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Democracy in the European Union, more or less

About the author
Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine.

Like the survivors of a defeated military campaign, footsoldiers of the “yes” side in the French and Dutch referenda on the European Union’s draft constitutional treaty are slowly beginning to regroup and to ask why things went so badly wrong. A number of them assembled in Poland’s capital city on 5 July 2005 to assess the landscape after battle.

The seminar was sparked by an openDemocracy article by Aurore Wanlin, a French researcher at London’s Centre for European Reform, which concluded: “a lack of democratic dialogue at the European level is a damaging hole at the heart of the European project”.

Lousewies van der Laan, a Dutch MP and a leader of the “yes” campaign in her country, described her sobering referendum experience: “we struggled and failed to come up with a convincing one-liner explaining to the man in the street what the European Union can do for him”.

Krzysztof Bobinski is a former Financial Times correspondent in Warsaw who works for the Unia & Polska Foundation, a pro-European NGO in Poland. He reports in this article on a seminar in Warsaw on 5 July 2005, organised by the Unia & Polska Foundation in cooperation with openDemocracy and the Polish weekly magazine Ozon, on the theme: “Does the European Union need more democracy – and if so how much?”

The seminar was held under the auspices of the British presidency of the European Union (July – December 2005) and had the financial support of the Polish foreign ministry; the British, Dutch and French embassies in Warsaw; and the British Council.

Isabel Hilton, editor of openDemocracy, chaired the seminar. The other speakers were:

Lena Kolarska-Bobińska ( Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw)

Lousewies van der Laan (Member of the Dutch parliament for the D66 party)

Nadège Ragaru Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (Iris,Paris)

Aurore Wanlin (Centre for European Reform, London)

Anne Mette Vestergaard (Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen)

The feeling that the European Union had become a costly irrelevance to most Dutch people buried the “yes” campaign by a margin of 62%-38%. Lousewies van der Laan says:

“In the Netherlands there was no compelling reason to be for and it became respectable to be against – no one believes there will be a war in Europe or that their prosperity will suffer if the EU disappears”.

Lousewies van der Laan was scornful in several directions:

  • of past and present EU leaders who had constructed the EU’s institutions and enlarged the union after 1989 without taking people with them (“voters kept telling us: ‘we were never consulted about this’”)
  • of France and Germany for breaking the stability pact with impunity and thus showing that the big member-states could play by their own rules
  • of Valery Giscard d’Estaing for calling the treaty a “constitution”, thereby fuelling fears that the EU was turning into a “superstate”
  • of those in the “yes” camp who warned of terrible results if people voted “no”
  • of the media, which failed to explain the issues in depth
  • of the business community, NGOs and trade unions, which kept their heads below the parapet

As a result, said van der Laan, “the ‘yes’ campaign was left to the politicians, who are unpopular and whom people decided to teach a lesson.” The ‘no’ campaign, meanwhile, was very successful: “it united xenophobia (the extreme right) and left-wing populism (the socialists) with respectable and credible sceptics (‘the Protestants’).”

But, van der Laan concluded, “at least the campaign gave us a debate on Europe”. The lesson for this former member of the European parliament was that any further steps on integration must include, consult and persuade the people with them – and that means more referenda.

Democracy’s test

Aurore Wanlin developed the themes of her openDemocracy article by arguing that the European Union’s problem was the disconnect between its institutions and European citizens, who don’t feel the EU answers their needs. She echoed Lousewies van der Laan’s comment that national politicians had too often used the EU’s Brussels institutions as scapegoats for their domestic problems. This, along with the surprising lack of basic information about the EU available in the older member-states, has had the cumulative effect of weakening the EU.

Nonetheless, Wanlin made the rare point that the European Union is one of the continent’s more democratic institutions. The division of powers in the EU is complex with inputs from the European Commission, the twenty-five member-states, the European parliament and the European court of justice; there are multiple layers of accountability, including directly-elected MEPs and indirectly-accountable national governments.

