Sunday

24th Jan 2021

The search to fix the EU's democratic deficit

  • Do they think they are being listened to? (Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes)

The EU's democratic deficit - that gap between 'Brussels' and the citizens it governs - is the enduring issue of recent years.

It is the subject of numerous books, journals and academic studies. EU politicians are increasingly aware of it.

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But acknowledging it and knowing what how to fix it are two different things. Efforts to date have failed.

The regular meetings of MEPs and MPs are lacklustre affairs. The citizens initiative - whereby a million signatures requires the European Commission to look into an issue - is a cumbersome procedure, open to being hijacked by special interests. National parliaments' right to club together to challenge EU laws is only taken up sporadically.

However, the problem has become ever more urgent as laws introduced as a result of the financial crisis have made the EU suddenly much more powerful in key areas. Now it has a say over coins-in-the-pocket matters such as pensions and welfare spending.

This only highlights how little influence people feel they have over EU (71% think their voice is unheard, according to a recent survey). They might bring about change by turfing out their national government - but EU policies continue all the same.

The new Greek government's current attempts to follow through on electoral pledges in the face of resistance from EU institutions and some other member states is the perfect example.

Meanwhile the forces of globalisation have brought a feeling of insecurity to many citizens, often blamed on 'Brussels'.

Anti-establishment parties scored a record number of seats in last May's European Parliament election. It woke up the Brussels elite, and prompted the new European Commission to describe itself as that of the “last chance”.

It is making fewer laws, repealing unnecessary or overly bureaucratic ones and sending its commissioners out of the EU capital more often to talk to national politicians.

Who are you legislating for?

A new report emphasizes a different approach. It says EU is not bridging the gap because it is failing to really take into account how an average European perceives the EU.

It says more "emotional intelligence" is needed to appreciate the lives of "Alexos" an angry pensioner in Athens voting radical-left party Syriza for the first time; "Nathalie" a checkout operator in France's Lille, who voted for the National Front because it promised to protect her job, or "Dimitar" a well-educated Bulgarian blogger who had hoped - in vain - that EU membership would end the country's endemic corruption.

The report suggests that EU politicians and institutions should make "incremental changes that enhance the benefits of European integration as experienced by ordinary people".

It suggests giving parliaments the right to suggest legislative ideas for the EU; giving MPs a role in eurozone oversight; and getting more MEPs into "cyberspace". It singles out Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake, very active on Twitter, who crowd-sourced comments for one of her EP reports.

The European Commission should conduct focus groups on planned policy changes and the right to petition the European Parliament should be publicised more.

Young Europeans expect immediate feedback, says the report. They get it from companies when they complain about products and "expect to see real interaction with the political institutions for which they pay".

There should also be greater access to European courts. If the EU makes good on its pledge to join the European Convention on Human Rights, people could bring a case against the EU before the Strasbourg court of human rights.

But while these are practical solutions that could be implemented relatively easily, the most far-reaching proposals - those that would turn the EU into something that people could really relate to - are out of political bounds.

A European unemployment insurance scheme, for example, “would benefit the most economically vulnerable parts of society that often feel excluded from the gains of European integration”.

But it would also require unanimously agreed treaty change – an all but insurmountable hurdle in the heterogenous and angry EU of today. The search for ways to repair the democratic deficit continues.

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