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Massimo Renzo

Political obligation refers to the idea that there is a duty to obey the law as well as to support one’s state in a number of other ways—for example, by promoting its interests, by defending it when attacked, by voting, and, more generally, by being an active citizen. These duties can be very demanding and seriously interfere with one’s capacity to autonomously choose how to lead one’s life. As such, their existence deserves close scrutiny. The main attempts to justify the existence of political obligation appeal to the ideas of consent, fair play, gratitude, natural duties of justice, and associative obligations. Each of these theories is shown to struggle either with underinclusiveness or with overinclusiveness. It is normally thought that all and only the citizens of a given state have a duty to obey its laws and support its political institutions, but none of the classic theories seem to be able to justify a duty of this kind. In light of this, two responses are available: one is to give up the idea that there is political obligation, thereby becoming a “philosophical anarchist”; the other is to revise the traditional understanding of political obligation.


Political scientists use the concept of legitimacy to assess the rightfulness of political rule. Their research can approach legitimacy from two perspectives: When taking a normative approach, political scientists develop and justify their own evaluation of the rightfulness of political arrangements. When taking an empirical approach, they study how other people—such as political elites or citizens—evaluate the rightfulness of political rule. Both approaches have been used in research on the European Union. Scholarly discussions that approach the EU’s legitimacy from a normative perspective revolve around the question of which standards of rightfulness are appropriate for the EU. These depend largely on how the EU polity is conceptualized: as a technocratic regulatory agency, an intergovernmental organization, a federation, a demoi-cracy, or a system of multilevel governance. Since the EU is hybrid polity that possesses elements of each of these models, and is therefore difficult to classify, no consensus has emerged in this debate. Scholarship that approaches the EU’s legitimacy as an empirical phenomenon examines political attitudes and discourses in European society, asking whether, and why, societal actors treat the EU as legitimate. A diverse set of research methods—including public opinion surveys, content analysis of different kinds of texts, and qualitative interviews with citizens—have been applied to shed light on this question. While this research has not provided clear evidence of a “legitimacy crisis” of the EU, it does show that many Europeans relate to the EU with a sense of diffuse unease and skepticism, in part because they find it opaque and difficult to understand.