Veranstaltungen: Dokumentation

13.3.2003

What can be done to reconnect the EU with the people of Europe?

The EU is one of the greatest achievements of the past half century. It has served as a force for peace on this continent and beyond, channelling the competitive instincts of individual nation states into productive rather than destructive outlets.

Miles Kemp

The EU is one of the greatest achievements of the past half century. It has served as a force for peace on this continent and beyond, channelling the competitive instincts of individual nation states into productive rather than destructive outlets. The very fact that armed conflict between EU member states is all but inconceivable today is a testament to the scale of the achievement.

Yet in spite of this, the EU is not a popular institution, even amongst the people it is supposed to represent. A recent Eurobarometre opinion survey, for example, highlighted that only 48% of EU citizens believe that membership of the Union is a "good thing", down two per cent from the previous year. The percentage of the European public in favour of the EU rarely exceeds 50% - and is far less in some territories.

What is the reason for this widespread mistrust? Much of it can be put down to a natural tendency for people to grumble about higher authority. But if truth be told, there is an element of justification in some of the popular criticisms ¡V in particular the view that a ¡§democratic deficit¡¨ exists between the institutions of the EU and the people they are supposed to represent.

So what are the most commonly-held criticisms? And what can be done to address them, to improve the popularity ¡V and thus the democratic legitimacy ¡V of the EU?

Broadly speaking, popular criticism centres on three themes:
  1. "The EU is undemocratic and unaccountable"
  2. "The EU is bureaucratic, over-intrusive, and corrupt"
  3. "The EU is ineffectual on the world stage"
The third of these criticisms sits outside the remit of this working group. But the first two are of direct relevance to the democratisation of the EU. How can they be addressed?

Perhaps it is worth looking at each in turn.

Allegation 1: "the EU is undemocratic and unaccountable"

The stock federalist answer to this allegation is simple: strengthen the EU's democratic credibility by strengthening the directly-elected European Parliament. But that would be the wrong way forward.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of Europe's citizens do not hold the European Parliament in very high regard. Voter turnouts across Europe make this clear: the average turnout for European Parliamentary elections in 1999, for example, was 49%, compared to 78% for national elections.

The people of Europe remain convinced that their national parliaments are the cornerstones of democracy. And rightly so. These institutions have earned their legitimacy through centuries of (often bitter) experience. Any attempt by the EU - real or imaginary - to reduce the authority of the national parliaments in favour of the EP generates massive popular resentment, since it is viewed as an attack on the foundations of democracy itself.

So, if the EU is to strengthen its democratic mandate, it needs to make sure that the national parliaments remain at the heart of the "European Project", and are not marginalized in favour of newer institutions with limited popular credibility. That, in turn, means concentrating executive power in the hands of the Council of Ministers - comprising the democratically-elected heads of each EU state - rather than the European Commission.

Allegation 2: "the EU is bureaucratic, over-intrusive, and corrupt"

One of the most widely-held public stereotypes of the EU is that it is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, riddled with corruption and inefficiency, and forever trying to gather more power for itself at the expense of national institutions.

Possible solutions:

  • Establish a clear and fixed delineation between EU competences and those of the member states (as the Convention is currently doing). This division of labour should be widely publicized, so that the people of Europe have a clear understanding of what the EU is responsible for, and what it isn't. (This will also reduce the ability of national leaders to blame unpopular domestic policies on the "Brussels bureaucrats"!)

  • Implement a rigorous benchmarking system within the EU bureaucracy, managed by an Internal Auditing division. This process ¡V the results of which should be regularly published ¡V would provide a clear and consistent picture of the quality & efficiency of the EU's various divisions. Budget allocation should be based on performance against these benchmarks.

  • Give this same Internal Auditing division sweeping powers to root out corruption and cronyism. Ensure that culprits are swiftly and publicly punished, to avoid allegations of cover-up (as occurred, for example, in the recent sacking of Marta Andreason after she raised concerns about EU accounting practices).

Opening up the EU bureaucracy to public scrutiny & accountability in this way would both silence critics and improve performance.

The proposals listed above are not radical or revolutionary. They are common sense. Few would argue that the people of Europe believe their national parliaments are the cornerstones of democracy, and that they should remain as such. Few, too, would argue that the EU should be efficient & well-managed, and that it should only get involved in areas of policy when it can demonstrate a clear benefit to the people of Europe by doing so.

These views - shared by the majority of the people of Europe - should be loudly and clearly expressed at the Convention. They are central to the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

Appendix

What other, less political, steps could be taken to increase the popularity of the EU?
  • More sport - the UEFA Cup has probably done more for pan-European understanding than anything else! Foreign soccer heroes (Zola, Zidane, etc.) should be encouraged to front promotional & educational campaigns for the EU in their adopted countries.

  • Students should be able to spend a term or a year in another EU country as part of their secondary school education (EU-subsidised). This would ideally go hand-in-hand with a standardisation of qualifications, perhaps on a Baccalaureate model.

  • Encourage the creation of a truly pan-European film industry - but one stimulated by tax breaks and commercial incentives rather than cultural protectionism. The aim should be to create a truly popular European cinema to rival that of America, rather than an elitist "walled garden" of little-watched art-house movies.


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