The time has come to review the democratic workings of the European Union. Ideally, this should be the subject of a new Convention, but it is also possible to strengthen, here and now, European democracy.
Should we change Europe and European policies? Yes, definitely. Should we change the decision-making institutions and procedures? Yes, and alongside each other, if we want these institutions to serve democratic activities and reflect European identity and citizens. Significant institutional modifications are indispensable to kick-start Europe on a less intergovernmental, more democratic, more participative route. We do however need a Europe of the citizens, of diversity, unified to face global and environmental challenges, to build cultural bridges and partnerships. We cannot disregard the repeated messages which have transpired over the last few years, Spain, Greece but also Germany (Merkel government supporters are not alone). These requests are expressed in all types of ways, in dramatic fashion or disseminated, not just by means of activities, demonstrations or via social networks, but also by abstaining or protesting votes at national elections.
A Federal Leap?
Europe needs new fundamental legislation which redefines missions, skills, decision-making methods, the ways resources are collected, in the format of brief and legible text. Its preparation must be the object of a convention, part of a constituent meeting, held the day after the May 2014 elections. However, the convention we are speaking of must feature some substantial modifications with regards methods. The consequences, before even tackling work, of ratification or not of the decision, must be decided. In the case of non-ratification, the Member State should be obliged to choose: the refusal of an agreement may result in dismissal from the Union, losing its Member status. The convention must also be more open and participatory. The relative work can also be extensively advertised via the media and social networks. Alongside these sessions, it can enable citizens of the 28 Member States to start communicating in order to exchange points of view and recommendations. These participatory and media elements enable the exposure of disagreements, limitations, any difficulties. Making the preparation process pubic and participative will not result in a reduction of discussions which distort the truth. Time is needed for transparency and participation. Such an investment is worth it, not just from a formal perspective, but also to be able to include past experiences within the future text.
Bringing Together National Parliaments
We must work on two separate processes which run parallel. On the one hand, we must uphold thelong-term vision of an integrated Europe. On the other hand, we must progress accumulating the experiences of the European communitisation. In actual fact, the Treaty of Lisbon already allows democratic parliamentary contributions relative to European decisions. In important cases, the European parliament can issue a decision jointly with the representatives of national parliaments, in addition to any regional representative recommendations. This could be applied to the budget plan, which is not currently the case.
We cannot disregard the repeated messages which have transpired over the last few years, Spain, Greece but also Germany (Merkel government supporters are not alone).
At present, as per the framework of the European term, which has determined since 2011 the procedures governing establishment of the European budget and the framework of national annual budgets, the Council of Ministers and European Council (heads of States) discuss the Commission proposals at the start of the year preceding the budget year concerned on the basis of the draft budget in question. They define the guidelines for each national budget, which is finalised by the Council of Ministers and the Commission, to which national parliaments must comply. The Commission signs agreements, on this subject, with national governments. Once budget submissions arrive within national parliaments after all these decisions have been made, we are already in autumn. This leaves national parliaments with little room for manoeuvre. Everything has been established by executives, i.e. national administrations and the Commission. Everything is decided without public debate on possible alternatives, not on a national or European level.
There are many in Brussels and Strasbourg, who secretly confirm that the budget legislation of national parliaments has for some time lacked substance. Many European parliamentarians believe that it has become redundant, seeing as their national interests can just as easily be represented within the European Parliament. This indifference is extremely dangerous as it upholds hypocrisy and ambiguity which could further damage the credibility of the European Union, if fully exposed.
At the end of the day, budget legislation remains the main authority of national parliaments, from a legal point of view as well as a political point of view, least forgetting in terms of public rhetoric. It is not just national interest which is at stake, but also democratic participation which should be suitably decentralised so that citizens have a voice. If this does not happen, such participation is simply a front, where national parliaments are reduced to simple puppets following orders.
