The birth of Europe?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
8 October 2006

There are ideas of Europe. There is the European process. There is the infamous bureaucracy of the European Union. There is the euro. But is there a living, breathing Europe? A Europe that is more than an abstract ideal, an undemocratic elite or that regular measure of "European opinion", the Eurobarometer?

I didn't think so. True, there were popular celebrations when the euro was launched in 1992 across the central countries of the union, reported on with delight in openDemocracy by Reinhard Hesse. But those were subsidised parties, and the goodwill turned sour as inflation followed the arrival of the new currency.

The gathering in Brussels of the European Citizens' Consultations on 7-8 October 2006 may prove to be the early stage of a different kind of European dynamic.

Europe needs it to be. Whenever I have been to Brussels to discuss Europe, it has been to gatherings of specialists - fine and dedicated people almost without exception. But there has always been something peculiar about such meetings. They take place in the capital of the European Union. They are about Europe: its future, its processes, its problems. But Europe itself always seems to be elsewhere.

Anthony Barnett is editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

The European Citizens' Consultations website is here

openDemocracy's blog, oD Today, has further reports and discussion of the agenda-setting session in Brussels on 7-8 October 2006.

Please send comments, feedback and ideas on the European Citizens' Consultations to [email protected]
openDemocracy.net and /or comment in our "Europe: after the constitution" debate forum


The French and Dutch referenda on the proposed constitution in May-June 2005 revealed the redundancy of this approach. I was having a drink with a senior official in Brussels soon afterwards. The shock was evident. He gave the impression that his colleagues had been prepared for, and felt they could probably discount, the French "no". It was a narrow (55% of those voting), bad-tempered result, due mainly, the official felt, to Jacques Chirac (the implication being that it was reversible under a new president). But the key verdict was in the Netherlands: this pioneer of the European Union, at the heart of the original six, rejected the project by almost two-thirds (61.6%) of those who voted. It was a definitive blow.

Out of the trauma came a much more serious determination to engage with the people of Europe. Perhaps those "no" votes will come to be seen as one of the best things that ever happened to the European project.

At any rate, the section of the EU run by Margot Wallstrőm, since August 2004 commissioner for institutional relations and communication (and for five years before that the EU commissioner for the environment), came up in October 2005 with "Plan D". The title stands for "debate, dialogue and democracy" – and the very fact that its architects could make a mild joke in English in the face of something so serious is itself a good sign.

Not that anyone heard it, because the EU's publicity and media coverage are so poor.

The idea was simple: do something which the constitutional convention that preceded the 2005 treaty had failed even to attempt. It had brought national parliamentarians as well as civil-society groups and NGOs into the process of drafting the new constitution, but nonetheless had remained a top-down, controlled process. It failed completely to bring in regular citizens or give them any direct voice.

Plan D asked for ways to achieve just this. At the initiative of the King Baudouin Foundation based in Brussels itself, the Network of European Foundations proposed asking randomly selected citizens across the whole of the EU to deliberate and report on what kind of Europe "we, the peoples", want.

The agenda-setting session in Brussels on 7-8 October with 200 people, eight from each EU country, was the first fruit of the initiative.

I went with openDemocracy's participation editor, Jessica Reed, to discover a friendly and colourful event. The large venue held nineteen simultaneous-translation booths, underlining the cost of bringing people from so many countries to one place to talk with each other. We – mainly Jessica – blogged the proceedings on oD Today and the changes the participants made to the draft agenda they were presented with. The blog entries recorded our impressions. It was fresh, surprising and, yes, finally, if only for two days, Europe was inside Brussels.

At the same time however, Belgium itself was holding municipal elections in which its rightwing anti-immigration party (Vlaams Belang [VB], formerly the Vlaams Blok) increased its vote by 5.6% across Flanders. It is notable in this respect that, in the citizens' consultation, the participants insisted on making migration a major part of any consideration for the future of the EU. But not in a way that prejudged the policies they want the EU to follow (just as the development of the migration issue in the political arena cannot be prejudged - in the pivotal city of Antwerp, the VB was overtaken by a surge in the socialist vote).

Also in openDemocracy on Europe's democracy and Europe's future:

Mats Engstrőm, "Democracy is hard, but the only way"
(6 June 2005)

Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is"
(23 June 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis, "Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition"
(21 February 2006)

Frank Vibert, "'Absorption capacity': the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)

Aurore Wanlin, "Adieu, Europe?"
(29 June 2006)

Before lift-off

The next stage, and here the organisers are being genuinely brave, will be to take the outcome of the weekend to deliberative gatherings in the twenty-five member-states of the union. The organisers believe that the conversations that matter about the future of Europe are not the ones taking place in Brussels, but in the different nations themselves. From this point of view, for Europe to come alive there has to be a nationalisation of the European debate.

The group gathered over this weekend was not a true sample, as the event's press release claims. But they were regular citizens, not the specialists or partisans who tend to monopolise the debate to everyone's detriment, and the national gatherings will open the way for a deeper and more representative input.

Margot Wallstrőm - whose thinking about Europe's future was the subject of an openDemocracy article by Mats Engstrőm in the aftermath of the 2005 referenda - briefly addressed the gathering. She said that the day before, she had heard Al Gore speak and present his film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. She had been appalled to learn that United States politicians spend most of their time raising money and are then obliged to spend most of it on thirty-second TV adverts. How, she asked, under these circumstances, can they debate the questions that face them and their voters? The European Citizens' Consultations might – Wallstrőm's logic implied - be Europe's answer to the thirty-second TV-slot politics that currently rules the world.

To be sure, there is a long way to go. A lot of issues were placed on the agenda in Brussels - as you can see in Jessica's blogs on oD Today. But if the consultations begun over the weekend continue in a way that adds up across the continent, and if they can be summarised in clear language, then Europe has the chance of creating a much better relationship between its institutions and its citizens.

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