The new European parliament must become the lynchpin of a new democratic structure for Europe
There can be no doubt that the European Parliament plays an important and unique role in the system of European democracy. The argument that the parliament is irrelevant is no longer credible: since the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty the Parliament has co-decision over most areas of European policy making along with the European Council. What is more, in some areas the Parliament has played a unique role in standing up for citizens’ rights where no other parliament in the world has done so: in inserting fundamental rights clauses into the SWIFT agreement with the United States of America on sharing banking details, and then rejecting the ACTA Treaty on intellectual property rights, the Parliament in its last legislature took action that no national parliament was willing to take and which had global consequences. In other areas inside its responsibility, the last Parliament has been bitterly disappointing: in accepting a badly structured European budget for example, cut for the first time in European history, the Parliament totally failed to use its power to stand up to the competing national interests in the Council for the benefit of the European common good. There again the Parliament was not irrelevant, it simply failed to use its power, and a different majority may in the future act differently.
Beyond the question of exercising well or badly its existing formal powers, however, the outgoing parliament has failed to protect democracy inside the European Union. In the context of the largest economic and social crisis facing Europe in the last 60 years, the European Council – and more specifically the more powerful heads of government in that Council – has been allowed to dominate both the public and legislative agenda in a way that has not only undermined the constitutional principle that the Commission should have the monopoly on legislative initiative as the guarantor of the European common interest, but has led to the resurgence of the idea of competition between nations inside European public opinion, and led to bad policy decisions which have undermined public confidence in politics and politicians in general.
Institutionalised emergency: the need for a new constitutional settlement starting with the Parliament
The European institutions in dealing with the economic crisis have created a structure which is now highly undemocratic, in which crucial decisions about the economic future of countries are taken outside of all public visibility, and in which austerity and the tutelage of countries in economic deficit is almost built into a system which has no way of commonly agreeing on budgets for investment or fiscal transfers: part of the responsibility for that situation coming about must rest with the Parliament which would be the natural place for such deliberation to take place. It is with this in mind that it is not unreasonable for some commentators to complain that in the context of this ‘revolution from above’ the European Parliament may pretend to be the one democratically elected institution in the European structures, but in reality it has been acting as a kind of ‘democratic halo’ for a system which has profoundly undemocratic tendencies. Demanding a new constitutional settlement which puts democracy at the heart of European decision-making must be an imperative of the new Parliament to restore its credibility.
The European parliamentarians may pass on the blame to a weak European Commission, but the Parliament is also responsible for holding the Commission to account, and indeed approved the appointment of the Commissioners after scrutiny hearings. This time round we can hope that the relationship between Parliament, Commission and Council will be slightly different if one of the “Spitzenkandidats” presented by the political groupings for the presidency of the Commission is appointed – but after all the different political parties could have proposed candidates like this last elections if they had wanted, it is just that the Socialists decided not to do so in order to respect an agreement with the PPE that Martin Schulz would become President of the Parliament, and the Greens ran on a ‘no to Barroso’ ticket that was bound to fail for lack of any other declared candidates. We can hope and demand that the publicity around the procedure this time will avoid back-room deals which will further undermine public confidence in the institutions.
The crisis in trust: Europe should be at the forefront of restoring confidence in politics
The question of confidence in the institutions is crucial in the current historical conjecture, and the way it is dealt with by the political leaders will shape the coming époque in Europe either in a democratic or totalitarian direction. Eurobarometer surveys published in April 2013 show that confidence in the European institutions has fallen to historically low levels: falling from 57% in 2007 to 31% now. What systematically attracts less attention is that confidence in the national governments and parliaments has been consistently lower than trust in the EU institutions for the last decade, and now stands at 25% trust in national parliaments, 23% trust in national governments. The turnout for the European elections this coming week will no doubt be historically low, but the tendency is the same in national elections as well. This is not a news story about the European institutions but a stage in the history of democracy in Europe generally. The statistics may even be read to suggest that the European institutions are better placed to begin to address this crisis than the national ones.
It is prudent to be careful with statistics about confidence in institutions. That European citizens might be critical and wary of politicians themselves is a good thing; and inevitably when asking about confidence in institutions some impressions about the politicians who populate those institutions spills over. But such low levels of trust are clearly dangerous for the survival of the institutions themselves.
