26th May 2020


Why it may not be right to consult the people

  • "It is a naive fallacy that among the citizenry there exists a coherent body of political thought untainted by party political machines" (Photo: EUobserver)

You may be forgiven for not having noticed but the grand European Citizens Consultation exercise has entered its final phase. This idea grew out of the reflection into which all Europe was thrown following the upset of the failed constitutional referenda in France and the Netherlands.

One element was to stimulate a dialogue with ordinary people; to ascertain the views of ordinary folk as to how Europe should develop. This assumed that they both knew and had the time and inclination to say so; Both always slightly dubious assumptions.

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Thus began Plan D - for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate - launched by Communications Commissioner, Margot Wallstrom. This embraced a number of initiatives, including the European Citizens Consultation project, which is being organised through various European foundations.

Last year 200 citizens, selected randomly from all corners of the continent, debated an agenda. This is now being discussed in each of the 27 member states during which similar numbers of similarly chosen random groups of citizens will expound their views. The first of these meetings, involving 200 citizens from Germany, has just taken place.

The randomly chosen Germans, said the organisers, 'expect Europe to play a leading role in environmental and energy policy and to show greater commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energies. The citizens would like to live in a Europe with common immigration and integration policies and that speaks with one voice. They also want a European family and social policy to be put on the agenda.' Well, well!

A gigantic waste of time and money

When the whole exercise is complete the organisers will attempt a synthesis to present to the European Council in June, which will, I predict, take no more notice of it than protocol demands. The grand consultation will be quietly buried and forgotten. It will prove, I suggest, to have been a gigantic waste of time and money.

The reason is simple. The consultation exercise seeks to by-pass politics, falling for the popular but naïve fallacy that among the citizenry there exists a coherent body of political thought untainted by party political machines.

'Ask The People' is a beguiling and ostensibly democratic phrase. But the problem with 'The People' is that never having to put forward any coherent programme, each thumps his own tub without caring about - indeed often objecting to - his neighbours.

'The People' don't have to consider funding, or elections or pressure groups. They don't have to take into account precedent or how change in one policy will affect a whole programme. They don't have to weigh those difficult choices between a free market and concern for the environment, or between protecting jobs at home against the needs of global trade, or balancing the need for security against the demands of human rights.

No-one surely could object to the views being put forward by these German citizens. We should all like to live in a Europe with common immigration and integration policies. But the sort of common policy you want may be a world away from the common policy I want. Yes, we all approve of a family policy on the European agenda - but what kind of family policy?

The art of the possible

The debate is not over whether Europe needs Motherhood and Apple Pie; the debate is over how to afford them and to what extent it may be necessary to sacrifice an element of Motherhood to get a larger portion of Apple Pie. Demanding Motherhood and Apple Pie is easy - it is when we turn to delivery that we start to come unstuck.

"Politics is the Art of the Possible" said Rab Butler - a renowned former British Chancellor. And it is just that. Government policy, at whatever level, is an amalgam of compromise. But compromise guided by a coherent philosophy - a business philosophy, a libertarian philosophy, an environmental philosophy, a nationalist philosophy, a European philosophy.

Everyone will profess the bland goals of Motherhood and Apple Pie, but the balance of those objectives, how they are financed and the agencies through which they are delivered will differ radically according to the party in power. Try asking a random group of citizens about tax - what it should be levied on and at what rate and you will find precious little common ground.

"If you have two cows," says Commissar Yuri to peasant Mikhail, "what must you do?" "Why, give one to the party," answers Mikhail.

"And if you have two pigs?" "Again," says Mikail, "I would keep one and give one to the party."

"And if you have two chickens?" smiles Yuri. "But Yuri," protests Mikhail, "you know I've got two chickens!"

Political parties should form programmes, not citizens

We will all vote for energy efficiency if it's someone else's efficiency. But if I have to give up my car, if I have to shiver in the winter, if my light bulbs are rationed, I see energy efficiency differently. Now we are in the sphere of practical politics - how to deliver energy efficiency, or common immigration policies or European family agendas.

It is the job of a democratic political party to formulate a coherent programme of policies balanced carefully against each other for outcome, affordability and acceptability.

Political parties also do something that 'The People' never can; that is lead. They are there not only to give people what they want but to educate voters about difficult choices and unpopular decisions.

What Europe lacks is not more ideas about what folk think they want. What Europe lacks is European political parties capable of putting together a cohesive and coherent programme covering all the responsibilities of the European Commission.

Had the time and resources now being devoted to blind alley of European Citizens Consultation been devoted instead to fostering policy and party development at the European level, then democracy might at last be taking a step forward.

This inevitably leads us back to institutional change. There is no point in European political programmes unless the parties are in a position to deliver those policies in government. That means logically the College of Commissioners should be drawn from whichever party or coalition succeeds in elections to the European Parliament. That would be real politics, real democracy - not the ersatz politics, ersatz democracy of citizens consultations.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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