Combining National and European Parliaments
It is possible to both distance ourselves from the current situation which is the integration of an executive and technocratic Europe and avoid Union policies which place power in the hands of a federal State, on the one hand, and renationalisation (confederation of States), on the other hand. A third pathway involves the European Parliament inviting national parliaments to attend its discussions and, vice-versa, national parliaments inviting European parliaments to attend theirs.
This would lead to better understanding of issues, as well as the consequences of national decisions on neighbouring entities. These national parliaments could also discuss a common framework at a much earlier stage, where they could decide upon their national budgets.
Central to this proposal, is the meeting of the two parliamentarian levels (and not rivalry between them or the creation of new institutions!). The existing treaties are able to make this possible.
Moreover, the European Union Parliament must also assume a new position of power, in line with national parliamentarians, in terms of the decision of the Council of Ministers and European Council; it must have the power of suspensive veto, at a minimum. Such parliamentarisation would avoid dominance of the more powerful States – notably Germany – which not only opposes the founding ideas of the European Union, but presently threatens to destroy the credibility of the Union. It would be fatal if Germany appeared once again imposing its decisions to (nearly) all the other States and does not leave genuine space for public discussions on the subject of alternative policies.
The Long Road to European Citizenship
This strengthening of parliamentary government must be performed alongside the development of participatory democracy instruments, including individual citizens. The plan for greater democratic engagement, launched by the European Commission in 2005 in the wake of the rejection of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe by French and Dutch voters, was ambitious and interesting. The originator, the Swedish commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, believed in it and dedicated much effort to it. As well as serving as Vice-President of the Commission, she was also in charge of communication. In other words, the inclusion of citizens, the strengthening of citizenship and participation, dialogue with civil society were regarded as communication and institutional instruments, and not as powerful means towards discussions, changing direction or assessing the policies.
Such a choice saw the remainder of this action went no further…communication never served to include the new measures at the core of the decision-making system. The European Commission then decided to place it under the authority of the Commissioner, Viviane Reding, declaring 2013 “European Year of Citizens”. One year before the European elections, it risked reducing European citizenship to a pre-election gimmick. It is true to say that it was limited, amongst other things, to informing European citizens of their rights, such as, by chance, their right to vote.
A third pathway involves the European Parliament inviting national parliaments to attend its discussions and, vice-versa, national parliaments inviting European parliaments to attend theirs.
However, as can be seen on the Commission’s website, it included a bit of everything as part of Join the debate. We still remain a long way off finding an alternative to that which propels the existential crisis across the European Union. We also still remain a long way off countering the rise of populists, partisans of sovereignty and Eurosceptics. The Union owes its citizens much more than rights and a year’s worth of discussions.
“We are not uniting States, but people”, states Jean Monnet. It is all part of the challenge of European citizenship, which implies concrete legal consideration of treaties, to bestow European citizens with rights. This was the case, for the first time, with the Maastricht Treaty: “As a citizen of the Union, all persons have the nationality of a Member State”. The Treaty of Lisbon repeated such concept and extended it in its Article 10.3 “Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union “.
It specifies that “Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen”. It finally implements a new form of participation, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). This is what remains of the concrete tools reflecting the ambitions of the members of the Convention who prepared the Europe Constitution project in 2003. An entire chapter was dedicated to citizenship and participatory democracy, it was a first. It stated that 1 million citizens would oblige the Commission to submit a proposal on an issue citizens consider require legislating to the Parliament and Council.
Citizenship Initiatives and Decisions
After the censorship of the Heads of State, all that remains is the European Citizenship Initiative which is a measure which citizens can use to make suggestions whilst the Commission has the final say. It took almost two years for the European Parliament Committee on Constitutional Affairs to implement this measure into working regulations. To this date, sixteen initiatives have been launched and are awaiting signatures. There is no shortage of proposals and they present a good number of quite different aspirations, such as Fraternité 2020 (education and mobility), Right2water (the right to water), Let me vote (the right of foreigners to vote) and others, mainly focused on the consumer, such as Single Communication Tariff Act (with regard to the one single phone tariff). They demonstrate that, contrary to the threat presented, including slimming down the initiative, this new tool has not been seized by the organised lobbies. The citizen’s voice must therefore appear as too slow-paced and too far removed when compared to other more effective strategies deployed to influence European legislations.
