EUROPEAN ELECTIONS AND DEMOCRACY
Surrealism, Citizenship and the European Idea
by Goedele De Keersmaeker (*)
The Federalist Debate VII N.2, 1994
At the March 1994 meeting of the Ca's International Coordinating Committee, we spent a whole afternoon discussing campaigns around the upcoming elections for the Parliament of the European Union. Western civic activists tried to convince their Eastern European colleagues that such a campaign is also needed in non-European Union member states - not only because the policies of the European Union in matters such as trade, immigration, agriculture, foreign policy and security, etc. affect Eastern Europeans' daily life, but also because the European institutions are fundamentally undemocratic and many decisions such as police cooperation, refugee policies, etc. are taken in circles (the Schengen group, the Trevi group, to mention only the most striking examples) which are beyond any form of democratic control.
As one participant characterised it afterwards, these arguments may sound "surrealistic" in Eastern European ears. It seems indeed a little bit weird to hear Belgian activists arguing about the lack of "freedom of movement for persons within the European Union'' when you just made a train journey of 25 hours, being stacked for hours at every border between Bucharest and Prague (not to speak about all kind of visa problems for people eoming from, for example, Transcaucasia), while it would take a EU citizen probably less time to take a train from, let's say, Copenhagen to Barcelona, having no major delays or visa problems at the borders.
In addition, Western complaints about the democratic deficit of the European Union and about the general crisis of democracy in Western Europe, may seem simply futile to Eastern Europeans, who at home are confronted with unstable and young democracies, authoritarian tendencies, exclusive nationalism and the lack of a firmly established civic culture.
Even so, it remains a fact that Western analyses of the lack of democracy in the European Union, and of the crisis of the Western European political model, are fully justified. When I hear people from the Czech Republic or Romania saying that surveys show the general public doesn' t trust any politicians, no matter from which party they come, it reminds me of the anti-political climate which is at present so dominant among the general public in my own country, Belgium. Not to speak about the lack of interest in what is happening on the European level and the nowadays growing anti-European feelings in a country which, traditionally, has been one of the most pro-European. So where does this crisis of the European idea and of the Western European model of democracy come from? The reasons are multiple. and I want to highlight only some of those which may be important to the hCa as a citizens' movement for peaceful European integration.
During our discussions on the European elections, it was quite rightly pointed out that contemporary European institutions are the result of a long history of compromise between two visions on European integration. On the one hand there is the federalist idea of a '"United States of Europe", which sees European integration as a step by step process towards the creation of a (Western) European state on a federal basis. This results in supranational institutions having their own competencies independently of the member states (thus majority vote as a rule for decision-making). In opposition to this is the vision - mainly defended by the British, but historically at least as much by the French Gaullist tradition - that the Europcan Community (or the Union as we call it now) should remain a merely international or interstate organisation, where states cooperate in specific fields without any transfer of competencies to European institutions, thus taking decisions by consensus.
As a result of the compromise between those views on the finality of the European integration process, current European institutions are marked by complexity and lack of clarity, having different and often quite complicated rules of decision-making for each specific field of policy. Although in a situation where different views are opposing, compromise is most of the time the only acceptable way of procceding, the mere fact that procedures in the EU are so complicated, in itself constitutes a major flaw in the democratic character of the European Union. Transparency is an essential condition for raising ordinary citizens' interest and involvement in political decision making.
Another major negative effect of this history of compromise is that the European Parliament, the only body which has a direct democratic mandate from the European citizens, has only a minor impact on decisions. Even after Maastricht one can hardly compare the competencies of the European Parliament with the ones traditionally held by parliaments in democracies. So can we blame the Western European public for its lack of enthusiasm in elections for such a relatively powerless body, let alone expect any enthusiasm from Eastern Europeans who cannot even vote? The issue is all the more serious now that the European Union is obtaining more and more competencies on issues that affect people's everyday life, thus fundamentally eroding democracy in the whole of Western Europe.
Still, the roots of the crisis in the European idea lie much deeper than simply the lack of power of the European Parliament. They have to do with some basic premises of the European integration proceess as it has been conceived from the 1950's on: that is, that European integration has been mainly an institutional and economic process. The founding fathers of the Community, such as Schumann and Monnet, started from the idea that institutions dealing with economic integration could in the longer run become the nucleus of a European political union, a goal which has already laid down in the Treaty of Rome. However one can ask oneself whether the building of a European identity can merely be left to the institutions, bureaucracies and politicians which constitute the upper level of society. In his address to the Council of Europe meeting in Vienna, president Vaclav Havel, discussing the reasons for the present crisis in the European integration process, referred to the "erroneous belief that the great European
task before us is a purely technical, a purely systemic matter, and that all we need to do therefore is come up with new ingenious structures, new institutions and new legal norms and regulations". Indeed if we want to build up a European federation, and the fathers of the European Community were clearly very committed to this, institutions alone are not enough. We also need to create a European identity, which gradually, perhaps does not replace national identities, but becomes at least as important in people's minds. One cannot deny that the European integration process has largely failed to do this. It has focused on economic and trade issues. And it has even approached cultural issues such as television rights, publishing of books (in such a culturally pluralistic region as Europe), from a purely economic and free market angle, thus creating anger among the smaller cultural communities in its member states.
