Can Europe Make It?

A march on Brussels? Never say never!

Conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized Euro-elections. The other parties must clearly profile what they want to pursue and what re-arrange within the EU, to stand any chance of providing a home for citizens who have ample reason to grumble. Euro-elections landscape, 2014.

Pooyan Tamimi Arab Lammert de Jong
16 February 2014

"Geert Wilders of the Party For Freedom (PVV) campaigns with the mantra that the EU must be dissolved." Demotix/Thomas Rassloff. Some rights reserved.

The United States of Europe is heading for the election of a European Parliament in May 2014. Oops! Who said that? Never invoke the F-word, meaning federal. Expunge the thought. In the Netherlands, there prevails a strong conviction that the European Union can “never” become a federal state and “should not try to do so”.[i] That would be a super-state, and out of the question: European history says, never! We beg to differ: never say never.

Apart from the gigantesque vocabulary of the European Union’s labyrinthine institutional structure - “Presidents and councils, everywhere you look, with names so similar that few can tell them apart” - the question arises as to whether the European citizen understands how he is represented, let alone how the representation of his nation-state is managed.[ii] The present structure is the legacy of a past when Die Herre der Verträge decided the course of European integration, with the public more or less quietly in attendance. Now that at last the engagement of the public has become a condition sine qua non, the power of the people has become critical for European democracy. How are the people represented? Does European governance pass the test of being public? Just how can European citizens change Europe by casting their vote? These critical questions arise from article 10 (3) of the Treaty on European Union (Maastricht, 1992):

“Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.” 

Obviously, this is not yet the case. In our country, the Netherlands, the turnout for the European Parliament has been very low in recent elections: 36.8% in 2009 (lower than the turnout in the whole of the Union, 43%), a little lower than in 2004, but higher than the ultimate downer of not even 30% in 1999. This sharply contrasts with the turnout for the Netherlands Parliament: 84.4 % in 2006, almost 75 % in 2010, and 73.8% in 2012. Political commentators are excited, framing this election as a head on collision of quixotic European Union masterminds and populist naysayers who represent ‘the people,’ and predicting that 2014 will become a European disaster year.[iii]

The Dutch vote is small in numbers; Dutch parties occupy only 26 of the 751 seats in the European Parliament. Yet quite a number of national political parties compete for these Dutch votes. Also, the Dutch vote is significant, as the Netherlands was one of the founding fathers of the Union. At present, the Party For Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders campaigns with the mantra that the European Union must be dissolved. The PVV favours a NExit and published in February 2014 a study documenting the advantages of this. Presenting this study, Wilders stated: “We can save billions by liberating ourselves from EU regulations. We can end mass immigration and stop paying welfare checks to, for instance, Romanians and Bulgarians.” [iv] Even the Eurosceptic Socialist Party, which in 2005 was in the vanguard of rejecting the European Constitution, does not support an exit. The PVV scores high in the polls, and could win the upcoming municipal elections in The Hague, a city that describes itself as The International City of Peace and Justice.

It’s fair to anticipate that the upcoming election of the European Parliament will walk a fine line between what the European Union stands for and the outrage over why would we pay for the Club Méditerranée, as one Dutch politician asked his Dutch audience.[v] Also, the opposition against the free movement of Bulgarian and Rumanian citizens as of  January1,2014 is certain to join the election campaign trail. According to opinion polls, a massive cohort of the Dutch opposes the arrival of these European citizens.

These powerful sentiments against the European Union are hard to tackle as only scant attention is given to the significance of the Union in a wide range of areas. The Union’s public profiling has been grossly neglected. Few have noted that the Union’s presence has been achieved with the perfect agreement of its member-states though with a rather thin democratic veneer.

Few national politicians ever stand up to defend the best interests of the Union; they don’t speak out and clearly profile the Union. Most political parties aren’t able to muster more than a ‘moderate support,’ curbing any enthusiasm in reaction to a populist NExit agenda. This tepid support actually weakens their appeal to voters. Far better perhaps the striking confrontation between the PVV’s clarion call to finish off the Union, and the D66 (a.k.a. Democrats 66, referring to 1966 when this party saw the light) which strives to achieve a Federal United States of Europe. In between, the ‘moderates’ ply rather aimlessly for the ‘moderate’ vote. 

Who is who in the European Union? Who knows?

