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Democratising the EU

Article by Anna Lindh

September 15, 2006

The theme of the debate, Democracy and the EU, can be interpreted in three ways. The EU as a safeguard for democracy. Democracy in the EU, and democracy in member states. All three aspects are important, and cannot be separated from each other.

Let’s remember history: the predecessors of the EU were once created to make Europe safe for democracy, and to prevent a sliding back into what happened in the thirties and forties. That is why the Union is based on the universal values of democracy and human rights.

This has already had a strong impact on southern Europe. One of the factors that led to the fall of the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece was the prospect of membership of the EU, and the EU was important to anchor and secure the democracy in the previous dictatorship.

I have often discussed this with Georgious Papaandreou, Foreign Minister of Greece. He speaks perfect Swedish after his years as a refugee in Sweden. He is a living example of how the EU secures democracy in new democracies – and one of the promoters of enlargement.

Today it is the candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe who see membership of the Union as a guarantee for a continued democratic and peaceful development.

The universal values are now integrated into the Copenhagen criteria for accession. Furthermore, in the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties member states have included new safeguards against undemocratic developments in member states. The Nice treaty creates a possibility of an early warning system, if there is a clear risk that a member state does not respect the principles of fundamental rights.

We are not there yet, far from it. But, the rising tide of right-wing xenophobic populism in many countries is, of course, extremely worrying.

We’ve seen it in Austria, Italy, Denmark, France among others. And no country is protected. We had a similar development in this country as well, if not that bad, 10 years ago. In 1992 some 50 refugee houses were attacked, and some 50 other attacks were carried out against refugees with Molotov- cocktails or explosives. A sniper was targeting refugees in Stockholm. We had a right-wing, xenophobic party, New Democracy, in our parliament. They failed completely, and we are still ‘vaccinated’ from this kind of party – but we won’t be vaccinated forever.

These events 10 years ago, however, taught us several things:

First, you must have a very tough attitude, that is to say a zero-tolerance against xenophobic movements. To try to meet them halfway, and thereby disarm their arguments, wont work. Not on the national level. Not on the EU- level. Concessions will only legitimise their demands and make them stronger, and could shift the whole debate towards more restrictions for refugees – as we have seen in Denmark.

Second, you must promote a dialogue with, and knowledge about, other cultures. That’s why the Swedish Government is now distributing to all schools a book, JALLA!, based on stories by teenagers from Muslim countries.

Third, you must manage the economy, and the welfare and fight unemployment. The root of the problem often lies in the daily lives of citizens: high unemployment, the down-turn in the economy with job losses, fiercer competition and fundamental changes in established institutions, in some cases even partly caused by the effects of the EU internal market. Social exclusion. Worries about the pension systems and the ever greater difficulties of the health care systems in fulfilling their tasks.

These are universal problems in Europe and they have to be met by concrete action. The breeding-ground for these movements will not be eliminated by a few information campaigns or some institutional reforms. The EU, and the member states, has to take unemployment, pensions, education and social exclusion very seriously. Otherwise, people’s legitimate worries and fear of things foreign can always be capitalised by ruthless Populist leaders.

Given what the EU stands for, it is not surprising that extremist movements are very negative to the Union. When nationalists on the right wing gain ground, support for the Union decline. That is especially worrying since the EU today is the strongest defender of democracy and human rights in Europe, and also a strong promoter of these universal values world-wide. Given this development, I would hope to see increased support for the EU from the left also here in Sweden.

The second aspect, democracy in the EU, should be seen against this background. World-wide we see a worrying trend towards less and less interest in political life. We can see it at the national level, in the slowly sinking turn-out in national elections, and steadily decreasing participation in political parties and organisations, particularly among young people. At the European level we see it, among other things, in the very low and decreasing turn-out in elections to the European Parliament.

The reasons behind this general trend are many and complex, but to a great extent they are the same as those underlying the rise of the populist movements.

We need to show that the Union is capable of handling issues that are at the top of people’s agendas. That the EU can make a difference to create more and better jobs, protect the environment, fight international crime and promote global solidarity. And we need to show that we can develop the Union and it’s institutions to fulfil these tasks.

But we must also reach out to citizens, to really involve them in this debate on the future of Europe. That is why the Swedish government has summoned a special committee, composed of parliamentarians, to stimulate the national debate before the next inter-governmental conference.

The Nice Treaty has been criticised heavily on the grounds that it did not go far enough, and decide on profound changes to the structure. One often hears the argument that the engine was made for a community of six member states, and that it does not work properly even with 15 members, let alone 27.

I don’t buy that. That was simply not the task of the Nice Treaty. The task was to decide on the institutional reforms that were absolutely necessary in order to bring in twelve new member states. It had a number of precise tasks: weighting of votes, composition of the Commission, seats in the European Parliament and other institutions, and increased use of qualified majority decisions. But the process we have started now, with the convention and the next inter-governmental conference will give everyone the opportunity to discuss radical changes.

We have the question of the balance of power between the EU institutions, in other words how citizens in member states can influence Union decisions. We have the balance between member states. And the balance between the EU as such and member states.

Should we go for the dream of a federal model, where one would turn the Commission into a kind of European Government, based on a parliamentary mandate in the European Parliament, and let the national government resign themselves to a role as a kind of senate, or house of Lords, for legislative matters?

The federalist dream envisages a system like a national system. If the Government meets strong opposition in parliament it has to resign. And then the logical consequence is that the Government can dissolve parliament, and call new elections.

This system has obvious benefits, it is a clear model, it will give every citizen’s vote the same weight, and it could give the European Government a strong mandate.

But is that a realistic perspective for the European Union?

People identify first of all with their nations, partly with Europe, but very little with the EU. Although more and more decisions are taken at the EU- level, most people pay much more attention to national political debate than the EU- debate. A “European nation” cannot be brought about artificially through institutional measures. On the contrary, moving towards some kind of federalism without support from the citizens will surely create a backlash.

In the federalist dream we would not have an independent Commission any more. Before elections the candidates would have to formulate a platform, create alliances and give promises to different political groups or member states, in order to gain a sufficient majority. It would be naive to believe that such a Commission would then want to exercise its office in a neutral and disinterested way. And the balance between member states, large and small, and geographically, would be lost, certainly to the disadvantage of smaller and medium-sized countries.

The Swedish government sees the national political system as the basis for EU politics also. The national parliaments will continue to be the main source of legitimacy for citizens in member states. The national governments will continue to be seen as the main representative in the decision-making process in the EU. Sweden finds the present institutional balance reasonable. We see a strong Council with the axis to national governments and parliaments as the backbone of the Union.

Some argue that the present system does not make room for democratic accountability. I disagree. The governments of member states have a political responsibility to their national parliaments. And this is a powerful driving force in many member states. The way governments act and take care of national interests is scrutinised closely.

If we want to give the European Parliament a greater role, we should think carefully about exactly what we want. New responsibilities for the EP would basically mean diminished responsibilities for the national parliaments. Do we, for example, wish to give them an increased role concerning the budget, or the financing of the Union?

But we certainly need strong supranational institutions as well, in particular a strong Commission. It is indispensable as a driving force and initiator of proposals. It has a vital role as guardian of the treaties and a watch-dog over the implementation of EU legislation and politics in member states. It can play an important role also in the open method of co-ordination, which could be suitable for a number of new challenges that the Union will be facing. The Commission’s task is to look after the interests of the Union as a whole. That is why it has to be totally independent, and its members are strictly forbidden to pay particular attention to the interests of their own country or a particular country, or to seek or receive instructions from any government or other group. In this respect the Commission can be seen as a safeguard for the medium-sized and smaller countries against irregularities from the larger ones. This is one of the corner-stones of the Union.

Some claim that there is a contradiction between this and the rules of the treaty which require that there must be one citizen from each member state in the Commission. In fact, it is the other way around. It is necessary for the independence of the Commission that at least one of it members knows each individual member state, their past, their traditions and their national debate.

Take the Swedish Commissioner, for example. She often takes the opposite position to the Swedish government. In fact, I am certain she would disagree with a great deal of what I am saying today. But she is Swedish, and also from northern Sweden. She knows about Sweden, she knows about our problems. Without that knowledge, the Commission would be handicapped in its role as a spokesman for the interests of the whole Union.

The balance between Member states and the Union, in other words the competencies of the Union is one of the main issues of the convention. But let me say right away that I do not think this is a major problem. Who does what is already clear. There is no great need to define it in greater detail. Most member states realise that it is neither desirable nor possible to draft a detailed catalogue of competencies.

That could involve a risk that we, unintentionally, rip up what the EU has achieved in some fields up to now. The other risk is that we tie our hands and do away with the tools we might need. When the Rome Treaty was signed in 1957, there was not one single word in it about the environment. And who could have foreseen, a year ago, the measures we would have to take after September 11? If we had had a competence catalogue, carved in stone, we would have been much slower in responding to the challenges.

