The levels of democracy

About the author
John Palmer was formerly European editor of the Guardian and then Political Director of the European Policy Centre. He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Federal Trust

Roger Scruton rides to the support of Gisela Stuart in our debate over European democracy by speaking of the powerful bond of common British loyalties that cement the mutual obligations the citizens who share a national state demos should feel towards each other.

It is an almost entirely uncontentious proposition. I say “almost” because – in the context of the United Kingdom nation-state – the question of common “nationhood” is highly contested by many citizens, at least in Scotland and Wales – to say nothing of the north of Ireland. But let that pass. What I fail to see is why such mutual obligations at the national level should be exclusive. People feel a variety of such obligations to each other and a sense of common identity at other levels of polity (regional and local, for example).

John Palmer’s response to Roger Scruton is the latest contribution in our “Opening democracy” debate:

Gisela Stuart, “The body of democracy” (November 2005)

John Palmer, “The ‘nation’-state is not enough” (December 2005)

Roger Scruton, “The fundamentals of democracy” (December 2005)

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Ignore Europe for one moment. In the kind of interdependent world in which we live – a key feature of which is population mobility and almost universal access to real-time communication – it is hardly surprising that people increasingly often think of themselves as having multiple identities. This is a subject which my friend and openDemocracy contributor, Paul Gillespie, has written about with eloquent and powerful conviction.

What I fear Roger Scruton from the right and Gisela Stuart from New Labour have in common is the illusion that the current crisis over the democratic legitimacy of the European Union and its institutions is something restricted to the EU. They may not be aware that all surveys of public opinion of this question reveal that citizens feel an equal loss of confidence in their national governments. Indeed in very many member-states the perceived crisis of legitimacy of the national state is greater than that affecting the EU institutions. This deep-seated malaise in nation-state politics may, among other things, be a product of the diminishing sense of serious political choice available at the national level to voters because of the constraints exercised by globalisation on the range of choices open to national politicians.

The irony is that the objective space to develop political choices at the European level is – at least within the areas of policy identified for EU decision-making – far greater. My impression is that there is a growing understanding of this among the emerging European political parties and a wide array of European civil-society organisations. Perhaps this experience of building a European transnational demos will be a valuable learning experience when we have to debate how to given greater democratic underpinning to the growing institutions of global governance.