Skip to content

The Future of Democracy in Europe: Five Heretical Proposals

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

Issue 05, Summer 2001

The European project was always about more than coal and steel. Even when the ink was fresh on the Schuman plan, it was the dream of democracy in Europe that stirred war-weary politicians from Paris to Bonn. And for those on the outside looking in, democracy is still the European Union’s greatest prize. Former dissidents like Vaclav Havel have spent their entire lives coaxing their compatriots to meet the standards exacted by the EU. Yet within the EU’s borders, perceptions are very different. The Union is vilified as an anti-democratic bogeyman. Wry commentators point out that it would not be allowed to join itself: it fails the democratic criteria set for its own members.

For all the speeches, web-sites and glossy promotional campaigns in its name, European Democracy has languished from neglect over the last fifty years. It has become the catechism of European Integration: often invoked on red-letter days but rarely considered in any detail. But all the evidence shows that unless democracy becomes a grand projet of its own, the whole European edifice will start to look decidedly rickety.

The Danish “Nej” last September showed that the pro-Europeans have to allay fears that Europe is anti-democratic if they are to have any chance of winning the referendum on ths Single Currency. If people feel that the EU threatens their sovereignty and freedom, it doesn’t matter how many crèche facilities, inward investment and secure pension rights they are promised. As Tony Benn points out, a good dictator is always going to be seen as worse than a bad parliament.

Encouragingly, Europe’s political leaders seem aware that they need to answer big questions of democratic legitimacy – and fast. They have looked up from the small print and asked what kind of EU a new generation should create. The last twelve months has seen an unusually creative outpouring of long-term thinking. German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer deserves thanks for prompting this overdue period of reflection. But his much-publicised vision of a more federal Europe, while a welcome catalyst, draws precisely the wrong lessons from the post-war period.

His call for the EU to become a federation of states would bolster Euroscepticism by confirming suspicions that the EU is a threat to national democracy. With Euroscepticism on the rise, a crisis of confidence in European institutions and a revival of regional and local identities, the streets aren’t exactly filled with agitators crying out for more federalism.

But the biggest problem with this kind of federalism is that democracy itself is changing. Turnout in elections is falling across the EU and cynicism with mainstream politics is on the rise. Yet Europe’s federal architects are still borrowing designs from the age of silk breeches and periwigs. They turn to 18th century models of democracy for their inspiration, calling for an ever more powerful centre made up of commanding Presidents and powerful Parliaments. They fail to acknowledge that making Europe popular will require a different kind of democratic revolution:

First, member states should create a Commissioner for democracy charged with gathering best practice from around the world, exploring how IT can be used to develop forms of governance that are more responsible for citizens, re-examining the roles of the Committee of the Regions and Economic and Social Committee, finding ways of improving accountability on European issues at a national level, and promoting good democratic practice across member states and EU institutions.

Secondly, there needs to be a cultural shift to focusing on outcomes rather than processes. Within Europe many of the things that voters want – lower crime rates, increased prosperity, a cleaner environment – depend on common action. But the gulf between what people expect from the EU (solutions to cross-border problems) and what they get (CAP) is much more damaging than the formal democratic deficit. The EU must flesh out the idea of government by objectives as well as directives, which started with the employment targets set in Luxembourg, and set itself timed objectives in the areas that matter most.

Third, the debate about subsidiarity must be transformed. To restore trust in the EU it needs to prove that it will act only where it can add value to the efforts of nation states. In a political culture wedded to grand statements and rhetorical flights, this requires the clearest signal that the EU has changed. One controversial measure would be altering the text of the preamble to the Treaty of Rome so that it no longer commits the EU to “ever closer Union”.

And in practical terms the principle of subsidiarity should be altered. Each layer of Government must earn the right to govern by proving that it can do it best. There are many things that the EU should be better placed to do than the nation state, such as the delivery of overseas aid, but it is failing. Europe needs to move beyond the federal model of allocating exclusive responsibility for different tasks to different tiers of government by function and explore how we can set shared objectives centrally and see the different tiers of government working together to achieve them.

Fourth, pro-Europeans must find ways of mobilising the power of the “European average”. It is a provocative thought, but it is possible a European statistics office could do more for political accountability in Europe than a directly elected European Parliament. Access to comparative European figures on prices, taxes, economic performance and public services has vastly increased accountability for national governments. The reason the recent fuel crisis sparked such animosity was not just the level of prices consumers faced in the UK but the fact that British consumers could see that they were paying above the European average. The fact that people see their national policies within a broader context is creating a genuine competition for policies across Europe. So far the competition between government has often been seen as regressive on the centre-left: people have talked of the dangers a Dutch auction on corporation tax and social protection, or interest groups picking issues off, one at a time, like fuel tax.

But the European average could be tremendously empowering. The single market for companies meant that uncompetetive industries had nowhere to hide. The task of the centre-left is to transform European Governance into a progressive quest for the best policies: the finest hospitals, the most creative schools, the most efficient measures against crime. To do this we will need to find better ways of sharing good practice. The European Commission should have a role in this, but we should also reconfigure national embassies and diplomatic services to systematically gather information on successful policies and feed them into domestic departments. Data needs to publicised in a progressive way: measuring the European Average so that people can assess policies across the board and understand the trade-offs that need to be made rather than picking issues off one-at-a-time

We must also reinvent representation to deliver competition between policies. Instead of seeing EU politics as an appendage that can be confined to the European Parliament, we need to ensure that the cut and thrust of political debate animate all EU institutions. The biggest challenge is reforming the European Council so that it can give political direction to the whole EU system. The Council is the EU institution with the most influence and legitimacy because it contains Europe’s best-known and most powerful political leaders. Institutional change such as replacing the six monthly rotating Presidencies with one that can deliver leadership for a longer period of time would enhance its credibility. Strategic direction could be established by a new Council of Europe Ministers with deputy PM status which would meet monthly in Brussels and co-ordinate the work of the different Councils of Ministers. But the biggest change will be cultural: focusing on providing leadership rather expending its energies on day-to-day horse-trading.

Finally, we must explore direct democracy. Because the EU will never have a single government or president that citizens can vote out, we should consider supplementing representative politics with forums of direct democracy. In the long term, we could explore Simon Hix’ s idea of holding Europe-wide referenda giving citizens the chance to overturn an existing piece of EU legislation, or to put a new legislative issue on the agenda in policy areas of EU competence. The mooted European People’s Panel in which policy-makers in both the EU’s institutions or in national governments can draw upon to test public attitudes to what the EU’s priorities should be, and how service delivery can be improved from the point of view of the user should also be investigated.

These are just a few ways of reframing the democracy debate. They all try to develop thinking that is appropriate for a network of nation states in an age of globalisation and the internet, rather than trying to force Europe into the straitjackets of 18th century states.

Mark Leonard’s publications on Europe include Network Europe, The Future Shape of Europe and Making Europe Popular.

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre