Future historians may someday look back on the 1990s as the decade when Europeans began to view the European Union without illusions. Although the core of European integration has always been pragmatic, functional cooperation of a largely economic nature—trade liberalization, regulatory harmonization, financial openness—the project was assisted by the existence of a “permissive consensus” of favorable public opinion, which permitted centrist political parties to satisfy the economic demands of powerful producer groups while justifying their actions with arguments about the role of the EU in promoting regional democracy and peace. As a result, European political elites only rarely criticized the EU. In recent years more open skepticism has been voiced. The first part of this essay evaluates the views of five leading European statesmen and thinkers, found in their Spaak lectures at Harvard University, on this issue: Ralf Dahrendorf, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, Roy Jenkins, George Papandreou and Renato Ruggiero. The second part evaluates the most serious of recent criticisms of the EU, namely that it is democratically illegitimate. Concern about the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ is in fact misplaced. Judged against the practices of existing advanced industrial democracies, rather than an ideal plebiscitary or parliamentary democracy, the EU is legitimate. Its institutions are tightly constrained by constitutional checks and balances: narrow mandates, fiscal limits, super-majoritarian and concurrent voting requirements and separation of powers. The EU's appearance of exceptional insulation reflects the subset of functions it performs – central banking, constitutional adjudication, civil prosecution, economic diplomacy and technical administration. These are matters of low electoral salience commonly delegated in national systems, for normatively justifiable reasons. On balance, the EU redresses rather than creates biases in political representation, deliberation and output.