The European public is directly represented in the European Parliament, while the national public is indirectly represented in the Council of Ministers of the European Union. The Council, a body of in total 28 ministers, one for each state, represents all the nations with respect to a particular portfolio. Each portfolio has its own Council of Ministers. Despite the variation in composition and description of the various councils, they are the same Council, an institution of the European Union. These members of the Council wield executive power in their respective member-states; at European level they are lumped together into a legislative body. That’s why the designation ‘Council of Ministers’ is confusing as it sounds like an executive power, whereas in fact the ‘Council’ is more reminiscent of legislative bodies, such as municipal councils. European power materializes in legislation by joint decision of the European Parliament and the Council on the initiative of the European Commission, the executive body of the Union. Both the Parliament and the Council of Ministers are required to deliberate in public. In the fine print of the Union’s institutional structure, this is a bi-cameral system of representation: Parliament-direct and Council of Ministers-indirect. The indirect link absorbs the national elections as a democratic legitimation of the Council (of Ministers) which is a European Union co-legislator.

The ‘ever-mighty’ European Council, consisting of the Heads of State and Government of the member-states, also represents – indirectly – the national public. National elections serve as the democratic legitimation of Council members allowing them to operate in the European theatre. The European Council is powerful, ‘the alpha and omega’ of executive power in the EU according to Curtin, dominating the Commission, and therefore the institutional executive. But it has no power to pass laws. The European Council is known for its TOP and Summit meetings where EU leaders meet to decide on broad political priorities and major initiatives, especially during the Eurozone crisis. The European Council calls the shots in general terms and largely tells the Commission (and the Council) what to do if formal legislation has to be adopted (Curtin, 2014, 5-9).[vi]

In short, the European Council sets the agenda of the European Union. According to its President, Herman van Rompuy, the European Council is une institution tout a fait specifique.[vii] The negotiations of the European Council are conducted out of the public eye (Habermas, 2013). [viii] Perhaps the major democratic deficit of the European Union architecture is that the gravitas of its power rests with the European Council, an intergovernmental institution that does not deliberate in public: une institution tout a fait mystique!

Aren't we accustomed to Parliaments that have the right of initiative and amendment? On close inspection, isn't it bizarre that the European Parliament can nod only once, either yes or no? Of course, in preparing European legislation, mostly behind locked doors, there is ample space for Parliamentarians to have a say, but the proof of the pudding is the eating in public: deliberation, initiative, amendment and decision! 

What does the ordinary citizen know about what happens in the European Parliament? More than any other institution of the Union, the European Parliament lacks public profiling in the sphere of national constituencies. No wonder that European governance is blurred in the public eye, tantamount to an amorphous Brussels conglomerate without democratic accountability. Answering ‘who is who’ across the European Union government institutions requires a lingua franca that even for insiders is problematic.  

The imperative to vote

One cannot honestly expect citizens to run to the election booth of the European Parliament in the absence of any clear significance to their vote. On the other hand, the mantra preached by both the national localists as well as the European unionists to the effect that the present structure of the EU lacks democratic legitimacy, which is true, does not justify citizens' lack of interest in voting for the European Parliament.

This democratic deficit can perhaps causally be linked to a motivational deficit, but that is not a justification for low voter turnout. Almost nobody disagrees that the institutional structure of Europe needs reform. That consensus should make profiling European governance a key agenda item in the EP elections, with any reforms on the drawing board already informed by an electoral vote rather than presented – much later – as the fruits of a ready-made performance of European insiders. Intellectuals, political leaders and media must make voting a pressing matter of daily parlance in profiling the significance of the European Union with regard to day-to-day public affairs. For instance, the power of banks and finance is evidently beyond the control of individual states, operating on a global scale:

Regulation and supervision of banks in the member-states of the European Monetary Union (the 17 Euro states) will soon become subject to control by the European Banking Union. Bailout of banks by taxpayer’s money will be a thing of the past. Between 2008 and 2012 the member-states needed circa E 5000 billion to keep their banks standing; that is about 40 % of the European GDP. Future rescue operations will be grounded on a bail-in principle, which puts the burden on shareholders and investors. Those who have taken the risks must also carry the rescue operation.[ix]


The Netherlands minister of Finance, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is also President of the Eurogroup of Finance ministers in the Eurozone, stated that: “we are actually moving the bill away from the taxpayer.” He added that he would not shed a tear over his loss of command over Dutch banks: “I prefer a regulator who is effective and operates on common rules, rather than being a [Dutch] minister who arrives too late on the scene of big bank problems, as has been the case in the past.”[x]

The same applies to cybercrime, internet regulation, tax evasion, privacy, human trafficking, pollution and exploitation of the world’s resources, just to name a few. These issues are of a global dimension and affect the daily lives of most citizens in one way or another: security of savings, pensions, pin cards and bank accounts; health and energy. Also, our banks, hospitals, universities, traffic and trade depend on the safety and reliability of an ever more powerful internet. The issues are – often unwittingly – taken care of by an interplay of European Union and state governance.