Many people seem to see a constitution as the overall objective. German newspapers often talk about the convention as a “constitutional convention”. Even some Swedish papers and participants in the Swedish debate see a “constitution” as the magic word that will solve all problems.

Of course, it is positive with a reshuffling to get one comprehensive document. But, strictly speaking you could say that the present treaties already constitute a kind of “constitution”, with detailed rules about the competencies and responsibilities of the different actors, and about procedures. So the issue is not so much whether we should have a constitution, but rather which constitution we should have.

But one vital question is whether we should try to decide all these issues once and for all, and have the commandments carved in stone, or whether we should stick to the present method and let the treaties and institutions develop, when new problems appear on the agenda and old ones fade away.

It should come as no surprise to you that my sympathy is with the second approach. Creating the European Union is not something you do once and for all, according to some clever blue-prints. It is rather like building a community. You start with the main street and a few buildings. Then the city grows with new houses, and new streets, and new areas. Sometimes we have to knock down old buildings, and make room for new ones. If not, some might collapse of their own accord. Communications become more important, and so do traffic rules, energy supply and even waste disposal. Suburbs begin to mushroom. And finally we have to ask the question whether everything should take place in that city, or whether some of the activities should be moved elsewhere.

Having said that, there is a lot we can and should do to develop the Union and its institutions:

Firstly, there are serious deficiencies in the way the Council works now. The European Council meetings are not very well prepared and managed. There are deficiencies in the co-ordination between different sectors. There is too often a lack of focus on the vital issues. And sometimes too much of our political and administrative resources are spent on minor issues. Despite progress in the last two years, there is still not enough openness in the work of the Council, or in the other institutions. Enlargement will put additional emphasis on our shortcomings.

But it is important to stress that most of the problems can be solved now, without any Treaty amendments. Therefore, it is important that governments address these issues, and not let themselves be hampered by the work of the convention. Sweden has put forward some proposals in this respect – how presidencies should work together, how the council should be reformed, and how a language reform should be pursued. I hope that we can already see the first results at the summit in Seville in a few weeks time.

Secondly, agricultural and regional policy – and with them budgetary policy – will need far-reaching reform. Not because of enlargement – reforms are already long overdue. The Common Agricultural – or should I say Anachronistic – Policy was once conceived for a quite different situation when Europe was threatened by food scarcity. Today, it restricts market access for other countries. Today, its’ subsidised products destroy the market in candidate countries and the third world. Today, it is often contrary to sound environmental policies. Today, it is also a heavy financial burden, it costs over 40 billion euro per year, making up almost half of the total EU budget. We can forget about legitimacy among the citizens if we can’t create a sound system. They want a system that promotes good environment, animal welfare and biodiversity. Only one third of EU citizens find that the CAP fulfils its’ goals. The question is not whether CAP should be reformed, but when and how.

Thirdly, we should develop our common foreign policy, which is something that the citizens always indicate. Had the EU had a common foreign policy ten years ago, we could have avoided a decade of war in the Balkans. This spring, for the first time in over a decade, we don’t have a war raging in the Balkans, much because of the work the Union has done.

In many ways we are much better off than ten years ago: We are developing military and civilian capacities for crises management; we are more active and influential in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in Africa. And in the world after September 11, the EU, when acting as one, is effective and influential. But we should do much more to work for global development, human rights and democracy, the Johannesburg Summit will be one opportunity to show the EU’s commitment. We should also do much more to prevent conflicts, and to support the UN.

But we need greater coherence in our policies. Only with a truly coherent Common Foreign and Security policy where trade, development, migration and environment are integrated, where policy areas and pillars are co-ordinated, and where the different voices of the Union – the Presidency, the Commission, the High Representative and the Member States are co-ordinated, will we be influential.

I think we need the EU to be a global actor. We need the EU sometimes together with the US and sometimes to balance the US. It is never positive with only one power on the global arena. The EU should – and could – be a more important global actor. But to be a strong global actor, the EU have to be backed by opinion in our countries in Europe.

Some years ago, we had a discussion about a federal Europe. Swedes, British, and others were blamed not to go further in this direction. Today we see a different trend: the EU is more criticised, national interests are gaining ground, and there is a clear risk of a backlash for the European co-operation.

I think, we are now heading towards a situation where we, as pragmatic Social Democrats (gråsossar) have to take the responsibility to protect and defend the Community method, the European project, what we have already achieved. Let’s not make big European revolutions, lets go step by step, so citizens will be able to follow and support the EU, also as a global actor.

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