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Toward a citizens’ Europe

EU referendum debates in the Netherlands show that decades of democratisation have led to a new kind of a citizen that demands to be heard.

Matt Patterson/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

Those in the Netherlands who were in favour of the EU’s draft constitutional treaty in the 2005 referendum campaign most often naively underestimated the challenge. When the treaty was rejected by a large majority, the outcome came as a cold shower to many of them.

The early signs of divisions

They should have foreseen how difficult it would be to convince even traditionally pro-European voters. In the fall of 2004, the French Parti Socialiste (PS) held an internal referendum on the EU treaty in which party members brought home a narrow victory for the yes vote with slightly over 52%. Former prime minister Laurent Fabius, who led the no-campaign, gave voice to a strong undercurrent of mistrust, anger and disillusionment. He proved able to convince and mobilise socialist voters much more easily than expected.

This voice did not reach the ivory tower (glass, actually) of the European Parliament. When debating the outcome of the internal referendum within the French PS, the socialist group at the European Parliament saw the victory of the yes vote as proof of the profoundly pro-European convictions of the French socialists. As a newly elected MEP, strongly in favour of adopting the Constitutional Treaty, I took the floor and expressed some doubts:

“If French Socialist Party members voted against the treaty by 47% – knowing that its members are traditionally very much in favour of the European Union – there is good reason to suspect that the no vote may be able to win a majority among our voters, in France as well as in the Netherlands, who show less enthusiasm on the EU. We need to start an open discussion with those who voted no, and can't afford to silence the debate now”.

However, this was dismissed as a remark blatantly lacking political experience and insight. One Luxemburg colleague shouted to me there was no need to show ourselves 'defaitistes'. Another series of self-congratulatory speeches began.

The referendum in 2005 became a battle between arrogance and populism, both in France and in the Netherlands.

The unexpected debate in the Netherlands

In one of the first meetings on the referendum within my party, the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), our campaign manager foresaw a difficult struggle. Obviously, the conservative-liberal coalition in government was unpopular amongst our voters, and the economic prospects were bleak. How could our leftist voters possibly be convinced to vote in favour of a treaty defended by a government they abhorred, and in such uncertain times? Unfortunately, the party bureau saw things more positively and decided not to invest much in the campaign. After all, the Netherlands had always been a pro-European country.

The no-vote won by 61.5%, and with a participation rate of 63.3% the outcome was unquestionable.

Common wisdom says that a referendum often yields an answer on a question that has not been put forward. Indeed, without being bothered by knowledge about the content of the treaty, many leftist voters in the Netherlands simply refused to grant the right-wing government the present of a vote in favour. In turn, right-wing voters often voted no in protest against a possible accession of Turkey to the EU – even though this was not a question in the treaty.

However, many more voters genuinely expressed their rejection of a EU perceived as meddling with things that did not concern it; an EU "coming too close", dealing with too many details. They certainly gave their answer. It was negative, and it was on the EU.

Lessons from the Dutch experience in 2005?

One lesson I learnt from this defeat was that in this kind of debate facts need to be brought with conviction and vision. Just quoting a treaty misses the point: a legitimate sentiment of anger and frustration will not disappear with equally legitimate figures or legal texts; they broadcast on different wavelengths. A sense of abandonment and emotion needs to be met with understanding and emotion. Dry figures on the likely economic costs of Brexit will not deter anti-EU militants; an impassioned visionary statement on a common future may better succeed.

In the Netherlands, some hesitation remained at the time on what it meant to say that the EU came 'too close'.

Indeed, EU directives do impose a lot on many subjects, ranging from phasing out incandescent light bulbs to sharpening safety restrictions on the paint of children’s toys. Still, most consumers welcome saving energy and improving the safety of products throughout the internal market. And today, with ‘the EU’ showing its incapacity to find a humane and effective solution to the refugee crisis, many people would gladly do away with the selfishness of their governments and rather see more Europe in that area than less.

EU directives, in an effort to avoid fraud and to create a level playing field, also impose irritatingly complex procedures on farmers and others seeking to harvest EU subsidies. These procedures urgently need to be simplified. Meanwhile, only few voters know that the most complex requirements in the national implementation of European legislation are designed not in Brussels, but in the capitals of the member states. Adding national rules to European rules is called goldplating, and it is a legitimate source of anger that should be directed against national politicians, not against Brussels. The exceedingly rigid procedure designed by the Netherlands to implement the fairly straightforward EU procurement directive is a dramatic example, and a nightmare to many local decision makers.

The problem lies elsewhere, in a triangle between citizens, governments and Europe.

A changing citizenry, a changing Europe

Citizens first. The fact that the UK is holding a referendum on EU membership in June underlines how world has changed, and perhaps citizens have changed even more in the course of the last 50 years. The very success of decades of democratisation brought about a new breed of citizens: demanding, and ardently wishing to be taken seriously in their concerns. People know about changes and challenges in their world better than ever before. They demand to be heard, and they make themselves heard with unprecedented impact through social media. At the same time, many feel uncertain about which options to choose. The very same citizens who angrily confront politicians because of their views and decisions, and demand their autonomy to be respected, may one minute later ask for guidance in an overly complex world.

