Democracy in Europe: The urgent need for a “European Spring”

Wednesday, 04 April 2018 15:27
Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain is the author of European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right. From 2011 to 2014 he was economic adviser to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
Democracy in Europe: The urgent need for a “European Spring” © Lectrr

With only a year to go until the European Parliament elections in May 2019, senior EU officials in Brussels are already manoeuvring to obtain their next position in the upcoming political cycle.
Martyn Selmayr, until recently European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s imperious head of cabinet, has already bagged the top job at the Berlaymont. He emerged as the Commission’s new Secretary General through a cloak-and-dagger process in which he was the only (undeclared) candidate.

This lack of openness and transparency in EU institutions is symptomatic of a much bigger and broader problem. The EU is not undemocratic, as some critics claim. But nor is it democratic enough. That urgently needs to change.

We are living in an era of immense political disenchantment. Establishment politicians, political institutions, liberal democracy itself – all are under attack. The political class, technocratic policymakers and the so-called liberal elites are widely seen as incompetent, self-serving, unaccountable and corrupt.

Populist demagogues who claim to speak for “the people” are quick to take advantage and whip up fear and anger. In the Italian elections in March, various populist parties won 54% of the vote, and pluto-populist Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia a further 14%.

So great is the political rage that even long-established countries threaten to split, whether it is Scots seeking independence from London or Catalans from Madrid.

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The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaking at the European Parliament: Surveys show that European citizens in general feel disconnected to the decisions taken in Brussels. Support is now growing for European Commission presidents to be appointed via direct European citizen vote.

So it isn’t surprising that a relatively recent and fragile international entity like the EU – a largely elite project that feels remote and often incomprehensible to many Europeans, and whose raison d’être is to overcome the xenophobic nationalism that is now resurgent across Europe – is being tested to destruction right now.

While Britain may be alone in leaving, the increasingly autocratic Hungarian and Polish governments trample on EU norms on liberal democracy and the rule of law with impunity. Populists are on the march. And while trust in the EU has rebounded since the crisis in the eurozone and over refugees, and more so since the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, it remains below pre-crisis levels, and is often grudging. Only 44% of Europeans think their voice counts in the EU.

Problems and solutions in the EU

The problem is threefold. Many Europeans take for granted the EU’s benefits. Angry and fearful people blame it for everything that they think is wrong with their lives and in society as a whole. And on top of that, the EU has very real flaws, not least a lack of democracy. So here are three big suggestions to help remedy the situation.

The first priority is to bring the benefits of the EU to life for people. For all the discontent about immigration there may be, Europeans say that what they value most about the EU is the freedom to move freely across the Union to live, study, work, retire, go on holiday, be with the one they love, experience a new country or for whatever reason. The only other region where that amazing freedom exists is between Australia and New Zealand.

Beneficiaries of the Erasmus exchange programme for university students are particularly grateful. But not everyone goes to university, and those who don’t are less likely to feel European. So why not create exchange programmes for all secondary-school pupils too? If every teenager spent, say, two three-month periods in different EU member states, the connections they would make as Europeans would be hugely valuable. The experience would bring home the benefits of the EU and foster a greater sense of European identity.

A second priority is for the EU to be seen to have a positive impact on the insecurities underlying many Europeans’ discontent. That requires bold leaders who don’t run scared from anti-EU sentiment and try to appease it, but rather take the bull by the horns.

Fortunately, Europe now has one such leader: Emmanuel Macron. In the French presidential election last year, he came out fighting against Marine Le Pen. He defended our open societies that exist within the framework of law and cooperation that the EU provides. And he turned Le Pen’s argument around, by making the case that “l’Europe qui protège” (Europe that protects), not a retreat into the nation state, could best address people’s insecurities. Now those fine words need to be put into practice.

Third, and most importantly, the EU needs to become more democratic. A silver lining of the eurozone crisis that has divided Europe along national lines is that it has also stimulated a stronger pan-European politics, facilitated by the internet and social media. The Greek crisis in particular has mobilised the European left.

Whatever you may think of Yanis Varoufakis, the flamboyant former finance minister of Greece, or his left-wing politics, his pan-European Democracy in Europe movement (DiEM25) is a very positive development. It ought to be emulated by those of different political persuasions. Their mantra that “Europe must democratise or it will disintegrate” is absolutely right.

We need to reinvigorate representative democracy, foster a genuine citizens’ democracy and make EU institutions much more open and accountable. Above all, we need to give Europeans real power to shape the EU’s future.

