Can Europe Make It?

Trusting the European Union; a Yale debate with recommendations

All of the students who take up the democratic challenges currently facing the EU and offer the following policy recommendations to address them are united in their desire to improve Europe for the future, a Europe which they wish to help create.

Colleen Driscoll Mary Anne Mendoza Yann Schreiber Huan-Kai Tseng
31 May 2015

The various proposals in this article are representative of the deliberations of participating US students in the Democracy Workshop at the European Student Conference hosted at Yale University in February, 2015.

With trust in European Union (EU) institutions at all-time lows, alleviating the democratic deficit*--both in terms of citizen representation and accountability among members -- has become a growing concern for the European Union.

Credibility in the membership criterion of the EU has been called into question repeatedly in the wake of antidemocratic changes made by leaders of some member-states. Yet there is often little redress to show for it. This has been coupled by cries of too much distance between citizens and their representatives in the European Parliament, with very few capable of indicating who represents them. With seemingly few entry points that could legitimately influence agenda at the EU level, it may be no wonder that many citizens are dismayed with the EU.

Bridging the gap between citizens and the EU, through providing more opportunities to influence agenda and policy-makers, may help revive institutions by making them more flexible and interactive enough to enact productive policies that rejuvenate Europe.

Introduction on the EU citizen disconnect

The identity subgroup considered the particular disconnect between EU policy-making and citizens’ concerns over economic security, recommending the creation of a volunteer social workers program for the youth and an EU-wide online job-networking platform (Europass CV) for employers and job-seekers. They also cautioned against the danger of restricting resident aliens’ political participation in ways that could threaten the democratic foundation of employment and job mobility within the EU.

Aside from the creation of new institutions, members of the Democracy Workshop focused on reforming institutions and mechanisms that already exist within the EU. The subgroup on the elections of the European Parliament, for example, proposed a reallocation of seats in Parliament for MEPs elected into single-member districts that could be more representative of constituents at the EU level.

Members of the Democracy Workshop also worked towards reforming existing opportunities and focused on ways citizens could propose legislation through the European Citizens’ Initiative. In particular, the group proposed a pan-European vote to override Commission rejections along with increased legal assistance and technological infrastructure that would help existing initiatives gain enough signatures of support.

The workshop also looked into means for the EU to react to anti-democratic evolutions in member states, proposing concrete policies as well as soft-power incentives. Alongside a more concrete and intelligent toolkit for the EU, we urged the European Commission and the member states to engage in a substantive, public dialogue about constitutional changes to be drafted, all over Europe.

During the conference, the EU ambassador to the United States David O'Sullivan urged, "We should never forget how far the EU has come in the last 20-30 years." Of even greater importance is to ensure that the next decade expands upon the progress that has already been made.


By Huan-Kai Tseng

Citizens of the European Union (EU) nowadays have perceived the EU and its institutions as disconnected from their daily concerns: only 39% of surveyed respondents see the EU as “conjuring a positive image” (Eurobarometer 2014), while 41% of those surveyed suggested that stronger social welfare would increase their sense of “being an EU citizen” (Eurobarometer 2013). The sharp contrast in these two successive cross-national surveys suggests that the EU, despite being a regulatory body with policy-makers indirectly selected by EU citizens, has not made its policies responsive, in a timely fashion, to the pressing concerns of their “selectorates.”

In the last half-century, EU citizens witnessed the delegation of sovereignty and policy-making to a transnational regulatory body on a grand scale; yet, amidst prolonged economic recession and the looming sovereign debt crisis, ordinary people’s daily concerns, particularly those of the youth, have shifted from politics to (un)employment and job mobility (both within and outside their home countries). The misalignment between the EU’s actual policy outputs and the citizens’ more economic-oriented policy demands can potentially erode the democratic foundation of the EU. It is with this spirit that the identity workshop proposed the following legislative initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between the EU and its citizens in an era of economic uncertainty. It hinges on three key aspects (1) (un)employment, (2) job mobility, and (3) democratic participation.

First, our policy proposal targets young people aged 18-30, who are most vulnerable to recession-related workforce reduction. The proposed policy is to create an EU-version of young volunteer social workers or semi-professional services modeled after AmeriCorps and Teach-for-America in the US. The objective is to temporarily place recently displaced young people into an EU-wide social work force, with stipends equivalent to statutory minimum living wage, assisting in tasks including health care/aid and primary school instruction in low-income regions, which also helps them cultivate an EU-vision by working alongside peers from other EU countries.

