Another Road for Europe
The Euro crisis is more than an economic crisis; it has also unveiled an insidious disregard for democracy at the heart of the European project. How can we democratise the EU "from below"?
These papers have been prepared as background for the TNI-Red Pepper-LSE conference to be held on 17 February in London School of Economics London "Taking on the technocrats: paths towards another Europe."
‘Italy needs reforms not elections,’ declared Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council as he presented his conception of democracy in a speech at the European University Institute last November. During his speech, PhD students from all over Europe held up posters headed ‘Democracy?’ and stating: ‘As the head of a European people whose popular consent in the appointment was deemed superfluous, the office of president of the European Council is the symbol of the ever more blatant democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union. However, the crisis of democracy in the European Union is much more insidious than the appointment of a presidential figure head. The undemocratic ethos pervades the very structures of the Union.’
In spite of this deficit, they concluded, ‘We believe that another Europe is possible . . . Our Europe can and will once again be rooted in its founding values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity, constructed upon and protected by accountable and truly democratic political institutions.’ Among their ‘95 theses’, two read: ‘No common currency without a common democracy!’ and ‘You can’t balance the budget with a democratic deficit!’
This illustrated how the debate on the financial crisis, is in Europe as in the occupied parks of America, intertwined with a competing vision of democracy.
The EU always had problems of democratic legitimacy. The powers of the parliament are still far less than those of national governments. Moreover, the low quality of electoral accountability leads to and is reinforced by the weakness of European parties. Consequently, elections to it are of a ‘second order’ character, with citizens voting more to indicate their stance on national politics. Likewise, MEPs tend to vote along country lines.
To balance the lack of democratic legitimacy, EU institutions present themselves as benign, efficient and non-political. But with the apolitical pretence becoming less and less credible as the power of non-elected EU institutions grew, their claims to efficiency were undermined by the financial crisis. Also, there is convincing evidence that rich corporate lobbies have privileged access to EU institutions.
In this context, legitimacy has been sought by introducing elements of participation and consultation – for example, taking proposals through citizen’s initiatives. But they have been highly exclusive in their design.
The limits of democracy in the EU are clear but devising ways of democratising it is no easy task. Increasing the power of the parliament is necessary, but not sufficient to overcome weaknesses in the quality of parties and elections.
Since the first European marches against unemployment, the counter-EU summits, and the European Social Forum, social movements have played an important role in constructing a European public sphere. They triggered a politicisation that is fundamental to democracy (and not a risk for it, as the eurocrats imply). The power of social movements to contest is the main driver of democratisation. Through protests targeting the EU, they can counter the strength of the lobbies. By monitoring and denouncing the privileged access granted to these lobbies, they can introduce elements of institutional controls. This could mean increased transparency of EU institutions, which are characteristically rather secretive in their decision making and top-down in their communication.
As for the instruments of participation, the use of direct citizen initiatives is currently limited by high thresholds for both the numbers of signatories required and the number of countries covered, making it an instrument that only large, Europe-wide organisations are likely to use. Moreover, the important democratic moment in referendums is not merely the vote. It must include the process of opinion formation. Together with instruments of direct democracy, it is also important to create free spaces, where a European civil society can develop, ideas and identities can be formed, and communication move ‘from below’ towards EU institutions.
Finally, democracy is not only a procedure. At the national level, democracies have legitimated themselves through reducing social inequalities and granting some modicum of social rights to their citizens. Conceptions of political equality spilled over to claims of social equality. The EU is weak on this. The extensive power of monetary policies has meant declining power on social policies, in the sense of imposing strong limits to these being pursued at the national level. Moreover, a tradition of ‘negative integration’ – the Europe of the market – has detracted from the attention of EU institutions to the welfare of European citizens. Improving the democratic quality of EU institutions implies addressing the demands for a social Europe, a Europe of the citizens.
The Another Road for Europe draft appeal is online at: www.opendemocracy.net/rossana-rossanda-et-al/another-road-for-europe-draft-appeal.