This chapter traces changes in EU-official discourse around EU legitimacy since the 1950s, relating them to the trajectory described by Pierre Rosanvallon in Democratic Legitimacy (2011a). Accordingly, the legitimacy of modern democracies broke down in the 1980s owing to a loss of faith in its two main foundations in elections and bureaucracy. This gave rise to the emergence of alternative modes of legitimation, classed under the ideal types of impartiality, reflexivity, and proximity. This chapter plays Rosanvallon’s analysis, which draws on national experiences, against the EU context. It finds important differences, in particular regarding the balance between electoral and bureaucratic legitimacy in the earlier years of integration – as well as significant similarities and interaction, manifested in a striking resonance between particular strands in EU-official legitimation strategies and Rosanvallon’s ideal types. The ways in which they played out in the case of the EU point to dangers inherent to them; of highlighting proximity over actual influence and control; making democratic forms so complex and ‘reflexive’ that they become unintelligible, and unaccountable; or replicating bureaucratic thinking that obscures choices and judgments behind claims to independence and impartiality. What is more, the discursive history of contests over EU legitimacy illustrates a predisposition of Rosanvallon’s account of democratic legitimacy towards “unpolitical democracy”, rooted in its attempt to contain the threat of populism. His goal is to politicise the indirect institutions of impartiality, reflexivity and proximity rather than democratic procedures such as voting and majority rule, with the effect that deliberation is used strategically as an alternative to electoral and partisan democracy.

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