Secondly, we propose a Europass CV, an EU-wide business-oriented job-networking online service, that allows employers to search for job applicants across the entire EU region with qualifications and skill-sets readily translatable into major EU official languages and beyond. The EU could promote the Europass CV as the primary job-networking portal and coordinate this cross-border employment initiative with member states’ ministry of labor/trade.

Finally, owing largely to the shrinking public resources/spending caused by prolonged economic recession, many EU citizens are becoming more reluctant to further extend voting rights in local elections to resident aliens from other EU countries for fear that their tax contribution will be distributed away at the ballot box. Indeed, as of today, only 12 out of 29 EU states have explicit legal provision that allows some categories of voting rights for resident aliens. However, this suffrage provision is a by-product of the reciprocity clause of the Maastricht Treaty, which was originally designed to promote job mobility within the EU; thus, recent public sentiment can plausibly hinder job mobility and thereby erode the democratic foundation of the EU.

For these reasons, we believe the EU (and particularly the European Parliament) can better bridge the gap between itself and its citizens by working closely with member states to implement these recommended policy proposals to enhance the democratic foundation of the EU at this critical moment.

Reform of the elections to the European Parliament  

By Colleen Driscoll

Despite the presence of spitzenkandidaten in the elections to the European Parliament (EP) in May 2014, this personalization of the campaign did not materialize in increases in voter turnout.

In fact, in many countries, turnout declined to record low levels. With turnout levels remaining low or declining, there is a clear need for greater participation in European affairs by ordinary citizens to increase the democratic legitimacy of EU institutions. Moreover, the question of low turnout implicates the representation of the voice of EU citizens in Parliament, as we see higher vote shares among euroskeptic parties as abstention grows.

We find that in thirteen polls taken within a week of the May 2014 elections, the UK Independence Party was supported by 14.3% of the British public on average. The election returns, however, gave UKIP 26.6% of the vote, almost double the support that polls predicted. We attribute this discrepancy in voting behavior and its consequences in representation of EU citizens in the EP to the lack of a sufficiently strong electoral connection between the EU and its citizens.

With the findings above in mind, the members of the elections subgroup came to the conclusion that the European Union should reform the elections to the EP to bring it closer to the people. Literature in comparative politics shows that members with a specific geographical constituency not only advocate for their constituents interests, but also provide a key link from their districts to the national government and bureaucracy.[1] By cultivating this electoral connection at the district level, citizens may feel that they have more of a European identity than at present.

In designing the districts, emphasis should be placed on making the ratio of MEP to constituents as equal as possible. By focusing on equal-population districts, the EP will seem to its citizens a more egalitarian institution, one that better represents the views of its citizens. Currently, an MEP in Malta has nearly twelve times the influence, measured by the number of residents she represents, than a MEP from Germany. While the merits of allotting representatives irrespective of state size are strong, the effects of the disproportionality on sentiments of democratic deficit across the EU are too great to ignore. 

We thus propose setting aside one third of the membership of the EP (250) for single-member districts that are as evenly distributed as possible, with a minimum of one district in each member state. The remaining two thirds of seats will be assigned by party list to retain proportionality at the national level.[2]

Creating an interlocutor between local and transnational governance will allow citizens of the EU not only a personalized connection with the Union, but it will also facilitate dialogue and create a Parliament that better responds to the needs of its citizens. By institutionalizing conversation from the grassroots level, the elections subgroup hopes to instill a sense of identity within the larger patchwork that is Europe.

Reform of the European Citizen Initiative

By Mary Anne Mendoza

The existence of the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) provides an opportunity for citizens to utilize direct democracy in order to influence the agenda at the European level. But the current status of the ECI leaves much to be desired in terms of political clout and public awareness. Two policy proposals seeking to address these issues came about during conference deliberations.

The first proposal focused on the process of the ECI itself. It sought to increase the number of signatures needed to pass an initiative in order to complete the introduction of a more binding mechanism. The collection of more signatures would also increase visible support for initiatives and could result in more informal pressure in European institutions and policy-makers. This group proposed increasing the gravity of the ECI through a pan-European vote that would be triggered by a rejection of an initiative by the Commission. In the event of a double majority of European citizens across member-states voting in support of an initiative, the Commission’s rejection would be overridden and it would be forced to propose the initiative to the European Parliament and to the Council. But such feats of support and increased signature collection cannot be enacted unless citizens both understand and utilize the capacity of the ECI.

In pursuit of this, a second proposal focused on improving channels of awareness. Only 1 out of 50 initiatives[3] have resulted in an actual policy proposal. 40% of existing initiatives were rejected for ”[falling] manifestly outside the framework of the Commission's powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.”[4]

The second proposal focused on calling upon existing European institutions, political parties, media outlets, and groups within civil society to provide legal assistance in writing initiatives in order to reduce rejection rates. The added potential of an overriding pan-European vote can help to serve as a stronger impetus for groups within society to contribute to the support of initiatives.