Fifty years after their foundation, subsequent to major social and technological upheavals, at a time where information is exchanged across the globe within a fraction of a second and is accessible to citizens without the need for a filter or intermediary, would it not be useful to revise our democratic systems, a fortiori, seeing as though this flawed democracy is increasingly more decisive than supranational democracy?
Petitions are still used, which also represent effective tools with which to apply pressure. A minimum number of signatures is not required and the Parliament is not forced to respond. It is the European Parliament Committee on Petitions who is in charge of handling them. Demonstrating the power of petitions and the success of “citizen lobbies” is the ACTA case. In June 2012, the Avaaz organisation submitted a text to the Committee on Petitions rejecting the agreement, signed by 2.5 million citizens within the space of a few weeks. Together with the citizen phone and mailing campaigns intended for Members of the European Parliament, numerous demonstrations within the field, the petition made an impact: it resulted in a majority of MEPs rejecting the ACTA Treaty.
Finally, another instrument, which is particularly suited and citizen-based which remains under-used: citizens decisions via citizen panels or consensual conferences. This measure is useful as it is both effective in terms of implementing citizenship and individual and collective intelligence, and in terms of the quality of resulting recommendations. In essence, regardless of the subject, the discussion on conflict of values inherent to policies enables each of the participants to learn a great deal about the possible solutions to a given issue. The resulting recommendations are usually of great interest. The citizen panel is particularly useful on a transnational level. Bringing together citizens of different origins, nationalities and cultures, despite the cost for interpretation into the different languages, is of great interest in order to establish the feeling of belonging against a background of diversity. The consensual conference organised for the context of Citizens’Agora in 2010 focusing on poverty issues was a time of great intensity. Twenty-seven citizens aged over 60 years, who lived on less than €1,000 per month, spoke of the digital and cultural division which accompanies – or failed to accompany – material poverty. Discoveries which led to, a couple of day’s work in the Parliament assembly room, formed part of a rich experience. The decision was however “snatched” and passed to colleagues more disposed to support only traditional consultation forms of an organised civil society. This sterile threat resulted in the forestalling of the second citizen conference on agriculture and food which should have taken place the day before the decision on common agricultural policies was to be made by the Commission on Agriculture. The argument put forward was that hearings from all sorts of entities had already been held.
Beyond European Representative Democracy
Those in power, and who often have been for a number of years, have exhausted all the boundaries (and limits) of our national representative democracies. In their eyes, the elected are elected. They are therefore legitimate throughout their appointment and it is up to them to make decisions, to ensure they are applied or to control them. This cannot be disputed. Those in power should however be questioned, although not always correctly communicated, such questioning must be reasoned. Our western national representative democracies are based upon universal suffrage. Over the decades and in varied fashion across the different European countries, they have been shrouded with more or less limited advisory measures from the perspective of rights (Council of State, Constitutional court) and in terms of content (social partners, various advisory councils). However, each time, there has been expansion or extension of the representative democracy system. Fifty years after their foundation, subsequent to major social and technological upheavals, at a time where information is exchanged across the globe within a fraction of a second and is accessible to citizens without the need for a filter or intermediary, would it not be useful to revise our democratic systems, a fortiori, seeing as though this flawed democracy is increasingly more decisive than supranational democracy? We definitely think so. It must be an area of priority for the European Union.
This text is a summary of the concluding chapter of the book, “Hymne pour une Europe insoumise, Les citoyens à la manœuvre” (An anthem for a rebellious Europe, Citizens on the move), Luc Pire Editions. This book was co-authored by Durant and Gesine Schwan, Dean of the European University Vidriana in Frankfurt (Oder).