Lorenza Antonucci and Simone Varriale highlight the UK’s influence over EU supranational policies and explain how Britain contributed to an unequal Europe. In
— Read on blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/eu-migration-and-inequality/
The more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, writes Pippa Catterall, the more it becomes judged by the normative expectations of how democratic states are. But it is as an international organisation that it should be judged.
No international organisation is ‘democratic’. Indeed, there is only one international organisation which even tries to be democratic, the one called the European Union. All international organisations increasingly have impacts behind borders, particularly those which – like the EU – deal primarily with trade, because of the way international trade has come to be dominated by regulations and standards. Only the EU has sought to give voice to those affected by such developments, in the form of a directly-elected parliament representative of the peoples it encompasses, rather than simply being beholden to its Member States. Yet this most democratic of international organisations is also the one which is most often traduced as ‘undemocratic’. Why?
The most obvious explanation is that it is not widely grasped that the EU is much more democratic than its analogues among international organisations. For instance, the irony of Leave voters calling the EU ‘undemocratic’ while wanting to operate under WTO rules instead, seems to be lost on them. The global protests which followed the founding of the WTO, not least in Seattle in 1999, demonstrated an appreciation then, among other things, of how deeply undemocratic the WTO was. It still is. Like virtually all international organisations, the WTO’s membership consists of legal persons, called states, rather than natural ones, actual human beings. The same holds true for those international consortia of trading states – such as Mercosur, ASEAN, the Cairns Group, and so on – which increasingly have become significant players in the diplomacy of world trade. The states which are members of these bodies may be mandated by their domestic parliaments on how they handle issues at the WTO and similar organisations, and they may be scrutinised on what they have agreed in those parliaments. However, if this is democracy it is an attenuated form.
The same observation could hold for all the other international organisations Leave voters seem quite happy for Britain to remain in. The UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, together with a host of other less well-known bodies, are all organisations which – at best – only allow states rather than peoples directly, to participate in their decision-making processes. To all of these bodies as well, Britain is a net contributor. That is not to say that there are not benefits to the UK from its membership of, for instance, the International Whaling Commission. However, neither the benefits nor the effects of British membership of the IWC will be apparent to the average Briton, if they are aware of it at all. They rightly do not perceive any discernible impacts on their lives of such membership, whereas they do think they are affected by Britain’s membership of the EU. So the second reason for the complaint that the EU is ‘undemocratic’ is the perception that it has imposed on people decisions that affect them and to which they have not consented.
To a large extent this perception reflects the peculiarities of an international organisation which tries to be democratic. Representation at the EU is both popular (through the parliament) and international (through the Member States). For the latter, there is a perennial incentive to blame the EU as an institution for decisions to which they have been party and usually supported, but which may be unpopular with sections of their domestic electorates. Britain is by no means the only Member State whose politicians have acted in this way. The democratisation of the EU through the gradual extension of the powers of the parliament has not prevented this behaviour by Member States. Indeed, as the intrusiveness of international trade and relations has required growing competences on the part of international bodies like the EU, so the incentives for Member States to play to the gallery of their national audiences has similarly increased.
In the process of acquiring these growing competences, the EU has come to acquire some, though only some, of the appurtenances of a state. This has become more apparent since the introduction of the Single Market, of which the Thatcher government were among the chief progenitors. The attempt to harmonise trade and related activities across all Member States involves the creation of top-level rules which apply as evenly as possible throughout. Such developments make the impact of the EU on citizens more apparent than with other international organisations. Yet, because it remains fundamentally an international organisation, it does not have a ‘government’ which can be voted out by the disgruntled. Its parliament makes laws and holds confirmation hearings on appointees, but those appointees are placed there by horse-trading between the Member States, rather than directly.
In that sense, the EU’s organisation falls someway between that of an international organisation (which few people expect to be democratic), and that of a state. However, the more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, the more it has become judged by the normative expectations of how democratic the former rather than the latter are. For those who see states as bodies where democratic accountability involves throwing out governments (something that cannot directly happen at EU level), the absence of such mechanisms can easily seem to be a democratic deficit.
Yet the EU is not a state, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. Nor does it have the operational functionality of a state, which within the EU is delivered through its contracting parties, the Member States. The temptation to measure its democratic procedures by the standards according to which its Member States are judged – even though not all of them would pass – is understandable but misconceived. In origins and still in most of its characteristics, the EU is an international organisation. As such it provides benefits for those who live in its Member States through harmonising trade and exchange across their territories. Uniquely for an international organisation, it has a directly-elected parliament in which the rules governing those processes can be proposed, scrutinised and amended. Among the gallery of its peers – that is, other international organisations – it is a singular example of an attempt to democratise the processes which shape our globalised world. It is, of course, not without its flaws. But it is as an international organisation, rather than as a state, that those flaws should be judged. However, that will not stop its detractors misleadingly claiming that it is ‘undemocratic’.
