The European Union’s democratic deficits – both real and perceived – have long been its Achilles heel. As the Union’s role expands, debates around its democratic and constitutional mandates will only grow. Is there an emerging sense of political community, vital to any democracy? Given the deep-rooted differences among countries in terms not only of political traditions and processes but also conceptions of sovereignty and democracy, forging a common vision remains a delicate exercise.

Edouard Gaudot: With rising turnout at European elections and Europe-wide debates on issues such as migration and the recovery fund, there are tentative signs that our politics is becoming more European. What does this mean for the future of the European Union and its democratisation?

Shahin Vallée: Strange as it might sound, the recent crises have actually made me optimistic. Not just the Eurozone crisis, but also the migration crisis that followed, as well as the recent geopolitical problems, have heightened awareness of transnational  issues. It’s the first time that people across Europe have been as interested in a referendum in Greece as they are a German election or the possibility that Marine Le Pen might win the presidency in France.

This awareness is emerging even though Europe has neither media outlets nor political parties that are fit for this new reality. It’s rather surprising that the last European elections saw so few attempts to create new transnational political experiences other than DiEM and Volt, which, incidentally, don’t seem to have been particularly successful. So, I see a glimmer of hope because politics really is becoming more transnational. It’s why turnout at the 2019 European elections jumped by almost 10 per cent.

Franziska Brantner: I agree that there has been an improvement, but have things really come that far? The US elections dominated the German media for six or seven months, with stories on Ohio or Texas every day, whereas we hear very little about the formation of a new Italian government or the Dutch elections, and even less about the political issues in these countries. Terrible things are happening in Slovenia but there’s very little attention paid to this, even though the country will hold the EU presidency in late 2021. I don’t really see a major step forward towards a European approach to news. On the other hand, the same disinformation is spreading across Europe through social networks. It shapes an alternative European public opinion based on erroneous or false information. During the pandemic, vaccine conspiracy theories turned up everywhere at incredible speed. There may well be European public opinion, but if this is how it looks, it scares me.

As for a European media space and political parties, I don’t think we’re there yet. That’s why we’re fighting for much closer cooperation between public broadcasters, to support and reform them. With the Digital Services Act, the future of the media space in Europe will become a very important issue. If we’re unable to manage that together, we’ll be lost.

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The second lesson from recent years is what Luuk van Middelaar calls “events politics”, whereby crises cemented the European Council’s emergence as the key player in the EU, while the European Parliament was often sidelined and the Commission struggled to find an independent role. Is this a worrying trend for European democracy?

Shahin Vallée: An accident of history transformed institutional theory into a practice that was different to the original intention. When the Lisbon Treaty came into force at the beginning of the Eurozone crisis, the European Council entered the scene with clear powers for the first time, notably through the permanent presidency. During the crisis, the Council played a decisive role and replaced the Commission as the European executive. This shift was somewhat fortuitous. If the Lisbon Treaty had come into force at a different time, we would not have seen so much of this “executivisation” of the European Council.

This drift was then reinforced through a succession of crises and set a precedent that will be hard to undo. The genie is out of the bottle and, to be honest, even with a Green chancellor in Germany and a Green president in France, this would still be the case. The only way to overhaul this institutional arrangement is through treaty change; not a cosmetic change, but a profound change that would give stronger executive prerogatives to the Commission and, above all, reinforced democratic oversight to the European Parliament. But that seems quite far off.

the way our national governments are organised is simply not fit for dealing with complex international crises – F. Brantner

Franziska Brantner: We see the same effect in member states. Throughout the pandemic in Germany, Merkel and the 16 heads of Länder (states) have met every two or three days to make decisions. It’s the same logic as the European Council. We need to ask ourselves why. One reason is that the way our national governments are organised, divided into traditional ministries in a classical liberal democracy, is simply not fit for dealing with complex international crises. Today, we can no longer say: “The environment ministry does this, the health ministry does that.” The system is no longer suitable for the crises that we’re facing. The issues have become much too complex, going way beyond what our institutional approaches were designed for, and require a speed of response that is lacking today. It’s the same in parliaments: the Bundestag’s European affairs committee, the health committee, and so on, bicker over who has the right to summon the European Health Commissioner. How can parliaments act quickly and effectively when they too are prisoners of these structures?

There are broad calls to strengthen the powers of the European Parliament – and national parliaments too. Is this the key to strengthening European democracy?

Franziska Brantner: Both levels are necessary. For example, it’s clear that in France the parliament should be strengthened. In cooperation between the Assemblée nationale and the Bundestag, I regularly see how weak the Assemblée nationale is. “We can’t make proposals to the president,” is a common refrain when speaking to my French counterparts. They don’t even dare make joint decisions because, according to their interpretation, the constitution doesn’t give the parliament that role. So, we definitely need to strengthen and modernise the national level. The same goes for the European level. We must also reinvent our parliaments with dynamics like citizens’ assemblies and make committees more interdisciplinary.

