Calling for democracy from behind closed doors

Of course, bringing all of the passengers onto the Captain's bridge wouldn't have saved the Titanic. But the current situation in Europe is closer to having all the first class passengers fighting over how to steer the wheel, while those in second and third class jump off the ship in disgust.

David Krivanek
9 October 2012

At the beginning of September, the world's rich and powerful (including Herman Van Rompuy, Mario Monti, the IMF's deputy managing Director, Israel's president Shimon Peres, ministers from across the European continent, a Cardinal, dozens of top private executives, along with numerous bankers, a few EU commissioners and even former US presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and John McCain) met in a handsome villa in Cernobbio on the magnificent shores of the Lago di Como in Northern Italy. For a weekend, they discussed the future of Europe behind closed doors. And the subsequent Monday, they came back to the rest of the world with a grand statement: what Europe needed to finally win the hearts and minds, what the EU needed ultimately to survive, was… more openness and more transparency.

At first, this appears to be a mildly amusing episode - but behind the irony of a bunch of elderly gentlemen (for there's a whopping total of five women listed among the 62 featured participants on the Forum's official programme) advocating transparency after a totally opaque meeting, the Ambrosetti Forum is a perfect analogy for what is profoundly broken in the European Union.

Be it in Cernobbio or in Brussels, summits and meeting don't allow for any external input – nor indeed extensive knowledge of what was actually said and discussed. This is nothing new, as a certain amount of secrecy is necessary for decision-making in all administrations. But even by these standards, the EU's institutional complexity, the limited powers of the European Parliament as a resonating chamber for the Union's citizens and an extremely secretive mode of deliberation make for an ultimately Soviet-style surround to most of the EU's decisions. On top of that, what is most annoying is the Union's claim to be a force for progress, inclusiveness and good – a claim we can genuinely assume to be made in good faith (Mr Barroso might choke on his pastel de nata - a delicious Portuguese pastry - were he to read the Soviet analogy above), but nevertheless contradicted in practice by the lack of civil participation in its decisions.

Because of its unavoidably clumsy and incremental construction process, the Union has failed to provide its citizens with the checks and balances to the imperatives of executive decision-making most modern democracies feature – meaningful representation, mechanisms of direct democracy or simply a sense of proximity and accountability. Every decision seems to be taken so far away, in a lovely but otherwise insignificant city few people have ever been to. As the European legislative process is notoriously arcane, European legislation and decisions are only scrutinized once they are already passed and cannot be reversed, which helps to account for the EU's poor democratic record.

This feeling of a ‘behind-closed-doors’ Europe is precisely what is alienating a lot of Europeans who see only the casting of a radical vote as a way to make their voices heard –e.g. the Euroscepticism-fuelled successes of Le Pen, Mélenchon, Beppe Grillo, Syriza, Golden Dawn and so many others across Europe. The recent ‘normalisation’ of Dutch politics after the last election should not be taken as a sign of the wind finally changing direction, for anti-European ideas have instead permeated the discourse of that day's winners.

Mainstream parties (Sarkozy, Miliband, among others) and public intellectuals have often recognized these radical voters' concerns. At the same time they have criticised the expression of these concerns by means of a radical vote. But it must be said that this is an unfair attack. The radicalisation should be seen more as a failure of the mainstream than as an achievement by a few charismatic politicians. The sad truth is that it is rational for people across Europe to resort to other means of expressing their opinions, to other parties and to other ideas, when the old ones seem to have failed, or have led nowhere else than deeper into a crisis nobody quite understands, but that affects them nevertheless. As a recent Counterpoint study suggested, most of the "new radicals" are often reluctant supporters of these successful populist parties, who have managed to offer an alternative vision of Europe, even if only by its dismantling. And this is why any strategy that aims to "contain" or "eliminate" the metastasis of Eurosceptic parties is bound to fail or even to worsen the situation by justifying these factions' "they want to eliminate us because we are inconvenient" rhetoric. As long as anti-European populism (from the right or the left) is treated as a disease, and not as the symptom of a broader problem, any effort will be ultimately useless, if not counterproductive.

Margaret Canovan once famously described populism as the "shadow of democracy" – and there's a real risk that by trying to diffuse this shadow (for example by restricting free speech or banning certain parties), we might ultimately harm democracy itself. In short, the underlying problem in this case is the EU's lack of transparency and accessibility - what the euro crisis has done is not so much to worsen the EU's democratic credibility, but rather to shatter its decades-long justification of its deficiencies on the grounds of guaranteed progress and prosperity into tiny pieces.

So what should we do to address these fundamental concerns? The response is simple: more democracy, not less, at the European level. The challenge for Europe now, beyond its economic difficulties, is to prove its legitimacy – and as the this-is-the-best-way-to-go argument has failed, it should be replaced by that of democratic inclusiveness, i.e. claiming to be the true voice of the Union's citizens. This is a very ambitious task to undertake, and it is likely to become one of the biggest intellectual efforts the European continent has ever witnessed - devising a way for 500 million to interact and have a word to say in complex decisions is a real headache. Yet, it is possible, and several interesting initiatives already exist, and may be a source of inspiration for this reflection.