Why vote for institutions you do not trust? Appeals to civic duty or to ‘exercising your right to have your say’ from politicians, institutions and associations are likely to be counter-productive in such a context: firstly they provide no response on the issue of trust, and secondly they do not acknowledge that abstention can also be a political act, especially in a system where spoilt ballots are not counted and ‘none of the above’ is not an option. The reality is that ‘representative’ institutions in Europe cannot ignore the non-vote of those who either do not feel sufficiently motivated to participate on election day, or who for their own reasons refuse to legitimise the current institutions by giving their vote. Studies show again and again that citizens are not disinterested by politics, and are on the contrary often very eager to participate, but the options for participation do not match the ways they want to participate. What is more, citizens demand that European democracy should not be reduced to a vote once every five years, but a continuous dialogue amongst citizens and those charged with the responsibility for taking decisions.
Crises of confidence in political institutions can arguably go in one of four broad directions: either a restoration or augmentation of confidence in the institutions through decisive institutional change; towards the cult of a personality who comes to dominate over the institutions; towards a conservative response which retreats from those institutions to a supposedly preferable arrangement from the (imagined) past; or towards a revolutionary scenario in which the institutions are overthrown and new regimes of legitimacy appear. The current risk is that the most audible voices in European politics for the public are currently the far-right conservatives appealing to a nostalgic older order, and the mainstream parties are either defending the status quo, or, more frequently, making concessions to the xenophobic right. Abstention in such a context – if it remains only that and does not mobilise to other kinds of democratic action – tends to amplify the voice of the far-right even further.
Those calling for a dramatic change in the institutional functioning of the European Union to create a new legitimacy are barely audible, and that is in part because they are constantly beaten onto the back-foot by the domination of national-thinking amongst mainstream parties and the far-right: national-thinking in the mainstream parties which are still structured in such a way as to primarily seek power in national contexts, and pander to national leaders; national-thinking amongst the far-right as part of its xenophobic nostalgia. (There is also a strong nationalism on large parts of the far left, which is only less damaging because at the current conjecture it is less audible).
Communities of common interest and solidarity between people are actually growing across Europe in ways which are largely invisible to the main political parties and to the mainstream media; and the economic crisis has accelerated this process, (whilst the media story has almost always been about the opposite tendency of division). These European communities of common interest do not have national logics of action and as a result at the moment largely lack opportunities to articulate themselves inside the existing institutions or mainstream parties: yet they are the positive indication of a new world being born, which new institutional structures are lagging behind.
The Elections and After
From this situation we can draw at least four conclusions which relate to the elections and political action thereafter:
Firstly, it is vital for all European decision-makers to realise that current policies of austerity are dividing Europe and undermining trust in the institutions, and that this is a pre-condition for the survival of the institutions themselves if they are predicated on democracy. There must be a very clear break with the decisions taken in the past 5 years which have sown social misery and led people to speak of a sacrificed generation. This is a policy-issue in the first instance, and not an issue of institutional design. It is highly probable, however, that for better, more socially equal and progressive, policies to be put in place on a stable and democratic basis throughout Europe (and not as ‘emergency measures’), constitutional changes do need to take place firstly to allow the European institutions greater powers and to ensure decisions about the exercise of those powers is made in a way that guarantees the protection of European common good.
Secondly, institutional change is urgent to ensure the unity and publicity of European decision making. This institutional change must be done in a way which builds public trust by including the public either directly or through civil society organisations in deciding how it should be done. The European Parliament in particular has the opportunity to invent a means of ongoing communication with citizens which is fit for an internet age of constant engagement and debate. In the debate over institutional change there should be no presumption in favour of restoring powers to national parliaments as a way of addressing the ‘democratic deficit’: neither public opinion polls or the rate of abstention in European Parliamentary elections point unambiguously towards ‘national’ solutions.
Thirdly, a unified progressive voice for Europe needs to emerge which marks a break with the decisions of the past 5 years and acts in a genuinely transnational way. The current dominance of the PPE and PSE in European politics, and the fact that both parties are hamstrung at a European level by their powerful national member parties, is hampering the emergence of a genuinely European subjectivity which can generate and articulate unique public demands on a transeuropean scale.
Fourthly, and as a consequence of the above, the citizens of Europe need to take the European elections as a reminder that politics is predicated on their will, and that gives people the power. This is the democratic and republican heritage of Europe which is deeply anchored in the population. Whether it be through voting at the elections or mobilising on other days of the year to express their opinion, taking initiative to build solidarity or find innovative solutions to problems for society, citizens need to take responsibility for the society they live in and act to change it where it is unacceptable.