Sunday

18th Apr 2021

Opinion

Beyond the 'European Dream'

Crisis, crisis, crisis. Once again political Europe is in the middle of an institutional turmoil. The possible default in Greece, bye-bye to Schengen and a European Summit with clueless leaders. And in the Guardian Martin Kettles offers the results of more than sixty years of the integration process: 'The nationalist right and the global markets have won. The internationalist social and Christian democrats have lost'.

For Kettle, this is nothing less than the end of the European dream of 'a European federal state with an overarching, directly elected government (...) shared tax and social solidarity systems, common defence and security policies'.

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Kettle may be right that this was the dream of a post-war generation with a deep belief in certain policies and the capacity of a few leaders to deliver on the one hand, and on the other a deep disbelief in the wisdom of the many and the potential of modern representative democracy to balance interests even at the transnational level.

It may be tempting to agree with Kettle's assessment of the current winners and losers, given the undeniable fact that we are experiencing an ethno-nationalistic backslash in many countries - from Finland to Bulgaria and from Austria to Denmark. And the more so, as the recent global financial crisis has not delivered any shortcuts to a more democratic and just world.

However, the promise of genuine democracy has never been and will never be a guarantee that we can avoid all the bad things. On the contrary, what democracy may offer is not a list of policies, but a framework for collective learning, within which citizens are free to act together. Such a promise cannot be delivered by a few leaders; it must be lived up to by the large majority of people.

This is the big difference between the economic sphere of producers/consumers and the political sphere, where everyone is formally charged with taking responsibility, identifying problems and agreeing on solutions. And because of this difference a modern representative democracy must be based both on indirect-parliamentarian and direct-participative agenda-setting and decision-making principles and procedures.

In this respect, the Lisbon Treaty - the European Union's fundamental rules of the game - does in fact acknowledge precisely this new, modern democratic reality and has introduced the first direct-democratic process at the transnational level in world history: from April next year one million EU citizens from at least seven member states will be entitled to propose new EU legislation – in a right of initiative equivalent to that of the European Parliament and European Council.

Against the background of the current multiple crisis - which underlines the weaknesses of both purely indirect and purely intergovernmental politics - this new opening for transnational participative democracy goes beyond the conventional 'European dream' of making war between nations obsolete, in addressing the much more complex reality of the 21st century.

280 days to go

Nonetheless, since there are less than 280 days to go before one of the most exciting chapters in the modern history of democracy is opened, the continuing ambiguity of the responsible institutions towards the European Citizens' Initiative is disturbing.

On Thursday this week the EU Commission, which obviously has few plans for launching a pan-European information and education campaign around the European Citizens' Initiative, will welcome representatives of all 27 Member States to discuss the final stages of the legal and practical implementation of the regulation governing the new instrument.

Only by 1 March, 2012 – just one month before the official start of the new initiative right - will member s have to name the 'competent authorities' responsible for certifying and verifying online signature-gathering systems and the actual statements of support. The risk that the opportunities linked to the European Citizens' Initiative practice will be unequally distributed across Europe is obvious – and could effectively undermine the legitimacy of the ECI.

The question is whether at this late stage all the relevant stakeholders are really conscious of their 'to-do' lists ahead of 1 April? So the following can be seen as a friendly reminder. The EU Commission not only has to present the various tools envisaged by the regulation and its addendum - including an 'online' registration centre, a user guide and a well-prepared staff both centrally and across Europe.

From the Commission we also expect significant efforts and resources for a comprehensive information and education campaign. The same is true for the member states, in order to prepare 'their' citizens for the new important role as European agenda-setters. And there are all the other important actors, who are now requested not to miss this unique opportunity to make the European Union a pioneer in modern democracy.

What people like me, who have been working on transnational direct democracy for decades, are most interested in is a serious and constructive cooperation by all the good forces. What we need is a coalition of the willing European democrats, both inside and outside of the European institutions.

While technocratic projects such as the euro or the Schengen agreement may have been timely steps of progress in the late 20th century, this millennium requires much more: a courageous leap forward towards a much more political and democratic future. The European Citizens' Initiative could be such a leap forward - if we are serious about it.

The writer is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe

Disclaimer

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

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