Shahin Vallée: It’s true that this weakness is partly written into the French Constitution, but it’s also partly a historical tendency of the Fifth Republic. France could have a more active parliament without changing the constitution. What’s more, every president promises constitutional reform, or at least electoral reform that would strengthen both the parliament’s representativeness and its powers. But we’re let down every time. It’s one of the reasons the political crisis in France is so acute.

While no political system is perfect, one of the fundamental strengths of German political stability is its parliamentarianism and its largely pro- portional voting system. For French Greens, that remains an ambition, though I understand that for a German Green it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Indeed, the French Greens were fighting hard for a sixth parliamentary republic for quite some time, but you don’t hear much talk about it anymore; it’s quite strange.

What about at the European level?

Shahin Vallée: If the treaties can’t be changed – and I think that we can and should change them – there are also practices that are important to establish or re-establish, like electing the president of the Commission. In 2014, the procedure for appointing the president of the Commission, the so-called “Spitzenkandidat” process, which gave the European Parliament a leading role, was somewhat cobbled together because it isn’t written into the treaties. But this practice was pretty much unilaterally challenged by Macron in 2019. I think it’s something that should be revisited. There ought to have been a more careful reading of the Spitzenkandidat process. In an Italian-style system, for example, winning the election isn’t enough to become prime minister, but coming first gives you the first go at trying to form a government. Such a principle could reinforce the importance of the European Parliament in appointing the head of the European executive and allow it to better scrutinise their actions.

From Germany, the European Parliament appears highly proactive and also under-used; it’s a force for the future, even with too few powers – F. Brantner

Franziska Brantner: We should remember, though, that in 2019 the European Parliament wasn’t united around a candidate, neither was it in 2014. But returning to the question, I think that the European Parliament already does a good job. Of course, it should have more power over the budget and foreign policy, for example. But in the meantime, the most important thing is that it speaks to the issues of the future and shows that, collectively, we can meet citizens’ expectations. In this respect, the European Parliament does a better job than the Bundestag. From Germany, the European Parliament appears highly proactive and also under-utilised; it’s a force for the future, even with too few powers.

The Conference on the Future of Europe has now been launched. Should this be seen as an opportunity for public debate? What can we expect to come of it? Transnational lists, institutional change, or another element of the “future” Franziska mentions?

Franziska Brantner: I hope that it won’t simply boil down to institutional questions or transnational lists. Of course they are important, but if we do all this debating to end up there it would be a pity because this isn’t citizens’ main concern. It would be very important, for example, to address health and questions of competence in this area. Everyone now understands the limitations, advantages, and disadvantages of the EU in this health crisis. A second urgent issue is the role of borders in a crisis. How do we manage cross-border regions? There are plenty of worthy subjects that we should try to tackle: climate, justice, protecting our freedoms…

Shahin Vallée: I was quite optimistic about the conference initially. I thought that this political object invented at the time of the European elections was useful. But now, exactly two years later, it’s clear that this conference is largely pointless. We don’t know precisely what its goal is and its bizarre governance seriously undermines its ability to deliver anything. The more time passes, the more it reminds me of another fairly miserable failure: the European Citizens’ Consultations set up in 2017 after the French presidential election – run by the European Commission and France’s diplomatic service – which produced pretty much nothing.

Franziska Brantner: Other than frustration…

Shahin Vallée:  I fear that the Conference on the Future of Europe will be the same. That said, despite everything, I try to remain optimistic. Since 2019, the profound upheaval in Europe – the health crisis and questions about competences, the economic response, and new political questions such as the ability to issue debt – means that we no longer need this artificial forum to talk about the future of the EU. My stance is to let the conference die a quiet death in a corridor in Brussels or Luxembourg, and then let’s work on putting politics back into the institutional and constitutional questions that have emerged over the pandemic. What is the future for the EU’s own resources? What is the future for European budgetary rules? What is the future for the ability to issue common debt? These are the subjects that should be driving European public and political debate.

But even if we admit that this conference has not met our expectations, there’s still a process behind it for involving citizens.

Franziska Brantner: I’m not so negative about the conference: if there are real debates on the climate, the euro, foreign policy, health – that could generate some impetus. Can we then manage to incorporate these into the political debate? It’s on us to prove that we’re up to the task. The process is new, too: the participants will be citizens chosen at random, alongside experts. It’s a novel approach and we’ll see if it leads anywhere.

