Lessons from the periphery

Democratising the EU is not about Europhilia or Euroscepticism. In modern society, power and democratic accountability go hand in hand. European leaders should draw inspiration from the Union's periphery!

Flickr/Niccolò Caranti. Some rights reserved.
Flickr/Niccolò Caranti. Some rights reserved.

In 2008, after the crash that wrecked their country's economy, the people of Iceland took to the streets to voice their anger at a political system that had betrayed them by supporting an unsustainable bubble.

In 2012, members of Estonian civil society – academics, activists and artists – launched an initiative dubbed Charter 12 to protest an increasingly corrupt and out of touch political elite. "Harta 12" was met with tremendous success, with thousands of the small republic's citizens signing the online petition.

In both cases, what Estonians and Icelanders demanded was huge, and yet so simple: more democratic control of their country's economies and institutions, to be more closely associated to future decisions and prevent similar economic and political meltdowns from happening again. Due to massive popular adhesion, local politicians simply could not ignore these demands and had to – gasp! – listen to what their citizens were saying.

Icelanders got a new, crowdsourced constitution that has been drafted by regular citizens and subsequently approved by a landslide referendum this October, while Estonians will get to profoundly amend their own constitution in an open, transparent and similarly crowdsourced process.

This is a huge victory for democracy in Europe – and arguably a glimpse into the future of western political systems. But it seems that no one in Brussels got the memo. Even if hundred of thousands in Madrid, London or Paris call for basic, participatory rights in European decisions, European institutional reform remains a laughably opaque process. What can you do when the most radical proposition you will hear in Brussels today comes down to democratically electing the President of the Commission? And some big players, including President of the European Council Van Rompuy, even disagree with that, recently arguing that the increase in legitimacy a direct election would give to the President of the Commission would be 'counter-productive'.

His argument, that the limited power the President of the Commission actually has would inevitably disappoint the high expectations placed in him by his voters, is a fair one to make – but it misses the point.

Many European countries directly elect a mostly symbolic head of state, aware of what they can expect from them based on their conferred powers – which is, in fact, most of the time inferior to what Barroso can do today. But above all, Van Rompuy breached a very basic rule of political communication. You cannot have an (unelected) high-ranking official going around claiming democratic accountability is a liability – no western regime, and certainly not one with a known democratic problem such as the EU, can afford this without sparking legitimate indignation. These nineteenth century, pre-universal suffrage arguments are counter-productive in the extreme.

José Manuel Barroso isn't a great communicator either. You may not have noticed, but a week ago, the President of the Commission discreetly released his "blue print" for the EU of tomorrow.

Surprise, surprise, there's pretty much nothing in the 55-page document about the democratic deficit and how to bridge it, bar a few short paragraphs that half-heartedly offer to give the European Parliament more co-decisional power.

The overwhelming majority of the article details a new financial union – main points include a tighter union, a central European government with its own budget (to be raised with taxes on financial transactions and carbon emissions) and a mechanism through which member states could get greater protection against default in exchange for increased EU control over their national budgets.

There is nothing new in there, and this document has positively fled under the radar. It’s true that asking for more checks and balances at the European level is a political minefield – in betting his chips on economic rather than political reform, Barroso is simply walking the well-worn path European integration has followed over recent decades. But hasn’t he noticed that it is the same path that got us into this mess into the first place? Europe deserves better, and better means more democratic.

One of the justifications for European expansion has always been that together we'll be stronger, and that the older, more self-confident western European nations might even learn something from the periphery.

What has happened in Iceland and Estonia should be recognised for what it is - an inspiration for European reform.  There's a strong case for democratic reform of the EU. The possibilities are numerous. Why not create a new assembly of 27 members randomly selected from the European people – and give it at least powers of consultation over major European decisions; let European citizens upload reform suggestions on a website, forcing the Commission to put them on the agenda if they attain a critical mass; give more visibility and impact to the Citizens' Initiative, whose existence many are still unaware of?

This is how you begin to eliminate that alienation many in Europe feel towards the EU's decisions. This is how you build a European demos. This is how you make people feel the Union is theirs and this is how, most critically, you make people care.

Democratising the EU is not about Europhilia or Euroscepticism. In modern society, power and democratic accountability go hand in hand. The EU will most likely come stronger out of this crisis – many argue, the worst is already behind us. Now is the time to ask Barroso and Van Rompuy what they want to be remembered for: as technocratic subalterns to the member states' will, or as Europeans with a game-changing vision?

The choice is theirs: put the idea of more transparency in European reform out there, and let the heads of national states explain to their voters why they don't want them to matter in European decision-making.

It is truly mind-blowing no one has made a move in this direction yet. All it would require is for European deciders to stop being so afraid of the people. They won't bite you, dear technocrats, and they might even like you better if, for once, you stood on their side.

About the author

David Krivanek is an Associate Editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @David_Krivanek. His openDemocracy blog is called Esplanade.