Can Europe Make It?

The European demos and Ursula von der Leyen’s democratic quandary

Von der Leyen cannot create a second chamber, but she can wholeheartedly embrace the idea, and give Europe’s citizens meaningful ways for contesting decisions directly affecting them.

Jan Zielonka
22 July 2019
Ursula von der Leyen (formerly CDU Defence Minister), leaving plenary session of the Bundestag in November 2018.
Ursula von der Leyen (formerly CDU Defence Minister), leaving plenary session of the Bundestag in November 2018.
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Michael Kappeler/PA. All rights reserved

Democratic legitimacy is a precious political treasure and Europe is trying quite desperately to obtain it. Yet the selection process for the new head of the European Commission will leave many citizens bewildered. Gone is the only minor democratic reform of the recent years, which envisaged the spitzenkandidat of the largest European party being selected as the Commission President. Back is the power of member-states to appoint their own candidate in back-door horse-trading. The European Parliament can show its disgruntlement, but in the end, it has no viable alternative but to fall into the line as it did yesterday, however narrowly.

The power of the Council used to be justified in democratic terms, because its members represent vibrant democracies. However, this proposition becomes shaky if we look at some states in Central and Eastern Europe. Even leaders of western states such as Italy, Great Britain or France are now confronted with a serious legitimacy crisis.

Even leaders of western states such as Italy, Great Britain or France are now confronted with a serious legitimacy crisis.

The system of parliamentary representation in Europe was always opaque because there is no such thing that we could call a European demos; instead we have a loose collection of numerous national demoimanifesting little coherence and solidarity. Besides, the European Parliament was never allowed to control the European government. Paradoxically, this might be a blessing for an integrated Europe. The EP hosts ever more politicians determined to bring power back from Brussels to their own national capitols. They may have failed to take over the EP during the May elections, but they are now able to block important decisions within the Parliament and the Council, as Frans Timmermans has learned lately.

Europe’s experiments with direct democracy have proved even more imperfect. Most of the European referenda resembled a festival of populism with ample space for demagoguery and little for deliberation. Other forms of direct participation, such as online surveys and petitions, civic dialogues or peer-to-peer networks can work well in local or municipal communities, but are less suited for a vast European space with different languages and preoccupations.

Ursula von der Leyen is obviously not responsible for these democratic deficiencies of the EU, but she is well advised to put democracy at the top of her agenda. Von der Leyen prevailed over Frans Timmermans thanks to support received from sovereigntist (populist) politicians. They hope that Von der Leyen will be as friendly with them as her party colleague, Manfred Weber, the failed spitzenkandidat. Von der Leyen’s position on the violation of the rule of law in member-states would therefore be the first test of her Presidency. Yet it is hard for the EU to give lessons in democracy to its member states if the EU itself is not seen as very democratic. What can she do given the above-mentioned complications?

It is hard for the EU to give lessons in democracy to its member states if the EU itself is not seen as very democratic.

She should start with the issue of transparency, an issue without which people can hardly control any government. The EU has cosier relations with lobbyists than with citizens, it shows more determination in curbing “excessive” social spending than tax dodging, and its communication strategy is highly selective. We recently learned that the EP snubbed a proposal to make contacts with lobbyists more transparent while the Commission for months refused to disclose the results of emissions tests it did on diesel vehicles produced by Porsche. Details of tax havens used by Europe’s firms were revealed by WikiLeaks and not by Mr Juncker or Tajani. These are probably only the symbolic tips of the icebergs, and Von der Leyen should start cleaning up this mess quickly, reassuring Europe’s public about its unbiased and transparent conduct.

Details of tax havens used by Europe’s firms were revealed by WikiLeaks and not by Mr Juncker or Tajani.

She should also identify practical ways of involving citizens in the process of decision-making. This does not mean more referenda, but a sound institutional system of consulting Europe’s demoi on the most important matters tackled by the EU. These consultations must be genuine and they should not be held in Brussels, but across the entire continent.

Creating a second chamber of the European Parliament featuring representatives of cities, regions, NGOs and business associations could also bring citizens closer to the EU. This chamber would chiefly feature local activists and sectoral representatives who are closer to ordinary citizens than professional politicians currently sitting in the EP. Of course, Von der Leyen is not in a position to create a second chamber, but she can wholeheartedly embrace the idea. She can also propose to give Europe’s citizens meaningful ways for contesting decisions directly affecting them. The prerogatives and the budget of Europe’s Ombudsman could increase and the scope of private litigation in the European Court of Justice could be broadened.

The trickiest issue concerns the powers of the European Commission as such, which many critics consider too vast and insufficiently accountable. Parliamentary oversight of the Commission is important, but probably inadequate given the scale of the enterprise. It is therefore important to think about another standard democratic devise, which amounts to curbing and dispersing the centralized power. Decentralization brings power closer to citizens and it facilitates accountability. The EU has more than forty regulatory agencies located in different countries and dealing with such diverse issues as human rights, maritime traffic or food safety. They could be given more power and resources at the expense of the European Commission. Such a step will not necessarily weaken the Commission, but it will release it from some current burdens and beef up its legitimacy.

Decentralization brings power closer to citizens and it facilitates accountability.

With the EU being granted ever more powers there is pressure to legitimize its decisions. In the past, the European project chiefly relied on output legitimacy; the key objective was to make Europe more efficient and prosperous. However, disappointing economic growth from the 1970s onwards and then a series of economic and migratory crises made it pertinent for the EU to increase reliance on the input legitimacy based on democracy of some sort.

Moreover, successive waves of EU enlargement have made it increasingly difficult to reach decisions by consensus, and so majoritarian decisions within the European Council have been progressively introduced. As member states are no longer able to veto certain EU decisions there is the need to legitimize majoritarian decisions in a Pan-European framework.

Democracy is about participation, contestation, accountability and representation.

Democracy is about participation, contestation, accountability and representation. Elections and parliaments are only a few among the numerous institutional devices possible to secure democracy. The EU is not a state, so we need to be innovative and forge some experiments.

The President of the European Commission cannot single-handedly alter the existing treaties, but she can forcefully speak about democracy and propose ways for strengthening it. Von der Leyen’s predecessors have not done this forcefully enough: hence the current crisis of the entire European project. Let’s hope that the first female head of the Commission will go down in history not merely as a skilful bureaucrat, but also as a bard or advocate of Europe’s people. Or is it too naïve to hope for such a thing?

This article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on July 17, 2019.

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