolidating and expending the ruling party’s power. Such democratic decay in a member state challenges both fundamental conditions of EU political authority.

The EU has a duty to protect democracy in its member states because its political authority is at stake. When backsliding in one country takes place, any EU citizen has sound normative reasons doubt the political authority of the EU. The EU should act against democratic backsliding within its borders to maintain its political authority: Inaction is not a legitimate option.

A crucial question is where to draw the line between diversity and decline in a pluralistic polity, such as the EU. A representative body of Europe’s peoples is the most realistic set-up. These representatives should judge whether democratic backsliding is taking place and whether action should thus be taken. In contrast to the current depoliticised set-up, I argue that the European Parliament is the most appropriate candidate to fulfil this role.

Legitimate interventions

The EU must ensure that its democracy protection measures do not undermine its political authority, and therefore, they should be compatible with the principle of shared popular sovereignty. From this principle, I submit, follows a substantive desideratum for evaluating the democratic legitimacy of EU measures: the protection of Europe’s democratic peoples. The goal of these measures should be to protect citizens and their democratic institutions rather than punish the backsliding government.

A normative assessment follows of widely discussed measures of EU democracy protection. Discursive interventions, such as naming and shaming, are democratically legitimate because they support Europe’s democratic peoples without harming them. Despite concerns about their effectiveness on changing the backsliding’s government mind, this type of measure can play normatively desirable role, such as rally citizens to the democratic cause or shame democratic actors supporting backsliding governments.

Economic measures require careful scrutiny. On the one hand, economic sanctions are often proposed, but they could harm pro-democratic actors. If economic sanctions could be formulated to punish a backsliding government without harming these actors, they would be democratically legitimate. Otherwise, these types of interventions give rise to normative trade-offs. On the other hand, financial support aimed at bolstering democratic resistance from within the suppressed citizenry is democratically legitimate, because it aims to protect suppressed elements of a European people. Moreover, they impose no democratic harm on the other peoples of the EU and even, to some extent, can re-establish the democratic preconditions of peoplehood by giving the opposition a voice.

Political actions might become necessary to maintain the EU’s democratic authority, especially when the backsliding government can no longer be considered a liberal democracy, but these types of measures often come with democratic costs. Isolating a backsliding government from EU decision-making, such as through the Article 7 procedure, is democratically legitimate, because it would protect Europe’s other democratic peoples from the influence of an undemocratic government in transnational legislative procedures. The measure does not hurt oppressed citizens because their democratic voice has already been silenced.

If a member state becomes and remains an electoral autocracy, then the rebooting of the EU becomes a democratically legitimate response. This measure in effect results in expulsion, hence it has many tragic consequences. Still, it protects Europe’s peoples from undemocratic forces undermining their transnational democratic order, while affirming their democratic sovereignty. Further, one might consider former EU citizens after such a move worthy of special consideration.


My realistic political theory bolsters the emerging normative case for the EU engaging in democracy protection. There may be good reasons to consider not pursuing democratically legitimate measures when having to respond to democratic backsliding in EU member states. This might include the economic and human costs of measures or security concerns. Although I believe that political judgements should take such considerations into account when deciding how to protect democracy in the EU polity, I maintain that a democratic EU has the normative duty to protect its peoples.

Jan Pieter Beetz (he/him) is Assistant Professor in Political Theory and European Integration at the Utrecht University School of Governance. Jan Pieter is fascinated by the political authority of liberal democracies and the contemporary challenges to their legitimacy, in particular European integration and the rise of the administrative state. His realist philosophical research reflects and draws upon cutting-edge debates and insights in the human sciences, in particular EU-studies, political science and governance. In addition to his homepage, Beetz’ work can be followed on his Google Scholar pages.