Thursday 25 August 2011

Citizens will have to drag Europe closer to them

There's an interesting article in the New York Times (hat-tip Grahnlaw), "E.U. Elites keep the Power from the People", reporting on criticism from Habermas and others on the EU's democratic deficit:

"“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.


  1. You sound like denouncing institutional approaches? (While arguing for the creation of a citizens’ assembly!)

    Let's be honest, the idea of a citizens’ assembly without substantial decision-making powers is pure "wooden language" (excuse my French). Citizens' assemblies don't work at local level, they don't work at the level of a neighbourhood, they don't work at the level of a project. Actually we already have a European citizens’ assembly: that’s the Economic and social committee. The what? How could such a consultative assembly improve the EU's democratic disconnect in any way?

    I completely agree with you that too many institutional proposals are completely blind and counterproductive. And make federalists look ridiculous. Like, as you say, changing the treaties only to say that the Parliament should have the sole responsibility for electing the Commission, and so forth.

    But I don’t think we should exclude institutional approaches in general!

    I’m not afraid to say that a European presidential election is the only solution I see. You contradict yourself when you say that it would require a treaty change. It would not. As you acknowledge, it would be enough just to have PES, EPP and other European political parties designate their candidates for Commission president before European elections, if possible through primaries. The presidential election would be informal, indirect, but it would still be a presidential election. Let’s not be afraid of using clear words.

    And if we need it to be formal, we can still enshrine an obligation to have presidential candidates in the future statute of European political parties. This statute will be subjected to the codecision procedure. There are no unanimity, no ratification problems here.

  2. I am not excluding institutional changes - I can come up with a list of legal amendments that I would like if you want - rather I don't believe that they would solve the main problem of democratic legitimacy that the EU faces.

    The Economic and Social Committee isn't a citizens' assembly - a citizens' assembly consists of a random, representative selection of citizens who would debate (a) certain issue(s) with access to experts in the relevant area and who then draft and vote on recommendations. Though they would only make recommendations, they do increase participation (not just in the CAs, but they encourage further participation generally) and inform citizens. One of the biggest barriers to participation and bringing citizens closer to the EU/EP is the lack of information and the lack of opportunities to voice their opinions on European matters.

    We seem to have different definitions of presidential elections. I see a direct election of a Commission president to be a presidential system, whereas the EP electing the candidate of the winning party Commission president is like the parliamentary system in most Member States. That's why I said that presidential elections would require a treaty change.

    The statutes of European political parties is their own concern - hopefully we can put political pressure on them to put forward candidates, and I support the PES primaries proposal. Some of them might not want to put candidates forward for political reasons though - either because they are too small and would want to go into coalition, or because they are euroskeptic and want to abstain. So I wouldn't support an election strategy being made a legal obligation.