The need for a more transparent and democratic European Union

While the growth of anti-EU populism is regrettable and alarming, it’s also a very understandable revolt against technocracy; against an EU that is often about rules about what you can’t do, rather than about how we can all achieve more together; against being told, wrongly, during the eurozone crisis that the only solution to a financial panic was ever greater austerity; and against the remoteness and lack of accountability of the people who make these flawed decisions.

The crucially important Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers isn’t accountable at all. The European Central Bank, which floats above governments, is scarcely accountable for its actions; even central bankers accused of corruption, such as the governor of the Bank of Latvia, Ilmars Rimsevics, cannot be forced to resign. And the Council – representatives of member governments – takes legislative decisions in secret, without a public record of who said what and how they voted. All that needs to change.

What passes for European democracy these days is a pale shadow of it. Few bother to vote in the European elections. Fewer still know the names of their MEPs, let alone have contact with them. Debates in the European Parliament often feel detached from domestic ones. Its big political groupings aren’t proper political parties; the European People’s Party (EPP) contains both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her Hungarian nemesis Viktor Orban’s Fidesz. Nor do the centre-right EPP and its centre-left equivalent, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), compete for power in the Parliament; they share it. The Parliament’s primary motivation is seemingly to grab more powers for itself from other EU institutions, rather than to represent Europeans’ many voices.

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While trust in the EU has rebounded since the crisis in the eurozone and over refugees, and more so since the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, it remains below pre-crisis levels, and is often grudging. Only 44% of Europeans think their voice counts in the EU.

While there are many impressive individual MEPs, such as Sven Giegold of Germany’s Greens and Fredrik Federley of Sweden’s Centre Party, there are also lots of superannuated hacks and political placeholders. Standards of probity are often low. The worst offenders are the anti-EU populists such as Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Marine Le Pen’s Front National (now rebadged Rassemblement National), both of which have been charged with misusing EU funds. All that needs to change too.

We need to build a genuine pan-European politics, with pan-European parties and movements like DiEM25. New people should be lured into politics, like the citizen MPs who make up half of En Marche’s members in the French national assembly. Party list systems should be opened up, so voters can choose individual candidates, as in Sweden. Stringent laws should be enacted to severely punish corruption and the misuse of public funds.

Like in national parliaments, these parties should compete for power in the European Parliament, instead of sharing out the spoils like a cartel. The Parliament already jointly approves most EU legislation. It could also function as an electoral college that chooses the Commission president. Sooner than later, the president should be directly elected, a move that most Europeans support. The Commission president would then have more of a mandate for their initiatives.

A realistic vision to pursue

The European elections could thus become the opportunity for big debates about what kind of EU Europeans want to live in and give citizens a direct stake in how the EU is governed. Contrary to the view that pan-European politics is not possible because there is no European “demos” (citizenry), genuine European democracy would help foster one.

More broadly, we need a new generation of leaders, as we are starting to see around Europe, who are untarnished by the mistakes of the past and can start to rebuild trust in politics. We also need to nurture the many pro-European grassroots movements, like Pulse of Europe and Stand Up for Europe, and potentially provide an umbrella for them to collaborate. And we need to get informed citizens more involved in decision making.

President Macron proposed democratic conventions in every member state through which citizens would makes their voices heard on the future of Europe. But as Claudia Chwalisz has pointed out, the conventions are turning out to be a sham. They involve little more than online questionnaires and a few town hall meetings that are unlikely to attract disenchanted voters, with ideas fed through to a “committee of wise Europeans” who will distil these priorities into policy proposals.

It would be much better to organise genuine citizens’ assemblies in each member state and then at a European level to debate proposals to reform and reinvigorate the EU. In a nod to the democracy of ancient Athens, these would include a representative sample of voters chosen by lottery – a bit like the modern jury system. Participants would receive information from experts, deliberate on the issues and seek to come up with policy proposals that have a genuine impact. Ultimately, a European citizens’ assembly could help draft a new European constitution, together with leading experts and politicians.

Politicians and technocrats who benefit from the current system will fight tooth and nail to defend their privileges. Canny ones will spy an opportunity to lead the drive for change. Ultimately, though, it shouldn’t be up to them. They all work for us, European citizens.

The stakes are huge. If we want the EU to survive and thrive, it needs to become more democratic. We need a “European Spring”.

By Philippe Legrain
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