I have had to witness this contradiction throughout my political career. As a consequence, political decisions can no longer be taken in a top-down approach. Drawing-table blueprints are doomed to fail for lack of public support and true, carefully respected ownership. Politicians today have a two-fold destiny: they need to show vision, to inspire people to accept efforts and take risks towards common objectives, and at the very same time they need to involve citizens in planning and deciding, accepting the views and choices of concerned stakeholders with specific expertise.

Second, national governments have lost the capacity to exert their traditional 'sovereignty' as they would have only half a century ago. Most of the important challenges facing societies have become international. Economies are intertwined, ecological questions demand worldwide answers, and only cross-border approaches will bring effective answers on questions such as security, peace, energy, transport, and even education.

Stand alone, and fall helpless in the storm; stand together, and sustain even stronger winds. National politicians hardly like to admit this, as it reflects their own inexorable loss of power. Nevertheless, shared sovereignty of the member states within the EU presents not a threat but a solution to the gradual loss of national sovereignty on a range of subjects. Brexit will only weaken Britain, accentuating insular irrelevance while the rules of the game will be defined elsewhere. To refuse this reality is to capitulate before our biggest challenges, and primarily to those who don't hesitate a single instant to gamble with our lives: the whizz-kids of financial capitalism who don't care about national borders.

That was my biggest grudge against the far left in Europe campaiging against the treaty in 2005 and little has changed since. How did they plan to tackle the financial markets without the EU? I never got an answer, except for a wildly naive ‘it's up to the people’. I kept arguing it was not the EU itself, but financial markets who put the biggest challenge to national democracies, and that isolating ourselves would not help. Instead, it would deprive us of a platform capable of imposing necessary rules and limiting unsustainable risks. But once again, in the referendum debate in the Netherlands in 2005, these arguments lost against a more diffuse and general mistrust and resentment that was wider and deeper about the way the EU functions.

The third element in the triangle: Europe. The EU is well equipped to compensate nation-states for the loss of relevance of their national political institutions in shaping their own futures. However, this only works if national politicians acknowledge their inability to determine the outcome of major issues – as all major issues are international – and embrace cooperation as the necessary tool.

However, the EU is a rusty tool box, lagging far behind many local municipalities and regions when it comes to listening to citizens rather than to lobbyists and other powerful players. No wonder citizens are unlikely to push their governments to an “ever closer” union, even if this may well be the most effective answer to national political irrelevance. Still, the EU is a postmodern project in its ‘state-building’, step by step flexibly choosing its architecture, in consensus rather than by war and coercion; very unlike the way most modern states were formed in earlier centuries. To the dismay of many democrats, deep cracks in this image appeared after 2008 when Greece almost defaulted and was forced to accept unprecedented and cruel measures.

Creating a citizens' Europe

While citizens hardly have access to EU decision-making processes, member states today have to comply to socially unacceptable demands against the interests of millions of Europeans. In 2005, one of the most powerful arguments in favour of a leftist rejection in the Netherlands was the fact that the European Court had ruled against labour unions in Sweden. At the time, these unions were struggling to uphold their Swedish collective agreements, faced with unfair competition from underpaid Baltic employees working with Baltic contracts on Swedish soil. The free open market prevailed. How were these Swedes expected to embrace the EU if its rules did not respect and protect them?

The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is right, in his recent "Manifesto for democratising Europe", when he claims that without profound democratic change the EU may well disintegrate. Disappointingly, Varoufakis' solutions boil down to little more than improved 'transparency' in Brussels, and a convention where a new EU treaty will have to be negotiated with as yet undefined but, at last, ‘authentic’ democratic rules.

Effective governments take into account what people have to say about their wishes for their futures, for their neighbourhoods, their country and beyond. This is easier to achieve on a local level than on a national, let alone a European scale. However, if the EU is to survive the next 20 years, a much more open form of governance will have to be found, respecting today's citizens. Careful respect of subsidiarity will have to remain the guiding principle: let measures be taken on the lowest level possible to be effective.

More referenda is one way to go forward; the example of Switzerland shows that with citizens acquiring experience in the exercise, referenda don't need to be toys in the hands of populists. I would also plea for ways to involve citizens more profoundly in EU policies and legislation. I'm certainly not the first to do so, but I know that as an MEP, I could only be effective by actively involving stakeholders, learning from their insights and expertise, sharing my views, doubts, and dilemmas with them.

The current Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallström, when she was EU commissioner in 2005, started a thorough programme of encounters with Europeans, in what she called Plan D (for Dialogue); but the programme had no long-lasting effect. Political leaders, followed by Brussels' bureaucrats, happily returned to business as usual as soon as she left. The EU simply failed to draw the lessons from the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands. Still, it is an absolute and urgent necessity: open hearings on the spot, with all stakeholders; genuine interaction on the scope and design of measures; citizens accepted as experts on their lives, taken seriously on (social, environmental, cultural) limits and their reads of proposed policies; e-government is but a partial answer, while real and direct interaction may yield more lasting ownership of EU policy making among citizens.

We have to invent a citizens' Europe.

About the author

Thijs Berman is a former social-democrat MEP (2004-2014) from the Netherlands. Before entering politics, he was a journalist and correspondent for various Dutch media in Paris and in Moscow. Currently, he works in Amsterdam as an independent consultant.

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