Speaking at the Festival of Europe in Florence, Joseph Weiler, a professor who holds the Jean Monnet chair at New York University, sounded a warning note about a union that has reached its limits.
These limits, he said, were illustrated by the lack of solidarity shown during the eurozone crisis, the France and Italy's drive to change the Schengen Treaty establishing a border-free zone, and the rise of populism in many EU countries.
EU politicians complain loudly about the democratic deficit and the need to engage with European citizens, but there is a continuous decline in the EU's legitimacy and the mobilising force of the EU institutions, said Weiler.
To tackle urgent problems European countries have made important decisions in the past, the scholar explained, citing as examples the establishment of the single market, the euro and the Schengen area. But these results are linked to legitimacy of process and outcome, not democratic legitimacy, he noted, giving his reading of EU fatigue.
The EU's founding fathers, starting with Robert Schuman, forged a European project whose DNA flowed from with the European Commission and the member states, not with the European Parliament. Even the Schuman declaration of 1950 does not mention the word 'democracy' once, Weiler said.
Perversely, over the years the Union has tried to close the gap by giving progressively more power to the European assembly, but that did not increase voter turnout in European elections. On the contrary, since 1979 voters have increasingly snubbed the ballot box.
European citizens do not feel that the politicians they elect properly represent them, nor do they feel that they can be held accountable for their actions, said Weiler, describing Europe as "a government without a government".
"Whatever we do to give more powers to the European Parliament or to national parliaments cannot redress this political lacuna," he added.
Polls show that European citizens rate more highly what the EU can do and give lower grades to what it has done in the past, said Weiler, discrediting the belief that the European project is legitimised only by its successes.
The professor said it is high time for Europe to propose a new mission, or what political scientists call "messianic political legitimacy," putting forward a vision or a dream of a new project that citizens are likely to support.
"The Schuman Declaration was a plan for action for people that needed to achieve things — peace and prosperity," he said, noting that the mobilising force of Europe had fallen victim to Europe's success.
Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, concurs that the rise of populism and anti-European sentiment must be challenged.
"As politicians we are failing our citizens by not making the case for European integration," Buzek said, adding that even if the status of the project was not satisfactory it should not be discredited.
"Today we need more coordination, therefore we still need more Europe," Buzek underlined, calling for more political will to forge a stronger union.