Democracy takes a back seat

Kirsty Hughes
13 August 2002

The real risk is that democracy is going to get short shrift both in the European Union (EU) Convention and in the 2004 Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). This, of course, is not the declared aim. But in a little noticed comment to the Convention in April, Giscard d’Estaing bluntly asserted that while ‘people often say that Europe must be closer to its citizens, this is not exact – Europe must be more understandable by its citizens.’

Nor is Giscard’s approach unfamiliar in Brussels, where the patronising view is often heard that if only the public understood the EU better, they would support the EU and its institutions much more. The opposite may well be true; if the public had a better view of its inter- and intra-institutional wrangles and machinations, they might well be seriously appalled.

Another equally patronising view, much beloved by Blairites in the UK among others, is that the public has no time for institutional and constitutional debates and is only interested in outputs, delivery and efficiency. Then, there is the variant that the policies and outputs of the EU are, in fact, too technical and complex to be relevant to its wider public. Immigration and asylum, anti-discrimination, interest rate changes, e-mail and telephone snooping powers, rules and recommendations on national budgetary policies – of no interest?

In fact, the hope for a bolder stance on democratic change lies with the Convention members – not with its chairman, nor with the member states. They are in a position to propose substantive democratisation of the Commission, full opening of the Council in legislative mode, greater involvement of national parliaments and more participative democracy.

But even if the Convention does move in this direction, there remains a risk that it will focus on a small range of institutional reforms and not on genuine participation.

Laeken has called for the creation of a European public area. But this will not happen without a step change in the behaviour of all the institutions and without some fresh and innovative thinking. The institutions need to recognise that strategies to promote communication and debate are a central part of their role. And this means two-way debate, which will include criticism and disagreement, not simply one-way public relations strategy and political spin.

Dialogue with civil society organisations also needs to be put on a formal footing, not left to the vagaries of individual commissioners and presidencies. And national politicians have to start owning up to their role in EU decision-making – something that the presence of television cameras, even during part of the Council legislative process, will certainly help to encourage.

Creating a European public space

A small number of well thought out innovations could also have a big impact. The Commission could, for example, announce that it would be online first thing every Monday morning to take questions from the European public (taking perhaps an hour of each Commissioner’s time two or three times a year). This would be a leap ahead of any national government. And the European Parliament could demand to hold weekly question times with both Commission and Council presidents, and find a way to involve representatives of national parliaments in these question times.

Such innovations would rapidly test the salience and interest of the EU to its public. Combined with a genuinely clear, sharp new EU constitution, this could represent a huge leap forward in building a real European political and public space. Nor should it be forgotten, as was underlined at a recent Transatlantic Center debate, that the creation of the US political culture and demos followed, and did not precede, the writing of the US constitution. Leaps forward are possible.

Moreover, the fact that the future EU will not be a federal state on the US model, but will continue to be in effect some combination of the US and the United Nations (UN), is all the more reason to emphasise and develop participative democracy and not simply institutional change.

The Convention on the Future of the EU has a chance to lead by example here and not simply by its final decisions. It is meeting in public and it is establishing a series of consultations and dialogues with European civil society. But it faces a number of challenges. It needs to demonstrate that these public consultations are not merely a formality. And it has to make sure that its new working groups, where the heart of the debate and the work will take place, are open to the public not meeting in private, which is currently not guaranteed.

It also has to find a way to go beyond the organised networks of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), interest groups, think tanks and others, to engage the wider public. But the Convention, with its 105 members, cannot engage the wider public on its own. This should be the responsibility of all governments and of all Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and all national Members of Parliament (MPs), not just those involved in the Convention.

But of course the governments are watching and plotting as the Convention unfolds, and waiting for their turn at the IGC. And even if, in the end, they agree with most of the Convention’s conclusions, they may distance themselves nonetheless so as to preserve their bargaining power for the IGC.

All of which suggests that the prospects for engaging Europe’s citizens in the debate, in its conclusions and in the future politics of the EU, are going to remain hostage, as ever, to the short-term power politics of the member states.

The full version of this article appeared in the summer issue of European Voice, Rue Montoyer 17–19, 1000 Brussels.

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