Most people who believe in the EU project would like to see a truly democratic European parliamentary system emerge one day; a system in which EU citizens, not heads of government meeting behind closed doors, make the decisions. Opinion polls show that anti-EU sentiment is held by roughly 30% of the EU’s 500 million citizens. A large majority support the EU but want it to function differently: more democratically.
Jean Monnet, one of the union’s founding fathers, said: “We are not integrating states, we are uniting people.” And now, as Europe ponders its future, the task of shaping it should be placed in the hands of people, not nation states. Of course, to achieve this would require a major shift – with citizens, rather than states, recognised as the sovereign actors of EU politics. That may sound like a distant or unrealistic prospect, but who is to say that far-reaching ambitions must always be off limits – especially if they’re about giving voters more of a say?
Citizens have taken on more importance as a result of Europe’s many crises. This is apparent from the number of grassroots movements that have appeared across the continent. Student activists and civil society groups are increasingly standing up for the EU and the principles it is supposed to enshrine. The fear of an EU collapse has led to renewed efforts to defend it.
EU leaders have likewise taken to constantly referring to the role of the citizens of Europe. The European commission has stepped up its efforts to reach out to the public by organising conferences in different cities. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has called for citizen consultation exercises to be organised this year across Europe. The idea is to produce a citizens’ manifesto on Europe’s future. There is also talk of setting up transnational lists for next year’s European parliament elections.
The EU is searching for answers to a key question: who decides? Who makes the decisions in the EU? It’s never entirely clear. Brussels institutions or nation states? Should it be the European council (which is made up of the heads of state and government) or the regions? The European Central Bank or the Eurogroup, which represents the eurozone finance ministers? Should the region of Wallonia, alone, have a veto over the EU-Canada free trade agreement? And on Greek bailouts, is it the so-called financial troika, is it the European parliament, or should it be the EU’s voters in a referendum? From Brexit to the future of Catalonia, it seems the question of what role citizens should play is all over the place.
The concept of a common European citizenship was introduced by the Maastricht treaty in 1992. It promised that the EU would not only be a “union of states” but also a “union of citizens”. Yet the latter never materialised. Most citizens feel excluded from EU decision-making. They have only indirect sway. They elect the European parliament, but that body holds little power. This feeds the notion that the EU is something of a post-democracy: you can always vote, but you have no genuine choice.
For the EU to get out of its present conundrum, the citizens – taken as a whole, not divided into national subgroups – should be given a full and direct say. That will only ever happen if the notion of a European republic somehow takes hold: res publica europaea, the European common good. Critics will say this would spell more “European centralisation” or the emergence of a crushing “European superstate”. But a European republic would, on the contrary, rest on the division of power, not on centralisation. The primary question is this: how do we decentralise the power that is currently held by a handful of European institutions, and create the conditions for the will of European citizens to express itself politically and be translated into actions and laws?
The EU’s set-up would surely gain from a clearer separation of powers. The European parliament needs to be given more prominence, and become bicameral, with an upper chamber in which regions would be represented. Imagine how much more legitimacy this would confer on EU decisions.
Sceptics will say this is entirely unlikely because, for one thing, it presupposes the existence of a single European people, a European demos, from which a common political body could be formed. But remember, the EU mantra is “unity in diversity”. This means common rules are supposed to be embraced across a wide diversity of cultures, languages, national and regional historical backdrops. In a democracy, all citizens are equal. Common rules and laws across Europe, decided in full democratic fashion, would not mean differences are denied. On the contrary, they could flourish and be better respected, because clear and fair mechanisms would exist for them to be expressed and translated into policies.
To be sure, Europe has long struggled with the question of how to forge solidarity among citizens, rather than competition among nations. What’s different today is that we have to draw lessons from a series of unprecedented shocks. To name one: flaws in the governance of the eurozone have undoubtedly contributed to the rise of anti-EU populism, as well as worsening regional tensions. Europe has a choice between moving forward together or sliding back to nation state rivalry, which would mean disintegration.
We need to take an ambitious leap, to work towards something bold and citizen-oriented: the completion of a now 60-year-old project. That means embedding the single market and the single currency into a single democracy. Europe has come a long way since the middle of the last century. We shouldn’t shy away from the challenge: creating one common European democracy, rather than risking the loss of what has already been accomplished.
To those who think this is utopian, the European project itself was a utopia until it actually happened. The universal declaration of human rights was utopian until it was written, and came into being. It doesn’t mean that we’ll achieve a European republic tomorrow. But we can develop a vision about what Europe should be, and find ways to reach for it. As Albert Einstein once said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”