Democracy is hard, but the only way

Mats Engström
5 June 2005

The poster behind John Monks read “For a Social Europe”. What happens if the proposal for a European Union directive on services is implemented, I asked the secretary-general of the European Trade Union Council. He looked puzzled, offered some general concerns about the internal market, and proposed that I asked one of his experts. I turned to Jozef Neimic, who was writing the first trade-union position on the proposal. He would not give much detail, but said that it could raise labour-market problems.

This was in February 2004, more than a month after the European Commission put forward its controversial services directive that would liberalise and equalise services across a wide range of businesses and professions in the EU. In principle, the trade unions should have been consulted far in advance. But the commissioner responsible, Frits Bolkestein, bypassed that part of the process. He saw the directive on services purely as an internal-market measure.

Also by Mats Engström, former adviser to Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh and now editorial writer with Aftonbladet, on openDemocracy:

“Remember Anna Lindh” (September 2003)

“The European Union and genetic information: time to act” (July 2003)

Since then, protests against the “Bolkestein directive” have gained strength. Trade unions are worried about social dumping, environmental organisations about the weakening of national legislation. In France, banners condemning the “Frankenstein directive” were part of the successful “no” campaign in the 29 May referendum on the European constitution.

So what has a specific directive to do with the European constitution? In theory, not much. The proposal is based on the Nice treaty agreed in December 2000. But the way EU institutions have elaborated the services directive tells something important about the distrust in the European Union, so manifest in the negative feelings about the constitution. There are legitimate differences of opinion on the services directive, but I am convinced that one reason for the ferocity of the protests is the lack of democratic consultation.

Before the French referendum on 29 May, Johannes Willms acutely portrayed the many influences on French reluctance to support the constitution (see “The big fear: the European constitution divides France” openDemocracy, 10 May 2005). I would emphasise the perception – generally shared across member-states – that decisions are made by eurocrats without consulting the public.

A number of counter-cases can be invoked. For example, the European Commission has consulted widely on the latest environmental action programme, and Aurore Wanlin mentions the extensive consultations during the constitutional drafting process that included civil-society groups. But to a large extent, the public impression is correct.

The services directive process is all too typical. There too many cases where the European Commission or the European Council attempts to push through far-reaching changes without transparency and proper consultation, and the lack of democracy extends (as Becky Hogge has outlined in her article on software patents legislation) to the legislative process in the European Parliament also.

A different vision

José Manuel Barroso, president of the commission, has made better communication with citizens part of his agenda. Such promises are likely to be repeated at the European Union summit on 16-17 June in Brussels.

But calls for more efforts to bridge the gap between EU institutions and the general public will have little effect without a cultural revolution in the way these institutions work. Too often, the EU sees consultation and transparency as obstacles to efficient decision-making. In fact, consultation can often improve the quality of legislation, while transparency increases legitimacy and is a weapon against irregularity and corruption. Jeffrey M Berry’s extensive study of the United States Congress provides detailed evidence that interest groups there do not cause legislative gridlock.

It is Barroso’s deputy, Margot Wallström - the European Union commissioner for institutional relations and communication - who has developed some of the most creative ideas for introducing the greater consultation and transparency the European Union needs. The white paper on EU communication strategy she was due to publish in July 2005 has now been postponed until the autumn, but some of her ideas are in the public domain.

In essence, Margot Wallström believes that communication is a two-part process and that European institutions must learn to listen better to the concerns of European citizens. It remains to be seen whether such an attractive idea will be translated into concrete proposals in the white paper; arguments for a “European democratic space” and “deliberative democracy” have been heard before. They also must be based on actions from below, although politicians can play a crucial role in initiating and facilitating them.

An invigoration of European democracy has never been more essential than in response to the distrust revealed in the French and Dutch constitution campaigns. There are five areas where actions are particularly needed:

  • better consultation. Article 47 of the draft constitution involves civil society more in decision-making. The substance of this article should be implemented as far as possible, even after the rejection of the new treaty. The commission’s argument that it cannot make use of the constitution until it has been adopted is procedural, but the need for better consultation is urgently political. Implementing the spirit of Article 47 would show that European Union decision-makers are listening to their citizens.

The EU’s promotion of e-democracy, which has had varying results, is one example of what is possible. While the hype has declined, the practical possibilities increase as more and more people use the internet and younger generations regard blogs, chatrooms, SMS and mail as a natural part of communication. In 2002 I proposed (in a pamphlet for the Foreign Policy Centre) twenty measures the EU could take; many of these are still relevant.

  • increased transparency. Much remains to be done to implement legislation on public access to documents. José Manuel Barroso must promote a culture of openness within the commission, and Javier Solana in the council. But general recommendations are not enough – there must be real change, which demands a considerable effort.

The draft constitution widens rules on public access to all EU institutions. But even without such a basis in the treaties, institutions should improve access and change their internal rules to allow their employees a clearer right of expression. The Århus convention gives citizens a right to information in the environmental area; similar legislation should be implemented in other fields.

  • facilitating the role of NGOs. Social movements can play an important role in bridging the gap between policy-makers and citizens. The commission supports civil society at the European level. One good example is the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe, which builds networks between environmental organisations. Such funding of democratic infrastructure should be increased, instead of being made more complicated as is presently the case.

Mark Gray, one of Margot Wallström’s advisors, says that the commission is discussing increasing its efforts. There are many possibilities: the current “social dialogue” on the labour market could be extended to other policy domains, and a committee for horizontal issues relating to NGOs could be set up.

Also in openDemocracy’s “Europe: after the constitution” debate: Theo Veenkamp, Kirsty Hughes, Aurore Wanlin, John Palmer, Dan O’Brien, Krzysztof Bobinski, Gwyn Prins, Neal Ascherson and Frank Vibert draw lessons from the French and Dutch campaigns.

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  • develop EU media policy. A significant difference between Europe and the United States is the existence of reasonable strong public service broadcasting. This provides different types of political arenas and a balance to privately-owned channels. In the future, concentration of ownership and competition law could lead to a more American-style media landscape.

The present EU protocol on public service should be extended to cover the internet and other new media. National broadcasters should pool their resources and create one or more European channels, possibly with support from the structural funds but with independent editors. The present Euronews lacks the coverage and quality needed.

  • promote European political arenas. New spaces for debate and deliberation can be built across Europe; openDemocracy is one important example. European news sites such as euractiv.com, euobserver.com, and europa-digital.de bring a new element to European politics.

Daniel Tarschys, a Swedish political scientist, has proposed using European Union structural funds to promote European debate and identity-building across borders. His ideas include support for EU media, for European Teachers’ Colleges, and for translation and language education.

Democracy needs a demos

European Union institutions need to preserve and develop the democratic commons. Its summits should not let security concerns prevent openness and consultation. The European Council should facilitate seminars, dialogue and public debate, drawing on precedents from United Nations summits.

Another interesting idea is Margot Wallström’s proposal for a Centre of Democracy and Culture in Terezin (formerly the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt). Wallström envisages “a place of encounter and dialogue between people of different generations, nationalities and beliefs”. She argues for “a new demos for a new democracy”.

These reforms will not in themselves solve the constitutional crisis. EU leaders must also find a way to “muddle through” the present situation. But transparency and more deliberative democracy are crucial elements in gaining citizens’ confidence for the European project. The reaction to the strong performance of the “no” campaigns must be real change, not declarations. A meaningful European democracy can be achieved – but there is no time to lose.

The European Union

A brief history of the EU
EU website

EU news and media

Margot Wallström’s blog

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