In their diversity, these initiatives also prove that there are many possible ways to diminish, even marginally, the EU's democratic deficit. For example, the 'Initiative for the European Citizens' Initiative' calls on the European Commission to take more seriously its Lisbon-treaty commitment to allowing one million European citizens to "invite" the Commission to devise an act on a certain subject – this has been alluded to, perhaps exaggeratedly, as an embryonic "European referendum" ( see also ECI - tool of its time). The second example would be an effort (see for example here) to bring together the hundreds of NGOs that gravitate around Brussels and aim to influence European policies in order to increase cooperation, transparency and accountability to citizens who are often left out of these lobbying efforts – through a strong and user-friendly internet presence. Finally, a third example of democratic initiatives (an illustration of which can be found in this article) would reemphasize the role of European political parties as initiators of pan-European debates open to everyone, to be channelled all the way to the higher spheres of EU decision-making by these same parties.

Of course, none of these is a particularly daring reform on its own, and there are many others (whose ideas we would incidentally be delighted to feature on openDemocracy), but these few examples hint at four basic imperatives for meaningful, pro-democratic reform of EU governance.

1)    It needs to be compatible with 27 different countries, each with their respective culture of politics and political participation.  How do you devise an institutional mechanism that would satisfy the Dutch or the Swedes, who are used to an inclusive government that consults civil society through all stages of policy-making, and former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, where civil society is only emerging and generally disdainful of politics? The answer is actually simpler than it seems: the Internet. "e-governance" is still a vague, catch-all concept – but the anti-ACTA protests have shown how young, tech-savvy activists can manage to mobilize individual citizens across European borders around a common cause. Yet, ACTA was also proof, were it ever needed, that national governments and EU institutions still see the Internet as a threatening, dangerous space beyond their control, having thus failed to grasp its potential as a place where people can actually propose and debate ideas that could ultimately benefit everyone, or even as a tool to organise European elections. In short, democratic participation through the Internet is the first step towards a more Habermasian, less Machiavellian form of European governance

2)    It needs to be supported by the EU – this is perhaps the most paradoxical condition of all, in the sense that the EU should indirectly embrace potentially devastating criticism by creating these new channels of communication itself. Even if grassroots movements increasingly acknowledge the European dimension of their respective causes and accordingly move towards greater coordination, it's still up to Europe to give the decisive push – to provide the infrastructures and institutional design that would give actual power to the new device (whatever its exact form is), and ensure that every EU citizen in every country can access it, despite what his national government might think. The Lisbon Treaty makes all European citizens equal in their relation to supranational institutions – and this is why, say, a European platform to debate and propose new ideas and initiatives – a true Europe 2.0 - would need to be enforced through European legislation.

3)    It needs to be open to everybody. Increasing the power of the European parliament, as numerous MEPs and activists have called for, is part of the solution, and directly electing the President of the European Commission, as the Foreign Ministers of Germany and Poland have advocated in a recent communiqué, is another. But this is yet another layer of representation, when what the EU needs is more direct input from its citizens. Debate between MEPs shouldn't replace discussions between EU citizens. The European public sphere should not remain confined to Strasbourg or Brussels. In Iceland, citizens could interact directly and in real time with the council in charge of drafting the country's new constitution: on the scale of the island, this experiment has been very successful so far. And it has also been highlighted that one of the most interesting features of the Occupy! movement was its exploration of new forms of collective organisation and deliberation. These two exemples should be major sources of inspiration for reforming EU governance.

4)    It needs to be credible – which is easier said than done. One can't help but wonder that currently, all pro-democracy efforts by European activists and reformers get lost at some point or another, and ultimately become meaningless as they are conveniently pushed under the carpet of pressing economic imperatives – in Greece, in Italy, in Spain, this has prevented any fundamental reflection about the conditions of EU membership. The spectre of MASSIVE ECONOMIC DISASTER (could things really get that much worse?) is invoked every time someone has attempted to fundamentally rethink European governance. "We'll have a debate about what it all means and why it has happened once we sort it out" – read "never". Of course, bringing all of the passengers onto the Captain's bridge wouldn't have saved the Titanic. But the current situation is closer to having all the first class passengers fighting over how to steer the wheel, while those in second and third class jump off the ship in disgust. The EU will only regain its citizens' trust if it can prove their opinions matter – and that it is ready to be subjected to democratic oversight.

The bottom line is that all those across the continent who feel attached to the European idea but who are genuinely disheartened by the messy way the EU is responding to its current troubles should make their voice heard once and for all – and make it count. What they have to call for is a substantial reform, one that would effectively give Europe's citizens a say in European decisions – this is the intention.

But the precise shape of this reform is yet to be determined through, - you've guessed it - public debate. Anti-European sentiment is agitated by a few successful politicians in specific national contexts, yes, but it is also closely interrelated with the broader issue of EU governance. As such, radical Eurosceptic populism will never disappear from the political radar if the EU remains a large-scale imitation of the Ambrosetti forum – the EU needs an open democracy. With such an achievement to its credit, powered by people and not markets, the Union could once again, and this time with more credibility, pretend to lead the world.

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