Expectations vs. Reality: Understanding EU Actors’ Responses to Democratic Backsliding

Mrs. Francisca Costa Reis
Dr. Kolja Raube

The emerging democratic and rule of law backsliding in various Member States of the European Union (EU) has called the EU as ‘order’ into question. Triggering an unfolding multidimensional crisis affecting the Union’s identity as a community of values, undermining its ability to guarantee the implementation of and compliance with EU law, and damaging how it is perceived both internally and externally, the EU sees its very own foundational values jeopardized. Such a fundamental challenge that threatens the very core of the European project and impacts upon its legitimacy calls for a deeper understanding of the EU’s ability to react and overcome the EU’s democracy and rule of law crisis. This article seeks to add a theoretical contribution to the on-going debate on democratic backsliding in Europe by enquiring into how and why different EU actors have responded to this unfolding crisis and what such reactions mean for the future of the European Union. By developing a theoretical framework based on various EU integration theories and their projection of actor-centred crisis-response, we show that the expectations set out by these theories do not always match with European (dis-) integration, neither do they materialize into actions by the various EU actors involved in responding to democratic backsliding. Instead, we argue that the picture is far more complex and that EU actors show major difficulties in safeguarding democracy and managing this crisis that currently affects several of its Member States. Yet, while the EU’s authority and legitimacy in responding to the democracy and rule of law crisis have been, at best, called into question and despite the threats posed by these developments to the EU’s overall integrity, our analysis shows that there might still be room for decisive action in the protection of the EU order, particularly by supranational institutions as the Court of Justice of the European Union.