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The 'nation'-state is not enough: a reply to Gisela Stuart

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

The level of public debate in Britain about the future of European integration, since the rejection of the European Union constitutional treaty in France and the Netherlands, has been abysmal. The main political parties ignore the issues raised by the de facto suspension of a treaty which all EU governments held to be essential for the governance of an ever-expanding European Union. Even “pro-European” politicians make no serious attempt to argue the case for strengthening the efficiency and the democratic accountability of the EU and its institutions – even as they prepare to negotiate the accession of more new member-states.

John Palmer is political director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels. He is responding to Gisela Stuart’s article, “The body of democracy” (November 2005)

The articles form part of a debate on “Opening democracy”, which includes the following:

Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy"

Roger Scruton, “Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton

John Dunn, “Getting democracy into focus

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Gisela Stuart, the Labour member of parliament is to be congratulated, therefore, for engaging at a serious level – in her openDemocracy article “The body of democracy” – with the arguments about whether it is possible to build a serious transnational European democracy. As a former participant in the Convention on the Future of Europe she saw at close hand a fascinating attempt to create at least a building-block of a future European demos which engaged both European and national parliamentarians as well as EU governments and the European Commission in an extended debate about democracy and EU governance.

As a close observer of that process over many months I was struck by the extent to which national parliamentarians (from all the EU’s then fifteen member-states) developed a fuller and richer understanding of the need to strengthen European democracy at the supranational as well as the national level. Gisela’s own evolution has proved very different. The experience seems to have led her to conclude that any attempt to build a European Union democracy is misguided and doomed to failure. She cites with enthusiasm the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton who believes that the “nation”-state alone is capable of generating that sense of community without which no democratic polity can be built.

This is an ominous conclusion, not just because European Union member-states have already agreed to pool sovereignty and take collective decisions in very important areas of policy (in some of them by forms of majority-vote decision). It also has implications for the future of the global system of governance.

Are we really saying that it is inherently utopian to work to some appropriate form of supranational democratic accountability for the emerging global decision-making bodies? Do we, for example, really see a longer-term future for a strengthened United Nations without at least the foundations for a future global democratic assembly? We are – rightly – adding to the number of global governance institutions in an effort to manage globalisation. We may add more in future. Can this really be done while responsibility for democratic accountability rests with purely national parliaments?

Gisela Stuart and those (on the left as well as the right) who think like her are investing a great deal indeed on their single wager for democracy – the “nation”-state. At this point readers will notice that by insisting on inverted commas around the word nation that I have some difficulty with this language. In truth Gisela Stuart also has her concerns, for she admits that she is worried by the number of United Kingdom citizens she meets who prefer to describe themselves as “English” rather than “British”. Could that have something to do with the fact that “nation” is not an unchanging phenomenon but something which is being constantly revised through history? Certainly the rise of an English national consciousness must have something to do with the increasingly self-confident assertion of their distinct national identity by our Scots and Welsh fellow-UK citizens.

In Europe today people feel themselves to possess multiple identities: local / regional / national / Europe, depending on the circumstances where the question of identity is posed. Only the other day (in London) I heard one person introduce himself to another by saying: “I am a Basque, a European and I hold a Spanish passport.” To which his new acquaintance replied: “Well, I am Welsh, a European and I hold a British passport.”

Power and weakness

No one would deny that the cultural and public-awareness foundations for democratic politics at the European Union level are very fragile. On the other hand the scale of population movement for settlement between EU member-states is enormous and is steadily growing (I am told there are half a dozen Anglophone mayors of French communes).

Gisela Stuart is right to be worried about the weakness of democratic legitimacy at the European level. But is the picture so much better at national level – given falling voter turnout and rapidly declining party membership across the board? In all European countries, voters perceive parties to be capable of offering an ever more restricted political choice. Globalisation is indeed shrinking the space for national politics to offer real alternatives as it forces parties into an ever smaller and more overcrowded ideological telephone-box.

The low level of voter turnout in European parliament elections cannot be written off simply as a function of a low level of collective political awareness. It has much more to do with the fact that voters have come to realise that European parliament elections are simply not about enough. As Gisela Stuart points out, European votes – unlike other elections – do not elect an executive or government. In reality successive European parliament elections have been tired, low-key affairs where national parties have tried to fight over the warmed up leftovers from domestic elections (do I like or dislike the national government holding office at any given moment in my member-state?)

This is not what European elections should be about. They should be about the strategic choices about the future direction of the Union and its policies. Ironically, at the level of twenty-five EU member-states the potential space to explore alternatives is far greater than at the national level of even the larger individual countries.

This weakness was understood by the convention and – in a diluted form – provision was made to encourage the development of genuinely European political parties which would (in effect) be able in future to propose their candidates for the post of European Commission president in future. This would offer – for the first time – a way for voters to shape the political leadership of the EU executive (by electing the president of the commission.) I wish they had gone one step further and said that the proposed future president of the European Council should also be directly elected.

It may be that – with or without the proposed constitutional treaty – something like this will anyway come to pass when the next European parliament elections are held in 2009. Events are forcing the embryonic European parties to define themselves and their programmes ever more clearly. The appointment of the commission led by José Manuel Barroso has resulted in a clearly right-wing dominated executive and this is pushing the social democrats and other parties on the left to take their stand as the “opposition.”

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union and democracy:

Kalypso Nikolaidis, “’We the peoples of Europe…’” (December 2003)

Gwyn Prins, “The end of the European Union” (May 2005)

John Palmer, “After France: Europe’s route from wreckage” (May 2005)

Aurore Wanlin, “European democracy: where now?” (June 2005)

Mats Engström, “Democracy is hard, but the only way” (June 2005)

Simon Berlaymont, “What the European Union is” (June 2005)

The pretence that the commission is somehow “above politics” is being abandoned. This trend is revealed in a recent study from the London School of Economics which shows that voting divisions in the European parliament have become less and less defined by national differences and more and more by cross border party-political differences.

Constitution and identity

Gisela Stuart may want to defend “neo-liberal economics” as an essential concomitant of her commitment to democracy, but in the argument over the future of the European economic and social model those demanding stronger, more integrated and more democratic Europe will be on both sides of that debate. She is right, however, to imply there is something unhealthy about the European parliament having a big role in decisions about how EU money is spent but no power to raise taxes. It would be far more transparent if EU revenue was raised not by the present, Byzantine system of national “contributions” but by a hypothecated tax which should be subject to open European parliamentary scrutiny and decision.

What is worrying is that Gisela Stuart seems to think that the essential burden of ensuring that European governance should fall to national parliaments. It is vital that national parliaments make a much better fist of holding their own governments to account in the wider EU decision-making process. But the same member-state governments want many key decisions to be taken at EU level. Indeed Tony Blair and others are even now talking about the EU taking some further – largely undefined – responsibilities in the field of justice, security, energy and the creation of EU wide centres of higher-educational “excellence.” How much further does this process have to go before Gisela and others recognise that we refuse to demand a serious element of supranational democracy at our own peril?

In the conclusion of her openDemocracy essay, Gisela Stuart says that the key question is who “we” are in the European Union. It is a mistake to imagine that until the peoples of Europe have a fully developed sense of their collective identity that we cannot build a democratic polity. As the architects of the American constitution recognised, a collective American identity did not create the constitution, rather the constitution generated a collective American identity. It will take time in Europe as well – but maybe much less: since we are not seeking to create a national identity, but a legitimate European democratic identity alongside all those other identities which define us in the modern world.


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