European democracy: Where now?

European democracy: Where now?

Opinion piece (Open democracy)
Aurore Wanlin
02 June 2005

The rejection by French and Dutch voters of the treaty establishing a European constitution has precipitated one of the deepest crises in the European Union's fifty-year history. The results were decisive – votes of 55% and 61.6% against the treaty in France and the Netherlands respectively, on turnouts of 70% and 62% – yet they contain an element of paradox.

For most observers, the double “no” is a clear rejection of the way European elites have constructed the union. French and Dutch people, the argument runs, feel that they have not been sufficiently involved in the decision-making process. The referenda present an opportunity to reject not just the constitutional treaty but everything the EU has become: its institutions, its recent enlargement, its single currency, even the single market. The people want a say – and it is a loud, defiant “no!”

However, many of the ingredients needed to strengthen EU democracy were present in the form of the treaty itself and the way it was drafted, the referenda and the debate that took place in France and the Netherlands.

A core aim of the constitutional treaty is to make the EU more democratic, and in several respects – a significant increase in the role of the European and national parliaments, a new right of petition for European citizens – this aim was achieved.

Moreover, the actual procedure of drafting the constitution was unusually democratic, marking a departure from earlier “top-down” processes in Europe's construction. For the first time, a European treaty was not drafted by an intergovernmental conference but by a convention that gathered national government representatives, members of the European and national parliaments, civil society organisations, and professional associations. In the ratification process, around half of the member-states decided to hold referenda rather than rely merely on a parliamentary vote, thereby submitting the treaty directly to their people.

Three questions …

The referendum in France triggered a very intense debate about Europe. For weeks, the French could talk about almost nothing else. Though not the best bedtime reading, books on the constitution sold like hot cakes. People in France seemed finally to reconnect with Europe, if ultimately to reject it.

The French “no” therefore raises three questions. The first is how to explain the paradox of the expressed will for more democracy and the rejection of the means to achieve this aim. The second is how to improve the way the European Union works and make European citizens feel they have a grip on its decisions or how better articulate the relation between national politics and the European political “space”.

A first reason for this paradoxical situation is that democracy is not only about institutions. Democracy is also about output. The constitutional treaty is an improvement on the way the EU functions, but the treaty itself will not bring more jobs to the French or reduce high prices in the Netherlands. The loss of support by the union and national governments in France, Germany and Italy has been mainly because of their failure to answer voters' economic and social needs. If France's economy was performing better, if employment was higher, the French might still have rejected the constitutional treaty – but the “no” camp would have had a much tougher task. In short, the EU and the memberstates together need to deliver on the economy and employment if they want their publics to accept European integration.

A second reason is that this crisis is also a national crisis. Where there is a democratic crisis in Europe it exists at both national and European levels. In France as in the Netherlands, most of the national press and the main political parties supported the constitutional treaty, yet were unable to convince public opinion to vote in favour of it. The sheer unpopularity of President Chirac and the government of Jan Peter Balkenende reflects a deeper distrust in politicians' ability to tackle their country's problems. This disconnection between public opinion and the national political elites is a major issue for European democracy.

A third reason is that member-state governments for too long have avoided speaking to their citizens about the European Union. National leaders tend not to explain the decisions they take collectively at the European level unless they want to use Brussels as a scapegoat for their domestic crises. As a result, many citizens blame the EU for their problems. They also feel that a lot has been done behind their backs. For instance, successive governments in France failed to make the case for the EU's enlargement in May 2004 from fifteen to twenty-five member-states. A year later, the French rejected an enlarged EU from which they feel estranged.

The European Union as well as the member-state governments must respond to this disenchantment. The EU itself is not undemocratic; indeed, EU institutions are far more transparent than most national governments. The EU also has a delicate system of checks and balances that make it highly accountable. This is as it should be: a political system needs to be all the more democratic the further it is from the people. For this reason, the the standards applying to the EU need to be higher than those applied to at the national or regional level. In this respect, the constitutional treaty is a step in the right direction. But the French and Dutch votes show that improving the EU's institutions and decisionmaking processes is no longer sufficient to secure the active support of European citizens.

… and an answer

Despite the wide-ranging input into the treaty drafting process, the EU routinely appears to consult the people only after a decision has been taken. The French and Dutch referenda were held only after the text had been agreed. The treaty is such a hard-won, finely balanced compromise that its architects consider any change to it impossible. People in Europe are thus compelled to choose from a “take it or leave it” option that seems to leave no room for discussion.

The European Union, then, needs to trigger public debate before taking its major decisions. This is not impossible. The French passionately discussed the constitution for weeks. Similarly, the liberalising services directive has been widely debated in most member-states. It is now vital that the European leaders trigger a debate on key EU issues in their countries, one that will also cross borders and nurture the sense of a European public.

This will require a strong political leadership from national governments and the European Commission alike. The approaching British presidency will have a great responsibility here, for instance by launching a debate on further enlargement, the budget, and the way forward for or beyond the constitutional treaty itself. None of this will be easy – but the lesson of France and the Netherlands is that lack of democratic dialogue on a European union-wide level is a damaging hole at the heart of the European project.

Aurore Wanlin was a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (2004-2007)