The empty place of European power: Contested
democracy and the technocratic threat
In this article, I analyse the European Union (EU) in the light of the Lefortian question: What place does power
have in a democracy? Claude Lefort has argued that modern democracy is a regime where the place of power
is empty. In this article, I investigate what this entails for the EU. I take the current situation of democracy in
the EU as being marked by two developments: the contestation of democracy by citizens on the one hand and
the hollowing out of democracy at the EU level on the other. Exemplary for the first development are the popular
protest movements known as the indignados. The second feature is exemplified by governance and technocracy.
My argument suggests that the critical response of the former to the latter can in fact be read as the claim that
what should have been the empty place of power in European democracy has come to be occupied by the estab-
lishment of an authoritarian regime of expert rule.
This paper is motivated by a feeling of unease: what remains of those popular protest movements in Europe which
had as their hallmark the occupation of public squares, generally known under the name ‘the indignados’? Have their
complaints actually been addressed? Or, have we all rather waited for the fury of the outraged to pass, so that we now
look back on them as the occasional wrinkles in the calm, all too calm waters? My unease is fuelled by the suspicion
that we might not have taken these protestors and their complaints seriously enough in our haste to return to busi-
ness‐as‐usual. Beneath their multiple complaints, often voiced as passionate but unstructured outcries,lies a funda-
mental question: What place does power have in a democracy?
The aim of the article is to formulate an answer to this question with regard to the EU. Importantly, this question
can be read both in a descriptive and in a normative way. In the first reading—What is the place of power in a democ-
racy?—it asks for an analysis of the power relations within a polity which claims to be a democracy. In its normative
reading—What ought to be the place of power in a democracy?—it implies a normative ideal with which to judge
whether or not a democratic regime actually merits that label. The complaints of the indignados were voiced at the
nation‐state, first and foremost. Yet, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the EU is off the hook. The fea-
tures of nation‐states most disturbing to the indignados are only exacerbated in the EU context, and often directly
Luigi Corrias is an assistant professor of legal philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Earlier versions of this art icle were pre-
sented at the ACCESS EUROPE Early Career Workshop, Amsterdam 2015 and at the ELJ author's workshop, Amsterdam 2017. I thank
all participants for their encouragement and feedback on this paper. For their extensive comments , I am especially grateful to Jan
Pieter Beetz and Ben Crum. All mistakes are solely my responsibility.
482 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Eur Law J. 2017;23:482–494.wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/eulj