The fact that in most EC member states the upcoming elections are not really seen as a European event, but simply as another contest dominated by national political issues, as a testing ground for parties in government or in opposition to measure their respective political strength, clearly illustrates the lack of European identity. The working-class voter in Britain will probably take into account the social policies of John Major but he will not care about the effects of European agricultural policies in Southern Italy. This is not only because he probably has the feeling of not being able to influence these policies, but also because he doesn't see the Southern Italian farmers' problems as his problems because in the end he feels much more British than European.
Moreover the lack of efforts to create a European identity combined with a predominantly economic approach towards integration, can explain why people have developed a kind of "utilitarian" attitude towards the European integration process being in favour of it when it is in their interest (e.g. when it opens new markets for businessmen or supports small farmers), but eventually opposing it when it attacks their own interests (French farmers protesting against imports of Spanish fruit). The rejection of the Maastricht treaty by trade unions and large pans of the political left, thus de facto lining up with anti-European nationalist movements, is only one example of this "utilitarian" attitude towards Europe, which is fundamentally apolitical in the philosophical sense of the word. It should be stressed, however, that the mainly economic approach of the European Union is primarily to blame, as it creates "European consumers" defending their own interests instead of "European citizens" defending common Europea
n values and interests. Thus the European integration process perhaps created a "common market" but not a "European Community". This is clearly shown, at the political level, in the difficulties in developing a common European foreign policy. So-called European foreign policy has been until now merely a compromise (and therefore always ineffective and weak as the Yugoslavian case shows) between the national policies and interests of the great European powers.
At the same time the European Union is part of the general political crisis which is nowadays affecting all the Western European democracies. The almost complete neglect of the promotion of European political and cultural values and citizenship during 40 years of European integration proves to be particularly dangerous now that the Western European welfare state - which in my view, together with the negative legitimation of the communist enemy, was a much more important basis of legitimation for Western European regimes than democracy as such - is going through a long-lasting crisis. Due to the enormous shifts in world economy, Western Europe will cease to be the island of wealth and social security it has been since the golden sixties. In this period of relative, but inevitable, economic and social decline, only a European citizenship and a European conscience can form a barrier against the rise of exclusive nationalism, xenophobia and demagogic political tendencies.
Coming from the Flemish community in Belgium, I cannot but think at this moment of the words of August Vermeylen, a socialist and promoter of Flemish cultural life, who said that one had "to be Flemish to become European". These words - although contradictory at first glance - have always been the credo of all political parties and of the mainstream of the democratic Flemish movement. Flemish people felt perhaps not Belgian, but they felt Flemish and European, and they saw no contradiction between their own aspirations for more autonomy and European integration. Still I have the feeling that in recent years this combined European-Flemish identity (which in fact is the only identity possible in multicultural Europe) has been gradually eroded and replaced by an exclusive Flemish one, not least under the influence of some politicians, even from mainstream parties. They looked at the example of some of their Eastern European counterparts and discovered how easy cries, such as "what we do ourselves, we do better"
(meaning we don't want to cooperate with others, be it other Belgians or Europeans) sounds in the ears of a public affected by uncertainty, both on a personal and general level.
After the Italian unification of 1860-1870 the saying went "We made Italy, now we have to make Italians". Perhaps one could say now "We made European institutions, but we still have to make European citizens". However promotion of a European identity cannot, and I should even say must not, be a matter exclusively or even predominantly for governments and institutions. Too often in the past this has given rise to the artificial fabrication of identities and rhetoric, which are not really rooted in the broad public, as so many contemporary cases show (from Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union to Italy, with its rise of Northern consciousness against the Mezzogiorno). Therefore a European identity can first of all only be an identity which takes into account the multiple cultures and nationalities which - whether one likes it or not exist in Europe. And moreover, in the process of creating this identity, a big role has to be played by movements, consisting of European citizens committed to both European inte
gration and the values of democracy and cultural pluralism which Europe stand.
(*) Executive Director of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly