This article explores whether the supranational EU polity can be legitimised without the nation state. It claims that modern political representation depends on establishing a tripartite distinction between state, government and civil society. This is contrasted with competing notions of the modern state, notably Rousseau's idea of popular sovereignty and the Jacobin notion of ‘immediate democracy’. The tripartite system, it is argued, enhances three crucial components of democratic legitimacy: governing, sanctioning and mandating accountability. Within this framework, the idea of the nation and the associated national narrative is shown to benefit democratic legitimacy by providing a trans-generational concept of the common good to which government can be held accountable. Since the EU does not fit this model, two approaches have been touted to legitimise this supranational polity in a post-national manner: democratic governance and constitutional patriotism. Yet both are highly problematic forms of engendering legitimacy. Governance offers no guarantees as to how and why citizens will be better represented and does away with the idea of a common good. Constitutional patriotism presupposes the prior acquiescence of nation states to EU integration without problematising how such acquiescence is mandated. Thus the maintenance of a genuinely post-national polity – one that does not recreate the division between state, government and people – depends on the ability to incorporate EU integration into evolving national narratives.