Populists who are “against Brussels” should explain themselves and offer their alternatives; but of course they won’t. Instead, Geert Wilders’ NExit is a screed to plaster the path to the exit door rather than any kind of analysis regarding problematic European governance issues. European Unionists must pressure parties such as the Dutch Party For Freedom (PVV) on these issues, while they themselves must add a European profile wherever applicable.

Only in this way will voters become aware of the idea of Europe as a “community of fate”[xi] in day-to-day reality. Systemic profiling of Europe gives meaning to voting, and reveals just how urgent it is to prevent the political right from hijacking the ‘vote of the people’. At the same time European unionists must acknowledge the need for institutional reform so that “Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.” That does not mean that citizens should abstain until the moment when a perfect union has arrived. On the contrary, citizens should be persuaded to use their right to the fullest extent, demanding reforms and appropriating the vote for very practical reasons.  So far, only the conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized European elections.

However, focusing solely on structural reforms, the vision of defenders of political union like Habermas, leads to people following political institutions, rather than the institutions following the people. Although Europe’s most eminent philosopher does criticize European technocracy, and calls for inspiring leaders who can explain the urgency of the EU demos to their constituents, European people do not play a fundamental constituting role in his analysis.[xii] They are constituted by a political union rather than constituting such a union. The high standards of twenty-first century European democracy, however, demand that intellectuals and leaders do not take any such shortcuts in achieving a European political union. A more evenly distributed balance between the wise lawgivers and leaders on the one hand, and the people on the other is urgently required. We do not live in the era of Rousseau who could simply state: “By itself the people always wills the good, but by itself, does not always see it.” We do not conceive of our lawgiver as “the mechanic who invents the machine”, who guides the “blind multitude, which often does not know what it wills because it rarely knows what is good for it” (Of the Social Contract, book II, Ch. 6, 7, 1762).

In our time, what is – necessarily – on the drawing board to perfect the Union, is a call to vote. We are not proposing a referendum here, but we do want to emphasize the necessary engagement of the public.

If the institutional changes that according to Habermas, Giddens, Hill and others are indeed urgent and should, as they claim, be implemented immediately, then the people cannot afford to lag far behind. But how many intellectuals openly dare to criticize their fellow citizens, when they shrug and say, Who cares? What for? If intellectuals are not going to brace themselves against the wrath of the public, how can we expect this from politicians?

The requirement to vote must therefore itself be the subject of debate all across Europe’s civil societies. In other words, the authors are old-fashioned believers that people should and must vote, that European citizens not only have a right but also a duty to vote. Their ability to combat the EU’s democratic deficit from below is key to changing the representational structure for the better. Whatever their political leanings, it’s the vote that counts.

European citizens, intellectuals and media could learn something from the engagement of those of our contemporaries who operate in settings where the representational structure is far from direct. The impact of the citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran comes to mind, although such a comparison may strike the average reader as a bit farfetched.

For years, voting in Iran has been hotly debated and its outcome often a mystery, until the last moment. And yet, ordinary citizens have again and again gone to the voting booths to force an outcome that is favourable to them. Against all odds, ordinary Iranian citizens have been ahead and at the forefront of change, rather than waiting for change to come from political leaders.

Also, those who refuse to vote do engage in passionate and critical debates about the act of voting and about the conditions for an appropriate electoral system. They do not say: Who cares? Or: What for?

Knocking out the populist paradigm? Don’t even try it!

The populist parties of Wilders (Netherlands) and Le Pen (France) rally the public with the promise ‘to return freedom to our people.’ Consolidating their cooperation in the run-up to the European Parliament election of 2014, together they cry: ‘today the liberation begins, from the [European] elite and the monster of Brussels,’ referring to the humiliating situation in which the old states of Europa must now ask permission from Brussels for everything.[xiii] Populists don’t compromise over some ‘more or less’ Europe; instead they are ‘defenders of freedom for our people.’ Applying a rhetorical twist, the original promise of European integration – ‘freedom and no more war’ is turned around into a utopian frame of freedom from Brussels and the national elites! Populists appropriate ‘our’ people, supposedly a homogeneous collection, overlooking the plurality of the nation.

