Democracy: Put citizens at the heart of the Union
14 September 2012
Europe today is suffering an erosion of representative democracy, citizenship and solidarity, making emerging from the crisis that much harder. If the Union cannot encourage an upswing in citizen participation it will not survive in its current form, warns a Polish columnist.
To answer the questions, “What kind of Europe do we need?” and “What kind of Europe is within our means,” we have to take a look at the Europeans, those of today and those of tomorrow. After all, we are talking about a real construction, of an existing thing, which is and will be like the people that are building it – not only intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats, but ordinary people too. Those who vote and those who do not, those who are interested in public affairs and those who are not, who elect presidents and parliamentarians both wise and foolish by fully exercising or not exercising at all their civil, political and economic rights.
I have the feeling that we are passing too lightly over the problem that Europe has with its own citizens, the Europeans, even if this problem is not unique to the European continent. The citizens have certainly changed and are no longer the same as those who were led half a century ago by major European leaders like De Gasperi, Schuman, Adenauer and de Gaulle. This change influences not only the democracy of today and tomorrow in the nation states, but the current form and the future of the European Union as well.
We cannot think of the Union without reflecting on some general truths. The Union was born out of the trauma of World War II and was built by the societies that emerged from that trauma. Knowing too well the risks of bad politics, the citizens interested themselves in public affairs. They read newspapers, took part in elections, and were active in political parties and trade unions. The first three decades following the war were truly a golden age of citizenship in the West.
In the decades that followed the sociology and methods of democracy underwent great changes. Gradually, the consumer has taken the place of the citizen. In the public sphere, public debate and information have been pushed aside by entertainment. The traditional political parties based on ideology and rigid social classes capitulated before a no-name ideology that has pushed the economy into all walks of life, and then, hand in hand, took the path of submission to ‘cost-saving’ ideas.
The future will tell if this is good or bad. There has, however, already been a profound change in the culture of Western societies, in their social structures, levels of knowledge, human relationships and hierarchies of values. It is this change that political scientists and sociologists have been referring to for some decades as the source of the crisis of democracy in its traditional forms of representation.
Can representative democracy, challenged in the nation states (Jürgen Habermas struggled against this with his concept of deliberative democracy), overcome the crisis of the European Union? I think not. In fact, I do not understand how the representative model, based on the idea of a sense of civic responsibility that is fading away at the national level, would stop the decay of supranational institutions. Familiar not only with the thought of Habermas but with that of John Keane, I would rather search out solutions that are more innovative and better adapted to our times, such as the institutionalised and pan-European forms of deliberation and participation for those who want it.
That being said, it is essential to know if these innovations, which are steering a very difficult course at the national and even local government level, have any chance at breaking through into and working at the EU level. I'm not sure they can. This means that we must choose between a solution that is certainly ineffective and one that is probably impossible.
Change is necessary and urgent. The inability of the EU to make decisions is leading us to disaster. Strengthening the traditional mechanisms of democracy in the EU may be able to unblock the decision-making processes in the short-term, but seems counter-productive in the long term. For example, direct presidential elections would obviously bring to power a stronger personality than Herman Van Rompuy – but would we be better off if, with the support of Mediaset and News Corporation, that other person would be Silvio Berlusconi?
The erosion of social solidarity is another element of our current societies. In most countries one observes a growing resistance to transfers. The rich are less inclined these days to share their wealth with the poor, and they have a strong ideology that justifies their refusal. This applies equally well to transfers among classes, between generations, and even between regions.
Without strengthened solidarity, however, we can neither effectively overcome the crisis nor preserve the EU in its current form. That’s not only because the gap between certain countries that currently are serious trouble and others that are in relatively good shape is widening, but also because the whole of Europe is afflicted by a common problem – namely, that globalisation and various changes in society will lead in the near future to a palpable decrease in the standard of living of all of us (some expect a fall of 20 percent). In such a situation it is even harder to expect any enthusiasm for solidarity.
Crisis of representative democracy
These two factors, the erosion of citizenship and solidarity, lead me to say that neither the crisis facing the European Union nor the remedies proposed to solve it are of an institutional nature. The shape of the European institutions and their powerlessness reflect the socio-cultural situation, while the deepening crisis is the expression of the erosion of the social and cultural foundations of the Union.
This is not a death sentence. I do not believe the Union will die, because I see no acceptable life for the present generations without it. Everyone would lose from a collapse of the euro (Germans probably the most), and the collapse of the EU would be a disaster comparable to a major war. Fortunately, awareness of this is broadly shared in Europe, at least among the political elites.
The shrewd little technical, institutional, legal and constitutional ploys, however, will not work in the long term if we do not manage to change the culture and the institutions. The crisis of the economy (financial and debt) and of the political underpinnings is a consequence of the crisis of representative democracy.
The crisis of representative democracy is cultural in origin and results from the erosion of citizenship and solidarity. The effective remedies must, whatever the intellectual and political difficulty, grow out of the social and cultural nature of the current tensions, and not just out of the day-to-day management of this unidentified creature that the European Union is today.