About the Author
Pippa Catterall is Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster.
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L’idée de l’Europe est en déclin, et l’Union Européenne est dans un état avancé de désintégration. Avec le Brexit, un pilier capital de l’Union Européenne s’est déjà effondré. D’autres pourraient suivre – si ce n’est pas au cours des cycles électoraux de cette année, alors ce sera pour les suivants.
“ Peu importe le coût. Nous avons repris les rênes de notre pays ! ” clament èrement ceux qui ont soutenu le Brexit. Quitter l’Union Européenne, c’est une aspiration qu’on commence à rencontrer aux quatre coins de l’Europe, même au sein de partis de gauche qui défendent un retour à l’état-nation.
L’Europe est-elle une cause perdue ? Peut-elle être sauvée ? Doit-elle être sauvée ?
DiEM25 est convaincu que nous, les peuples d’Europe, devons reprendre les rênes de nos pays. Nous devons même reprendre les rênes de nos régions. De nos villes et cantons. Mais pour cela, nous devons retrouver un but commun entre peuples souverains. C’est ce que nous apportera un projet Européen internationaliste, commun, transnational. C’est ce que nous apportera un New Deal Européen. Ce document vise à le démontrer.Partie 1 – INTRODUCTION
Rather than putting all their hopes in top-down democratic reforms that never come, progressives should themselves assume responsibility for building a truly democratic Europe. The 2019 elections could be the best chance to engage citizens in radical, participatory processes and end years of statis in the European institutions.
Waiting for European democratic reform is more frustrating than waiting for Godot. In the Beckett play, Godot is clearly never coming, and at least in the eternal wait we can meditate on the absurdity of human existence (and anyway the play will finish at some point). In the European Union, democratic reforms are coming at some point, but are seemingly endlessly deferred. When they do come, as a result of political compromise and national obstructionism, they are rarely what is needed. In the meantime, for lack of ambitious European democracy, the forces of reaction and nationalism grow so that on the one hand democratic reform becomes less likely, and on the other any such reform is less likely to be satisfactory or ambitious. A perfectly vicious circle.
It is time to stop waiting for others. Godot isn’t coming, and he is not called ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘Angela’. The 2019 European elections can be an important moment to mobilise citizens around the request for democratic change. But change will not come through the official ballot boxes alone. Whatever welcome progress may be made by having spitzenkandidaten or transnational lists or even genuine transnational parties will not be sufficient to drive through an ambitious democratic transformation. And so, in addition to fighting in the official elections and getting votes in the official ballot boxes, citizens need to set up their own ballot boxes, and even their own elections.
Turning back the technocratic tide
The intergovernmental and technocratic system of the EU increasingly frustrates any meaningful space for the expression of European citizenship. For as much as the Parliament has gained powers of co-decision, decision-making has moved to informal groups like the Eurogroup, intergovernmental agreements outside of the Community method (such as the Fiscal Compact or the scandalous EU-Turkey agreement), and into secretive ‘trialogue’ negotiations. The structure of the Parliament itself prevents the emergence of real transnational parties. By consequence, European citizens are deprived of political agency at precisely the time when they demand it and need it the most.
The question ‘what Europe is going to do?’ – about the banks, about Greece, about the euro, about the migrants, about Brexit, about Catalonia, about TTIP, about tax evasion… – has been discussed every day in almost every bar and café up and down the continent for nearly a decade of crisis. The idea that there is no European public sphere is no longer tenable. And it is not just discussion. Millions of Europeans have mobilised on the streets in protest or solidarity over the past years. The alleged apathy of citizens is a myth actively fostered by governing elites: it provides the ideological justification for keeping the EU a technocratic, intergovernmental, backroom affair. The distance of citizens from ‘formal Europe’ is fully understandable. They have no seat at the table and few avenues of meaningful political participation. But Europe has a meaning beyond the grey corridors of the European Council, and citizens have been reclaiming it.
It is now time to go the extra mile. People deprived of political agency have little to gain by crafting common positions in the hope that the ‘powers that be’ will take them up. In the 20th century, both the Indian Congress and the South African Congress realised that, rather than expect the imperial elites to change, they needed to construct bottom-up political power in order to transform a system that structurally deprived colonial subjects of citizenship rights. This required a movement that politically enfranchised its members through organised struggle in order to legally and socially enfranchise the majority that was being denied a voice. Today in Europe, most people are not subject to state violence – although migrants and Roma very often are – but like in colonial contexts, institutions increasingly impervious to democratic control need to be resisted and citizens need to politically enfranchise themselves as citizens of the European Union against repeated attempts to relegate them to mere subjects of undemocratic, intergovernmental governance.
Hacking the 2019 elections as an act of civil disobedience could be the way to open up fresh alternatives. We propose using the occasion to elect a Constituent Assembly for Europe.
