Research objectives

Multiple crises have created new legitimacy challenges for the EU. Have the EU’s responses to these crises been legitimate?

Research objectives

PLATO investigates the legitimacy of the EU’s responses to the financial crisis. It uses the example of the financial crisis to build and test theory of what would amount to a legitimacy crisis in the case of a multi-state, non-state political system such as the EU.

Legitimacy is at the core of ‘good government’. It means the justified or rightful exercise of political power. Since a right to exercise political power implies that people may have an obligation to comply even with some laws they do not like, legitimate polities are more likely to enjoy the unforced compliance of publics. Polities that can concentrate more on satisfying the needs and values of citizens, rather than coercing them, are more likely to deliver high levels of economic performance and to score well on indicators of human development.

From financial crisis to legitimacy crisis?

After 2008, EU governments spent € 4.5 trillion of taxpayers’ money rescuing European banks from a crisis that largely originated in the international financial system. That displaced a financial crisis into political systems by straining public finances and social protections in all EU member states, bringing some to the point of insolvency, and threatening the survival of the EU’s single currency, perhaps even of the Union itself. Since then, the EU has experienced a migration crisis, a geopolitical crisis in its relations with Russia, and the Brexit crisis.

Whilst the EU has experienced serial crises, it remains to be investigated whether it has experienced a legitimacy crisis. We lack the knowledge, concepts, theories and methods needed to investigate scientifically just how far, if at all, the Union’s ability to make rightful or justified use of political power is in some way unequal to crises it has to manage.

The problem is that the existing literature mainly developed from an analysis of legitimacy crises within states. That, though, may not help us identify the character, causes and consequences of legitimacy crises where political power is exercised from beyond the state by bodies like the EU. Neither problems nor solutions to legitimacy crises are likely to be the same where the political order is not itself a state. Rather, the EU is a multi-state, non-state political system that seeks to solve problems from beyond the state, and in a manner that even transforms the very nature of political authority within the state itself.

Building new theory through case studies

PLATO responds to this difficulty by building a theory of legitimacy crisis that is specific to the EU. It follows the well-established research strategy of building new theory through multiple, connected case studies. To cover the variations that may need to be taken into account in constructing this theory, some of PLATO’s case studies investigate different actors with whom the Union needs to be legitimate. Other PLATO case studies will investigate different standards by which the Union may need to be legitimate.


Six PLATO cases test the legitimacy of the EU’s crisis responses with member states and other implementing authorities. ESR1 tests how far member states accept the legitimacy of crisis responses that imply greater EU involvement with core state powers of taxing, borrowing and spending; ESR2 tests the legitimacy of the Union’s crisis responses with sub-national implementing authorities; ESR3 tests how far the legitimacy of the EU’s crisis responses has been ‘horizontally’ contested through inter-institutional disagreements at European level; ESR4 tests how far they have been ‘vertically’ contested within interface mechanisms between the EU and its member states; ESR5 then combines both horizontal and vertical axes by testing how far new agencies introduced in response to the crisis are accepted as legitimate by all their institutional stakeholders; ESR6 tests whether greater contestation and disagreement has had knock-on effects to agree policy.


However, the need for the EU to be legitimate with member states hardly removes the need for it to be legitimate with citizens too. The origin of EU laws in EU institutions is often visible to citizens. Above all, EU laws need to be legitimate with citizens themselves if we assume that citizens ultimately need to be able to control all their own laws as equals in societies that assume individuals are, indeed, free and equal. Hence, PLATO uses nine further cases to test how far the Union’s crisis responses meet standards of democratic legitimacy. These cover parliamentary representation (ESR7); anti-corruption (ESR8); non-domination (ESR9); political trust (ESR10); identities (ESR11); civil society (ESR12); acceptance of political competition (ESR13); contestation in the public sphere (ESR14) and external legitimacy (ESR15).

Multi-disciplinarity and state-of-the-art methods

PLATO promotes multi-disciplinary understanding of how different systems – political, economic, social, legal and ecological – can interact to produce problems that challenge the legitimacy of political systems within and beyond the state. PLATO also innovates in the application of state-of-the-art research methods to the study of the normative and empirical components of legitimacy.

Indicators used in PhD projects

From the initial design of the ESR projects to the synthesis of findings, a key role has been played by the development of indicators of what would count as a legitimacy crisis in the case of the EU. PLATO started off by distinguishing indicators along two dimensions. The one, indicators of democratic legitimacy such as public control, political equality, participation, representation, accountability, a public sphere, civil society relations, and political community. The second, a series of behavioural attitudinal indicators that can be used to investigate the legitimacy of any political system: support, trust, awareness of the political system, compliance, complaint, protest and so on. As shown in the below table summarising the indicators used in each project, each PhD project involves different combinations of indicators along the two dimensions. A large part of each of the 15 PhD projects has, therefore, involved further theoretical specification of particular indicators; or, in other words, the formulation of testable expectations of how components of legitimacy and legitimacy crisis are likely to function under particular conditions.

That has had two results. First, in providing a general template for theory development through the specification of general indicators of legitimacy and legitimacy crisis in particular contexts; and second through our own contribution to a better theoretical specification of legitimacy and legitimacy crisis as standard-dependent, actor-dependent and context-dependent in the case of the EU.

In operationalising indicators in their own research, the ESRs were supported by a living review. This showed how the two dimensions of indicators used by PLATO followed from (a) general conceptions of legitimacy crisis; from (b) three models of how a legitimacy crisis might develop in the case of the EU and (c) from theories and methods commonly used in the normative and sociological/empirical study of legitimacy. How each PhD project operationalises each indicator is also set out in a joint book that writes up important findings of the PLATO project through chapters based on the individual projects, edited by Chris Lord, Peter Bursens, Dirk De Bièvre and Ramses Wessel.

Indicators of democratic legitimacy


Learning Europe at its borders: how deployments to migration hotspots affect Europeans’ understandings of themselves and society



Harmonised asylum policies in the EU? The role of street level bureaucrats in the implementation of the Common European Asylum System

Non-compliance and discretion


The role of actors in the legitimation or delegitimation of MLG structures: a claims-making analysis of the politicisation and depoliticisation of EU state aid policy


Awareness of the political order


Public sphere


The uncertain world of the Court of Justice of the European Union: the legitimacy of the European judiciary in the 21st century

Co-operation and conflict on rules




European fiscal policy and banking union: how collective goods theory can explain variations in delegations of power to the EU in the wake of the financial crisis

Ability to solve collective action problems


Understanding the legitimation of controversial institutions: stakeholder critique and legitimation of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)

Commonalities of worth and of interest

Diffuse support: trust, identity, tolerance


Legitimacy of the European Semester: does parliamentary involvement make a difference?

Parliamentary participation and involvement



New understanding of EU legitimacy and anti-corruption: the role of the national parliaments in embedding democracies



Trust in institutions


The public and the Euro: on legitimacy, visibility and political imagination


Awareness of the political order


Public sphere

Public political thought


Political trust differentiation in the EU multilevel governance: how and why people trust their European, national and local governments



Talking about Europe: legitimacy and identity at the border

Emotions and emotional identification


Stakeholder involvement as legitimation strategy? An illustration of EU financial agencies




Choiceless Europe? Political legitimation in Britain and Spain during the financial and economic crisis

Trust in institutions

Discourse and justification in the public sphere

Complaint, protest and criticism


The EU’s post-crisis legitimacy and the UK public sphere

Public sphere

Salience of discourses

Animation of debate


Analyzing the unexpected outcomes of the EU’s normative power in the South Caucasus

Contestation vs. acceptance of normative claims


GDPR and processing of personal data

PLATO's Early Stage Researchers use official documents and media coverage to analyse the EU's post-crisis legitimacy. GDPR rights apply for all persons whose data we will be processing throughout the course of the project.