Democracy in action, in search of European politics

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By Omri Preiss |

In these times of crisis and upheaval, political circles across the continent are buzzing with constant talk of “reforming” the EU, “democratising” Europe, and “relaunching” the European project. We hear of all kinds of unions – the defence union, the banking union, and energy union, or in more ambitious circles, even a new constitution for Europe – but all these seem to circulate up in a distant stratosphere, and never feature in day-to day political debates or headline news.

The scare of rising nationalism, of Brexit Trump and Le Pen, seems to have temporarily receded in the minds of many dedicated pro-Europeans, but if anything, the calm is fragile. The EU still seems parked at a fateful cross-roads without a clear impetus of movement. There may be all kinds of scenarios drawn up for Europe’s future, but the silver bullet “democratisation” and “reform”, remains elusive, and the exact definition of those worthy goals often left to the imagination of the beholder. So what are we to do to get ahead, extricate ourselves from the deadlock, and grow beyond these current crises? To do that, we must identify the obstacles we face.

Whatever that silver bullet may be, and those are hard to come by in our world, one key ingredient that is lacking is political will, or what some would call “political capital”. Simply put, politicians do not think that voters have any desire for European promises. In national politics, they may from time to time pay some lip service to a ‘united Europe’, but they will then turn around to do whatever is expedient for them the next moment. They do not feel they have anything to lose by avoiding Europe altogether. On the European scene, the political leaders, the Union’s Presidents and Vice-Presidents represent the EU institutions and speak on their behalf, not on behalf of public sentiment.

But then what is European public sentiment? What is European public opinion? The answer is that they are not there. Each European state has its national politics and national media, its own national conversation. There is no common European debate on European politics, and therefore no need for politicians to come up with European plans to present and then deliver to their voters. In fact, there is no common public sphere in which European voters could have the debate about the Europe they want to see. It seems that if we want to see any major transformation of the European project, we need to build the arena where that transformation can be envisioned and shaped.

Rivers of ink have been spilt in an effort to describe and analyse the EU’s “democratic deficit”, and term that is bandied around so much that we have stopped asking what it refers to. In fact, since the most recent round of Treaty changes, the European Union has fully-fledged democratic institutions: a democratically elected legislature in the Parliament and Council, and an Executive, the Commission, which is accountable to the legislature. So much imaginary is drawn up of the EU as a bureaucratic behemoth that no one ever explains the system as it is: a democratic political institution.

Of course there are many institutional shortcomings and improvements to be made, and yet if the ‘democratic deficit’ is anywhere to be found these days, it is not in the EU’s institutions themselves, but in the in ability of European citizens to debate, formulate, and vote for the direction the EU should go in. The inability does not come from lack of will and capacity, but from a lack of forum and format, as well as the absence of common political culture and practices.

Instead, the direction of the Union is decided in grand summit meetings between national leaders, and while that process does have its own democratic legitimacy, the median decision that comes out of that tug of war rope pulling exercise is often too little too late. It often ends up as a lukewarm begrudging agreement that often prioritises the personal-political and national interests of some, and minimises risks for others, but often still neglects the urgent needs of the most vulnerable. It often prioritises the narrow political interests of national leaders over the need to solve overarching European problems, or to act swiftly and decisively enough in time.

In fact, solving overarching European problems is exactly what we urgently need. The imperative to make the European Union work effectively is not a matter of idealism, it is a matter of pressing necessity. We do not have the luxury of time for complex constitutional reform, treaty change, conventions and referendums. Before any of that happens, we need effective democratic decision-making and action within the system we already have. How else will we deal with climate change, raging conflicts, the stream of refugees, grand geo-political shifts, mass unemployment and growing nationalism? Each and any of these taken on its own would be a daunting challenge, taken together they require action on a scale and character not seen before.

If anything, Brexit and Trump have shown us quite vividly that the alternative to fact-based policy-making and cooperation is farce, chaos and lies. If the European Union did not exist, we would have to invent it, as there is simply no other way for adjacent advanced economies to be so closely intertwined without a system of collective decision-making, there is no way that any single European state could tackle the challenges we all face on its own, there is no way European states could have any way to affect change in the world on their own. In that sense the European project is not an end in itself, but a means to a better more sustainable way of life.

Choices that affect every single European in years to come on climate change, the economy, jobs, growth, the internet and emerging technologies will need to be made collectively in Europe if we are to see significant sustainable change. If we want to keep our system of democracy, rule of law, human rights and social inclusion, then we need a European Union that works.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes, and it is in the heat of this historic moment that the shift must come. If what we lack most urgently is avenue to generate political will, then that must be the first step, and the only way to do so is to go out and speak to people, and tell them it matters. Persuading people of important truths used to be the primary role of political leaders in functioning democracies. When they stop doing so, democracies do not run as well. Politicians need to make the case for why Europe matters to people, and why fixing it is a key priority. They must lay out their vision for how to do so, and commitments on what they should deliver. In doing so, they must not only speak to national audiences, but to the European electorate as a whole.

Political parties across the continent will need to begin to run on European platforms, in Europe-wide campaigns. Although the process is hard to follow through, once the process begins, it will gain a momentum of its own. Communicating a clear vision for Europe and putting it on offer for the electorate to vote for is the only way to build the political arena we desperately need, and setting the ground for delivering that elusive change.

Omri Preiss, moderator of the discussion about the agenda of Stand up for Europe at the Convention of the movement in Munich in November 2017.

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