A democratic strategy for a citizens’ Europe
This political and performative act would work as follows. All candidates in the official European parliamentary elections, as well as all citizens and any individual who declares an interest in the future of Europe, would be able to stand for the constituent assembly.
These candidates may organise themselves in transnational lists, and European parties would be asked to field candidates for election, so as to create an immediate link between the emerging assembly and the European Parliament. Taking part in the assembly process would represent a stupendous opportunity to show commitment to the idea of citizens-led democratic renewal. Civil society and social movements would be encouraged to propose their own lists. Ideas, programmes and values for a future European constitution would come forward. The communication campaign and the performative act of organising the election of such an assembly would provide a powerful push for getting the debate on European democratic reform on the agenda for the 2019 election campaign.
Preparing the ground for the election of a constituent assembly will take time and money. The whole exercise could be carried by NGOs interested in democratic renewal coming together before the election to organise it. A network of organisations could secure the necessary funding and human resources to start the process and see the election through. New transnational parties could also play an important role. Clearly, depending how large the elections get and how many places hold them, the process might get very expensive. But as a performative act there is no need for a complete coverage of the European territory, only for enough participation to create awareness around the idea and a sense of legitimacy.
So here is how it would work: on the day of the elections, in as many cities, towns and villages as possible across Europe, just outside the official polling stations, voters would be able to physically elect members of the constituent assembly. At the same time, online elections would be held. These elections, which should be accompanied by as much publicity as possible, would choose a group of, say, 200 elected representatives.
The constituent assembly itself would not have the legitimacy to decide on a new democratic constitution. ‘Elections’ self-organised citizens across Europe would not be formally adequate for that. Rather, the assembly would serve as a new civic power to inject ideas for democratic renewal into the European institutions, show that citizens are full of ideas and energy for such a project, and ensure that they cannot be ignored or side-lined in any future convention or treaty change. The assembly could be accompanied by a secretariat and would operate as a new kind of organisation: a cross between a citizen-led NGO and a democratically elected congress.
Following the elections, the assembly would meet as the elected representatives together with randomly selected citizens, representatives of non-European countries (because Europe’s actions impact the whole world and the whole world needs to have a say – and this is what real transnationalism should ultimately be about), representatives of municipalities and local authorities as well as interested NGOs and social movements to elaborate ideas for the values and content of a democratic European constitution. Online, a wiki-constitution would be discussed and collaboratively drafted. Indeed, the assembly would be a significant actor to initiate a wider process of citizens’ assemblies, through a cycle of meetings, discussions and debates organised in town-halls, schools, universities, cultural spaces and other venues throughout Europe, with coordination and exchange between these different cities and citizens.
The process could focus on three questions:
How to ensure democratic decision–making at a European level in which the interests of people throughout the continent, and the consequences of European decisions for other people affected, are taken into account and the common interest is guaranteed through a just, accountable and transparent process?
How to ensure the maximum possibilities for direct citizen involvement in political decision–making, as an expression of European citizenship and the best guarantee of common interest?
Which economic, political, and social issues are best approached at European level and what legislative competences should democratic transnational institutions have in these areas?
This process could run in parallel to ‘official’ processes at a European level, but would be more effective if it could fully infiltrate and initiate the formal processes and possibly lead to the participatory drafting of a new constitution to be approved by European citizens by transnational referendum. Beyond just a drafting of a new constitutional proposal, such process would itself be an experiment in transnational participation and a testament of the possibility of practicing European democracy in a new way. The recent process of participatory constitutional redrafting in Iceland is an important precedent in the development of empowering processes where citizens commonly decide their rules for living together. The scale of the task is enormous, but that is no reason not to start.
Doing nothing is not an option
Many of the changes proposed by such a participative process may require EU treaty change, and therefore unanimity between Member States. Treaty requirements should not prevent European citizens from initiating processes of change and adopting various strategies for enacting those changes. The important first step would be to establish transnational movements of citizens for a democratic infrastructure for Europe. The second step would be to adopt strategies, depending on legal procedures, for forcing institutional changes to be adopted. Leaving all initiative for treaty change to Member States, or worse, just some powerful Member States, is no longer an acceptable option. Doing so just reinforces the impression that the only options available are either to submit to the authority of the leaders of the most powerful countries or to abandon all European integration. However, a third alternative is available: citizens themselves proposing a genuine European democracy.
Etienne Balibar has recently powerfully argued that we need to be more nuanced in the way we talk about the EU and its history. It is important to distinguish between the philosophical prehistory of Europe as a utopian idea of perpetual peace, the political origins of the federalist project particularly in the anti-fascist resistance, and the historical beginnings of the supranational institutions in the Cold War. Only by reclaiming Europe in the first two senses, taking Europe into hands of the citizens as an act of resistance and invention, and through recovering a sense of utopian energy that can transform the apparently insolvable contradictions of political power, will projecting a positive European future become possible. This is no play, and citizens are not spectators in a theatre. Let’s stop waiting and let’s start acting.