Additionally, the second proposal focused on improving the technological infrastructure behind the ECI. At least two-thirds of signatures collected in support of initiatives were submitted online, yet there have been many reported issues with the online submission system and a majority of rejected signatures were those collected online.[5] An improved ECI website with better infrastructure for signature collection, online brochures about the ECI process, and an up-to-date database of initiatives would complement the efforts of organizations seeking to enact change through this route. The digital age provides a wealth of opportunities to unite the interests of individuals across Europe, despite obstacles such as distance, and a failure to properly utilize such channels would be a travesty.

Anti-democratic behavior 

By Yann Schreiber

In recent years, anti-democratic tendencies have been gestating in several EU member states. Some leaders, particularly from member states in central and eastern Europe, have solidified and centralized their grip on power and have inserted undemocratic changes in their institutional systems. Many of these actions are deeply rooted in the country’s socio-economic situation and evolution. There is no doubt that these causes are to be addressed on a national and European level, but our policy proposal focuses on more straight-to-the-point possibilities to prevent anti-democratic behavior and to enforce European rules in reaction to such tendencies.

The EU lacks the institutional capability to bring the member states back on the democratic track. Democratic requirements are high prior to EU membership, but the EU falls short of a toolkit to address the anti-democratic behavior of a member state. Existing measures fall short: Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TUE) remains an unworkable instrument with which to reproach member states due to both procedural and substantive obstacles. Meanwhile, Article 2 of the TEU identifies foundational values as “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” While Article 7 was explicitly inscribed to give the Council the power to reproach its member states, practice demonstrates that due to the rather vague values of Article 2 and the arduous institutional requirements of Article 7, it is close to impossible to find sufficient political willingness to employ the measure.

To begin with, we want to give the EU a working definition of democracy and fundamental values. Building on the existing definitions of democracy enshrined in the constitutions of each member state, it is in the interest of the EU to develop a collection of norms.

Secondly, we also suggest that all national constitutional changes should be submitted to the European Commission for an unofficial review process in order to promote transparency and in addition promote the various different constitutional and national values. Diversity and difference is a fundamental principle of the EU, but underlying consistency is imperative for its survival. The Commission’s opinion will be non-binding, but uses public awareness and political statements without direct intervention to pressure the state to consider the legality of the changes under consideration.

Finally, we recommend a more effective set of policy instruments to respond to anti-democratic behavior, including an expansion of the existing infringement procedures and more effective means of economic sanctions, such as withholding of EU funds.[6]


The proposals presented in this paper discuss various democratic challenges currently facing the EU and offer policy recommendations for ameliorating these problems. They come from a multiplicity of standpoints that reflect the diversity among the students who crafted them.

All of these students are united in their desire to improve Europe for the future, one which they wish to help create. There should be no shortage of support for informed voices that debate the democratic challenges facing the EU. We want to engage in a dialogue with the EU institutions, but also with representatives from member states to further discuss these proposals and work together for a better Union of the future.

As Francesco Tava discussed in his piece not too long ago, “We should start understanding Europe not as an idea but rather as a clash of ideas; as a community whose ground is not an exclusionary identity, but rather a comprehensive solidarity.“ There are few better ways to ensure the future of the EU than by engaging in the ideas presented by young people, particularly young people who wish to begin molding that future in the present.

[1] Fenno, R. (1977). “U.S. House Members and Their Constituencies.” American Political Science Review 71:3 883-917.

[2] The exact allotment of districts by member states is found in the final policy paper, which can be accessed by contacting Colleen Driscoll ([email protected]) or Johanna Goehler ([email protected]).

[3] Data on initiatives was compiled originally for the purpose of these policy papers, which can be accessed by contacting Mary Anne Mendoza ([email protected]) or Johanna Goehler ([email protected]).

[4] European Commission.   Jan. 12 2015.  The European Citizens Initiative

[5] Berg, Carsten and Pawel Glogowski.  2014.   “The First European Citizen’s Initiatives: An Overview of the First Two Years of the European Citizens’ Initiative.”  ECI That Works.

[6] A larger discussion of this topic can be found in the final policy paper that can be obtained by emailing Yann Schreiber ([email protected]) or Johanna Goehler ([email protected]).

* For a brief introduction to the concept of the democratic deficit, see for instance: Sara B. Hobolt, Citizen Satisfaction with Democracy in the European Union, in: Journal of Common Market Studies, Volume 50, Number S1, 2012,  pp. 88-105.

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