After making the further rare point that the EU is made democratic by its inability to keep a secret, Aurore Wanlin argued that the draft constitutional treaty had three further democratic features:

  • it was designed to address the EU’s democratic deficit
  • it was put together in the most democratic fashion in the EU’s history to date (the post-Laeken convention process, multiple open meetings and dialogues)
  • it was to be tested in the most democratic way – referenda in ten member-states (and parliamentary votes in the rest).

French fears, Danish dreams

Nadège Ragaru saw the French referendum (which produced a 56%-44% vote against the treaty) as the moment when “the French people discovered the European Union and decided that they didn’t like what they saw”.

The 29 May vote wasn’t “against (then prime minister) Jean-Pierre Raffarin, nor a lack of transparency or democracy in the EU, not even against economic reforms. It was about the realisation that France was no longer the centre of the world and the French elite was no longer running the country”.

The French, Ragaru said, are wrestling with identity problems, in fear of foreigners and suffering insecurity about losing their jobs. They voted as they did because they felt that democracy in Europe could do little to protect them in the face of globalisation.

Anne Mette Vestergaard said that Denmark would have voted “yes” if its referendum had been held before the French and Dutch – but after it, a “no” vote would have been a certainty.

From the moment Denmark joined the EU in 1973, its people were told about the economic consequences but left in the dark about the political ones, Vestergaard continued; now, after several referenda on European issues, two of which produced “no” votes, the Danes have become (like Spaniards) “euroenthusiastic”. The reason, said Vestergaard, is that the Danes’ various referenda have forced us to talk about European issues and about the EU – including enlargement, which is popular in Denmark.

Jean Monnet’s ghost

Lena Kolarska-Bobińska’s impression was that the European Union has a deeper problem: European elites are losing interest in the European project because of enlargement.

“Elites in western Europe no longer send out signals saying the EU is a good thing. At the same time, in a country like Poland half of the voters don’t vote anyway and a third say they don’t care what kind of system of government they have”.

Kolarska-Bobińska suggested that “we may be approaching a similar situation in western Europe, with people finding they are unable to use democracy as a tool to further their interests?”

A lively discussion echoed Kolarska-Bobińska’s doubts about democracy. Nadège Ragaru said that in France too, elites were unhappy about enlargement while the mass media failed to provide information about the new member-states.

Several speakers suggested that Poles were more interested in economic issues (jobs and wages) than in democracy. A democratic debate requires an informed electorate – and that takes time. Jozef Niżnik, an academic, believed that the debate on the constitutional treaty had been a “huge misunderstanding” – the media had orchestrated the debate and the people had answered the wrong question.

Niżnik then articulated a conundrum that European Union pioneer Jean Monnet might have sympathised with: “if people had been consulted on the euro or enlargement we wouldn’t have had either … integration is better accomplished by elites but this is now impossible without popular support”. Niżnik concluded: “we have too much democracy”.

Where next?

If the European project has a future, Aurore Wanlin, Lousewies van der Laan and Nadege Ragaru felt that the key to it lies in education, information, and media. They agreed that schools should teach the EU’s history, politics, processes, ideas and institutions; local authorities should make more information available throughout the union in a decentralised way; and the media should report EU issues and feature its personalities and stories more widely.

As the late Warsaw afternoon became shorter, the proposals came faster. Aurore Wanlin demanded that EU institutions must consult and engage in public debate before undertaking major initiatives; Anne Mette Vestergaard said “give people the first and not the last say”; the formidable Lousewies van der Laan offered a detailed wish-list for the European Union’s institutions, including referenda on all major EU steps, European Council meetings being held in public, and strengthening of the principle of subsidiarity(devolved decision-making).

Anne Mette Vestergaard suggested that referenda on all integration issues may not be the best way forward, but agreed that only open discussion could get “people on board”. In Denmark, government funds are now available to local communities who want to learn about and discuss EU issues.

With this uplifting set of recommendations, Warsaw’s battle-hardened survivors of Europe’s travails set off in search of that special brand of European Union democracy that only Polish hospitality, conviviality, and vodka can supply.


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