Worse than no deliberative democracy is false deliberative democracy. I fear that the Conference on the Future of Europe is just that. – S. Vallée

Shahin Vallée: On the face of it, the only innovative aspect of this conference is a stated desire for citizen involvement. I’m still not convinced that this will be anything but symbolic, so I’ll believe it when I see it, but in any case, involving citizens is a good thing in principle. But, for it to work, we should agree to give real power to these bodies, which doesn’t seem to be the case. I think back to the disappointments of the Citizens’ Convention on Climate in France, when participants were promised that their proposals would be adopted in full, but this didn’t happen. Worse than no deliberative democracy is false deliberative democracy. I fear that this conference is just that, but I hope I’m wrong.

Franziska Brantner: It’s a new method and we should give it a chance. For example, in Baden-Württemberg we want to hold a convention of Franco-German citizens from the shared cross-border region to provide input for the main conference, with citizens chosen at random on the Alsace side and the Baden-Württemberg side. In this current period where we’re asking “what is Europe?”, I think it could help. I hope that the Grand Est region will be willing to work with us. If we manage to go beyond simply holding a conference towards a real process over several months with experts and randomly chosen citizens, we can make progress. If lots of other stakeholders do the same, all the better. Launching initiatives and dynamics that help us makes sense. Otherwise, Shahin, I don’t see where the political drive would come from for the reforms that you were talking about.

Shahin Vallée: From you (laughs).

Franziska Brantner: In any case, we need these debates to come to life.

That’s just it, we often bank on a change in the political situation in Germany. Is the idea of a Europe driven by the Franco-German engine still relevant?

Franziska Brantner: In Germany, everyone says that the Franco-German relationship is very important, including Greens. But beyond that, are people willing to prioritise this? Not everyone. Even among the Greens, there is some distrust of French policy in general. What’s the real goal of France’s European policy? Is it really Europe, or just France? How do we balance a sovereign Europe with a strong alliance with the US? Today the Franco- German relationship is still necessary, but it’s not enough.

Shahin Vallée: I agree that the Franco- German relationship is a necessary condition for European progress, but by no means enough. France’s mistake has too often been to prioritise the Franco-German relationship at all costs, sometimes at the cost of unsatisfactory agreements, or the abandonment and even rejection of other possible alliances. In Germany, it isn’t clear to everyone, including the Greens, that the Franco-German relationship remains the engine of the EU. It’s an important lesson. Remember that the European agreement reached in Sibiu in 2019, which set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, was achieved by a group of states led by France against the wishes of Germany, who had to come round to it a few months later.

German suspicions about France’s European policy are understandable. Macron and his predecessors have for too long and too often given the impression that France’s policy is to use Europe as a springboard for its own interests. I completely understand that our German friends don’t want to be the lever or springboard for France’s geopolitical interests. That’s where real dialogue needs to be rebuilt and trust restored. I think it can be restored, especially between French and German Greens. Yes, we have genuine European ambition and it isn’t to make Europe “a big version of France”.

You’re both saying that one of the paths to building European democracy is to do politics transnationally. At the same time, there are repeated calls for sovereignty – European and national. Can we envisage a sovereign European democracy, despite relatively shaky institutions and the absence of a continental demos?

Shahin Vallée: It’s true that, for the Germans, there can’t be sovereignty without democracy. Whereas for the French, who are used to a strong executive, sovereignty is fundamentally the ability to decide. So, we envisage a “sovereign Europe” that could decide on a military intervention, a 1000-billion-euro debt issue, or a new vaccination campaign. For our German friends, these types of existential decisions cannot be taken without a democratic framework and the associated parliamentary oversight.

Fundamentally, the French envision a Europe that would decide as France does – by the will of Jupiter. – S. Vallée

The only way to bring together both visions is to strengthen Europe’s executive powers, increase its powers in health matters, for example, but also – to allay French anxieties – powers in military matters. But alongside this, we must strengthen the democratic oversight that goes with these powers. This is where the French are still unclear about their ability to transfer executive powers and associate them with parliamentary oversight. Fundamentally, the French envision a Europe that would decide as France does, which is to say by the will of Jupiter. And I don’t think that’s acceptable for the 26 other countries France shares Europe with.

Franziska Brantner: The question of sovereignty comes back to the redefinition of national interests – and really managing to define them as European interests. I often struggle to see how we will achieve European sovereignty, with European interests, if we are unable to better define our common interests so we can place them on a higher level than national economic interests. To do so, we should refocus on citizens’ fundamental rights. The Charter of Fundamental Rights must be the basis of this European sovereignty, so that these rights become applicable under national law.

It’s about more than just enhancing the European Parliament. Sovereignty is based on defending interests. If these aren’t territorial, in the historical sense of defending national territory, what are the interests that sovereignty defends? These must be other, greater interests. And, in my opinion, these interests are the fundamental rights of Europeans. But there’s still a long way to go, and if we limit ourselves to the question of defence, we’ve already lost.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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