The European elite is framed as a parasitic lobby that lines its own pockets with frequent flyer miles while haughtily portraying ‘our’ people as European Dummies. ‘Us’ against ‘them’, over and again! There is no communication with populist positions about meaningful and practical EU benefits, nor a compromise, for ‘the people’ hold the undivided truth.

Statistics on what Europe has made possible, presenting Europe in a realpolitik frame, or spelling out the dark consequences of a NExit can’t compete with a populist monolithic frame.

Yet the PVV’s NExit study offers a sublime chance for the unionists to profile the Union. Populists won’t change their mind. For them, only the homogeneous nation-state counts, denying its plurality and keeping Eyes Wide Shut and Ears Sounding Deaf over our global condition, a dead end road. The populist paradigm can’t be knocked out of the ring. So we won’t even try. We would anyway be trapped into a false dilemma: for or against Europe.

Re-arranging the furniture

Beyond any doubt, the EU is already there, with all its great pros and cons. Under the heading of A Europe of trial and error has been working for more than 60 years, Sheila Sitalsing, a Dutch columnist, made the case for a critical political discourse over the arrangement (in Dutch: de inrichting) of Europe, what we would call the ameublement of the European Union.[xiv]

This is exactly what the upcoming European Parliament election must be about. This election must be appropriated by citizens to press for the actualization of the Treaty on European Union (1992): Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.

Such transparency will not come into existence by itself, nor should citizens wait for reforms originating in the labyrinth of the European Union corridors. Therefore, a massive call to vote must resonate in all the member-states.

Parties with just ‘moderate support’ won’t score in challenging the populist tremor. Only those political parties that present a clear platform of profiling what they want to pursue and what they want to re-arrange within the European Union stand any chance of providing the electorates with a home for citizens who have ample reason to grumble, yet realize that the European Union serves their citizenship, taking fully into consideration our global condition.

In 1963 American citizens marched on Washington to secure citizens’ rights for Black Americans, against all the odds. They had a dream and they succeeded in getting voting rights. Now it is time for European citizens to march on Brussels: “We are voting!” Perhaps European unionists will clash with national localists, while both count on Brussels to keep the peace. In that case, the European Union will be carried by the electoral vote and gain democratic legitimacy. Whatever the outcome: never say never! Vote!


[i] Scheffer, Paul. 2013. The Hidden Vitality of Europe. Amsterdam: Felix Merites, p. 8.

[ii] Hill, Steven. 2013. Europe’s Democracy Deficit: Putting Some Meat on the Bones of Habermas’ Critique. Social Europe Journal, 3 June 2013.

[iii] Cuperus, Rene. 2013. ‘Serious Request toont dat participatiesamenleving werkt als een tierelier’. De Volkskrant, 23 December 2013. 

[iv] Geert Wilders outlines case for a Duch ‘Nexit’ from the EU. The Financial Times, 6 February 2014.  

[v] Debate ForzaNL. Amsterdam: De Balie, 12 March 2013.

[vi] Curtin, Deirdre M. 2014. Challenging Executive Dominance in European Democracy. The Modern Law Review, 77(1): 1-32.  

[vii] Herman Van Rompuy explains: What is the European Council?, published on 7 May 2013.

[viii] Habermas, Jürgen. 2013. Democracy, Solidarity and the European Crisis. Social Europe Journal, 7 May 2013.

[ix] Stille revolutie in Brussel: morgen is het Europees economisch bestuur een feit. De Volkskrant, 19 December 2013.

[x] Dijsselbloem: Bankenunie zal belastingbetaler echt beschermen. NRC, 18 December 2013.

[xi] Giddens, Anthony. 2014. Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe? Cambridge UK: Polity.

[xii] Habermas, Jürgen. 2012. The Crisis of the European Union, A Response. Cambridge UK: Polity.

[xiii] Wilders en Le Pen sluiten Europees verbond – ‘historische dag’. NRC, 13 November 2013.

[xiv] Sitalsing, Sheila. ‘Het Europa van vallen en opstaan werkt al zestig jaar’. De Volkskrant, 19 October 2013. And: 31ste Van der Leeuw-lezing 2013: Sheila Sitalsing:, 22 October, 2013

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData