Can Europe Make It?

Back to the basics: let's talk democracy out

People have more rights and freedoms than ever before, so why do they feel so estranged from the political processes around them? Read more from our You Tell Us bloggers.

Maria Antica
21 February 2014

In almost three months from now citizens across all 27 EU member states are called upon to cast their votes for a new European Parliament. Frankly, Brussels is just too far away and too complicated for people to care much, with all their empty and bureaucratic talks about austerity versus growth policies, while unemployment rates are still high. Citizens can’t see much prospect of things getting better any time soon, with or without a new Parliament. Add to this the different ways MEPs are elected and ask yourselves how much power do citizens really have upon the elected ones in order to influence decisions and give directions and you’ll get a broader picture of the so called ‘insignificance’ of these European elections.

However, this must be just the right time to sit down and talk more responsibly about what kind of Union we want, what sort of representation we need, what kind of involvement do we encourage, what and who matters the most in the decision process and, above all, how do we communicate all these. The widening gap between the elected representatives (be they European or national) and citizens or the ones between the citizens themselves is way too big and, if ignored, way too difficult to handle as they can only lead to other sorts of crises for which no bailouts or any other solution will do. But, will a vote be enough to give us democracies that work?

What’s going on?

Especially against the backdrops of economic and financial crises, European governments seem to have a hard time in dealing not only with the acute issues of budgets and debts, jobs and unemployment, but also with people’s lack of trust in their institutions, politicians, parties and the proposed solutions and policies. Preliminary results from the last Eurobarometer read that over half of the people interviewed don’t trust the EU (58 percent), while only 31 percent do. The trend began to fall steadily in the spring 2008: from 50 percent until 47-48 in late 2009, then from 41 percent in early 2011 to 34 at the end of the same year, in a period that has coincided with the debt crises and protests in Spain, Portugal, Ireland or Greece.

Ever since, populist and nationalist speeches have increased in intensity and number, with supporters both from citizens and politicians. But this doesn’t automatically mean that people have started to trust their own states’ institutions more. The same barometer reads that people’s lack of trust in their national governments and parliaments is even deeper than the one for the EU: 72 percent for the first one and 69 percent for the second one, the level of trust dropping considerably from 33 percent in 2011 until it reached 23 percent at the end of 2013.

Don’t worry, though, this is not confined to matters ‘European’. All across the world, in mostly all of the democratic countries, it seems the gaps between their institutions, political leaders and parties, democratic processes, on the one hand, and their citizens, on the other, is widening as we speak. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer shows there is an increasing lack of trust in the governments globally.

Results from the European countries analyzed by them (Netherlands, Germany, France, UK, Italy, Poland or Spain) show that none of these countries is on the list of the ‘Trustworthy’. But one of the most interesting things highlighted by the study is the fact that ‘large’ publics questioned in their survey showed a substantially lower level of trust compared to informed citizens (“college-educated, with a significant media consumption and engagement in business news and public policy” and with satisfactory salaries).

Then what kind of crisis?

Although within these democratic countries citizens do have more rights and freedoms than ever before, it appears this is not enough to make them feel an active part of the changes and political process around them. Besides all the economic and financially-driven fears behind most of the protests across Europe in recent years, people have voiced their dissatisfaction with the way they are being represented and listened to by their elected politicians. Protests in Romania from both winter 2012 and autumn 2013, those in Bulgaria, Ukraine or the recent ones in Bosnia show citizens are awakening from a sort of apathy they were accused of. They want to be able to lay claim to having functioning democracies and their options considered when decisions are taken on their behalf.

As Ivan Krastev put it, democracy has always been in crisis as what it does, basically, is to practice the “art of bearable dissatisfaction”. In democratic societies it is only normal to have people openly complain about their elected politicians, state institutions and so on as the system ‘allows’ it and, I would say, should even encourage it (compared to an authoritarian political regime). So any so-called crises can seem bigger than they really are.

But if this state of mistrust can be considered ‘normal’ in democratic regimes, than the question is to what extent is this permissible only so long as things won’t fall apart? Street demonstrations or violent protests should be used only as a last resort in democratic societies in order to voice your options. When they take place, it’s already a sign of mistrust or legitimacy crises. When other mechanisms of listening to the citizens are missing or malfunctioning, waiting the next electoral campaigns in order to punish current officials is ineffective and leads to higher levels of frustrations. And although these protests and manifestations of dissatisfaction do mostly occur on the national scale, they do also reflect the wide gaps between Brussels and those in the streets.

What’s with those not taking to the streets? Some of them are still trying to use the democratic tools at hand (public debates, sending amendments, suggestions, signing petitions and so on) hoping their messages will get through. About the rest, the silent citizens, they are either too disappointed and convinced they can’t make a difference no matter what they try, or simply don’t know what’s going on.

One reason for the latter must be the lack of relevant, balanced, visible, accessible, well- and responsibly-presented informational materials on issues and processes of great importance for all citizens. These should be readily available in the media and can reach a much larger number of people than it currently does.

Usually people try to find informational shortcuts even for those topics that are of interest for them but when these are not treated as important or unbiased by a larger number of mainstream, national media outlets, then it becomes even harder for one to treat them as such. Even local/national elected politicians try to avoid talking about complex decisions that are taken at the EU level, let aside the ones taken at a national one, unless there is an electoral gain that could come out of this.

What can be done?

Now say that the acceptable and bearable level of dissatisfaction in a democratic society grows a lot bigger than the ‘norm’. So much so that the societies eventually fall apart and no call for coming to elections, no change in the voting system could save it, no immediate solution could help. Do we really know what is at stake? Or do we really need to wait for such a crisis or for any crisis to realize people need to be more in the center of the decision process and that they need to have a feeling of empowerment for the decisions taken on their behalf?

This feeling doesn’t necessarily come from a tighter, permanent control over the elected ones but from the way they explain their decisions, they communicate fairly what the options are and are willing and ready to invite and engage in dialogue with more citizens than they already do (with the uninformed ones, too). It is true that through votes people hand away part of their responsibility to decide in all domains what a society can have and are directly related to their lives but they still need to have their options heard and their opinions asked for. 

This is where the legitimacy of both the EU and its institutions and that of the national ones comes from for the electorate. Although hard to achieve, working closer with the media for example, in a way that would make possible approaching more sensitive topics that need to be treated fairly would be an option. At least a faster one that could reach more people at once (including those not knowing English or even not having access to internet) so that less room is left for manipulative or distorted opinions to prevail, assuming there is a will for it.

A sense of cohesion or of mutual trust are either overlooked or harder to achieve and control as behind such concepts there are complex measures, decisions, strategies and concrete steps to be adopted, which harden things up. But these ‘states’ of citizenship can be achieved when the values and principles based on which societies work are being talked through and jointly agreed upon (if not as a consensus, at least as a compromise). Active, honest and direct dialogue, as well as continuous efforts and engagement to make out of the citizens real partners in the decision making and implementation process are only some of the steps to consider in order to overcome EU’s and its national governments’ so called ‘lack of legitimacy’.

I am expecting to see greater, larger debates on issues of concern for European citizens and those asking for their votes, projects laid down and solutions looked for in a joint effort, rational arguments and mutual listening and not any big, electoral bubbles that would burst once again when reaching Brussels. Especially now, when people are sensitive to some sorts of speeches and radical solutions, let’s give arguments a try and see how we can handle best the level of bearable dissatisfaction from our own societies and from the European one as well.

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