Beyond the elections: European democracy and the empowerment of citizens

The European Parliament (EP) elections were widely seen as a turning point for EU democracy. However, they should not be seen as the definitive weather vane for the state of European democracy. They do not speak to the root causes of the EU’s democratic malaise.

While the worst of the eurozone crisis may have passed, the mechanisms put in place to ensure sustained financial prudence entail a long-term attenuation of democratic accountability. The EP elections have generated much focus on the contrasting fortunes of different parties and candidates for various top posts, but in themselves do little to redress this deeply entrenched problem.

Surveys repeatedly show that citizens’ trust in the EU mirrors their trust in national governments. EU-level legitimacy must be built from better-quality national and local democracy; it cannot be achieved by leapfrogging national democracy.

In this vein, one widely advocated reform is to elevate the scrutiny role of national parliaments. This is a sensible and necessary way forward. But, of course, national parliaments have themselves lost legitimacy. National parliaments have begun to monitor and control decisions taken in Brussels. But this is also a limited part of the equation and does not address the need for more effective and innovative forms of civic accountability and representation.

Most proposals suggested to date for legitimising the EU are negative; they are about controlling or limiting what comes out of Brussels, rather than more positively inspiring citizens. Future integration must be predicated centrally upon the empowerment of citizens. This reflects the broader and most essential point: Europe is suffering a malaise of democracy’s core essence, not of a particular configuration of EU institutional procedures.

The standard discourse, even of pro-Europeans, is that the future model of integration must be based on the principles of flexibility and subsidiarity. The much-repeated rhetoric is now that “the EU must be big on the big things, small on the small things” (a favourite of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso) and that we need “not more but better Europe” (touted by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, amongst others).

The nub lies in the question of what flexibility means in practice. The principle of subsidiarity — taking decisions at the level closest to citizens that is appropriate — has been present in EU politics for 20 years and has not prevented a worsening of the democratic shortfall.

Flexibility must mean democratic flexibility. Instead of being a concept for technocratic elites to divide competences among European, national and regional levels, subsidiarity must be a device for fostering democratic debate over the issues in which citizens wish to share responsibilities across borders. It must be a means not of simply undoing existing cooperation but of forging a more democratic form of managing unavoidable interdependence between member states.

Eurosceptics may have appropriated the democracy discourse, but their view that national isolation is the way to recover accountability is deeply flawed. It would leave nation-states vulnerable to the influence of deepening interdependence with even less say over the constraints hitting national economies from outside. Interdependence cannot be wished away; the challenge is to ensure that the management of interdependence becomes, at root, a democratic project.

The EP elections do not appreciably move the EU forward from its old style functional to democratic interdependence. Technocratic subsidiarity will not assuage growing popular scepticism towards the EU. Nor will a form of flexibility understood only as ad hoc opt-outs from select policies for particular member states. The challenge is to develop a template for flexibility that enables better local accountability over the EU and is not conflated with Eurosceptic doubts. There is a risk currently that more democratic legitimacy and flexibility are seen as synonymous with less integration — with, that is, a partial unravelling of current levels of policy co-ordination.

If this is not to be the case, those supportive of the EU need to develop their own effective template for instilling a greater sense of democratic legitimacy. This will not be done through the current tendency simply to dismiss the rise of populist Eurosceptic parties as protest-vote epiphenomena, sprinkle this with cosmetic calls to “listen to European citizens” and then plough ahead with the old models of elitist and managerial integration.

Contrary to much current comment, it is not the rise of Eurosceptic parties per se that represents the main failing of EU democracy. In the wake of the EP elections, the focus must turn quickly from horse-trading over who is selected as Commission president, and instead hone in on the deeper drivers of the EU’s democratic dilemma.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Carnegie Europe and EUobserver websites. 

Richard YoungsDr Richard Youngs (@YoungsRichard) is an Associate Professor of International and European Politics at Warwick. He obtained his BA (Hons) at Cambridge University, and his MA and PhD from Warwick University. He has held positions as analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; research fellow to an EU project on democracy promotion; and from 2001-2004, EU Marie Curie Fellow, based at the Norwegian Institute for International Relations in Oslo.

Youngs is a Senior Associate for Carnegie Europe.

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