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Legitimating the European Union: The Contested Meanings of an EU Constitution

European University Institute: Roman Schuman Centre Working Papers
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  • Constitution Building
  • European Public Space
  • Media
  • European Convention
  • Austria
  • Legitimacy
  • Democracy
  • Law
  • Linguistics
  • Political Science


Following up on a previous study on the Convention on the Future of Europe, the present article investigates the reception of the EU's constitutional experience in the public. A qualitative analysis of the press coverage of the various phases of constitutionalisation between the decision on establishing a Convention in December 2001 and the provisional suspension of ratification in 2005 is carried out. While it is pointed out that the constitutional project entailed a bid for legitimacy which implied a strong engagement of the public, the reception of constitutionalisation in the press did not result in a democratic process of mobilisation. However, the failure of such an interpretation of the European Union as a democracy in the making did not amount to a de-legitimation of the EU in the coverage analysed. Rather, another semantic framework for making meaning of the Europolity was found which was based on a predominantly statist reading of its constituents and which legitimated co-operation over unilateral action, namely constructing a normative discourse of the EU member-states in search of a common "European" as opposed to their "national" interests. Hence, the article proposes to take note of the fact that discourses about the European Union show a large degree of polysemia and contestedness, and it develops a framework for empirically studying legitimation as a semiotic process involving the justification of the political system and its output.

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