"“The process of European integration, which has always taken place over the heads of the population, has now reached a dead end,” Mr. Habermas said at a forum hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It cannot go any further without switching from its usual administrative mode to one of greater public involvement.”
The political elites “are burying their heads in the sand,” he said, adding, “They are doggedly persisting with their elitist project and the disenfranchisement of the European population.”
Those who agree with Mr. Habermas often cite the behavior of José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the Union’s executive, and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which represents the 27 member states.
During these past months, both have failed to explain to a wider public what is happening to Europe and the euro. When they give interviews, they tend to address an elitist audience. Neither reaches out to citizens. “I doubt if they ever thought of doing town-hall meetings,” said Pawel Swieboda, director of DemosEuropa, an independent research organization in Warsaw.
“They don’t bother to do such meetings because they don’t have to stand for election,” added Reinhard Bütikofer, a German and leader of the Greens in the European Parliament."
I agree. However, the solution seems to be changing the Treaties, and this doesn't really address the problem. While Treaty change can help (for example, giving the Parliament the sole respobsibility for electing the Commission without Council input, and severing the national backgrounds of Commissioners from national nominations), the biggest and most urgent challenge has nothing to do with institutional tinkering.
The EU is already formally democratic. The Parliament is directly elected and has almost equal power with the Council, the weakness being mainly in the area of foreign affairs. This is real power, with US Vice President Joe Biden making the trip to implore the Parliament to pass the SWIFT Agreement between the EU and US last year. The Parliament elects the Commission (just like the government is in many national parliamentary systems), which is nominated by the Council. The Council consists of the elected national governments, and the European Council - the Member States' heads of government - direct general policy. So in all the main legislative institutions, offices are either directly or indirectly elected.
But despite this, the main focus on EU politics is the summitry that takes place every few months or to combat crises - an increasingly common event. Summits are the face of the remote decision-making that's going on. Member States gather together, not all with an equal say in practice, and hammer out compromises based on haggling over national interests, instead of working out what would be the best solution for the EU or Eurozone as a whole. If this sidelines the Commission, then it definitely sidelines the Parliament: after all, how can they reject emergency agreements made at a European Council summit? These summits could even be sidelining the ECB, which has been one of the most influential players in the crisis so far.
If the EU is formally democratic, then the problem is that it isn't functionally democratic. The addage that in democracies the electorate get the government they deserve doesn't quite apply as there hasn't been much political competition yet at the European level. That might change at the next election, with the PES considering running a primary to select a candidate for the Commission Presidency. Political competition is what's necessary to bring the EU closer to citizens. The EU can't be sold or airbrushed into people's lives: people need to be engaged on European issues, and we have to talk about these issues from the perspective of arguing for EU or Eurozone policies.
We're in the middle of a massive crisis, but when it comes to the solutions, we are talking about national solutions to European problems. When Irish politicans talk about Eurobonds, they're thinking of the next five years and Ireland's interest rates, not how to make the Eurozone work - without even thinking about what fiscal union means, and how it should be run, how can it be properly debated or sold to an electorate? These conversations with ourselves mean that we're talking past each other on a European stage, rather than properly discussing what are our best collective options. Which is why working on giving substance to the Europarties is much more important than institutional tinkering. Citizens need to be engaged with the issues - using citizens' assemblies would be a good way of involving people and informing them on the options ahead.
Oddly, institutional tinkering is the sexy and glamorous side to ideas to tackle the democratic deficit. Hard graft within political parties and outside them in civil society to make them more responsive to European issues - and to make them fulfil their political function as a way of enabling citizens to influence policy - is a much more substantial task, even if it doesn't yet the attention of another constitutional treaty.