Last week, Debating Europe’s partner think-tank, Friends of Europe, held a seminar with EuropaNova in Brussels for the ‘40 under 40‘ European Young Leaders. We attended the event with camera in tow to interview some of those Young Leaders, asking them to respond to a couple of your comments on democracy, economic growth, sustainability and the future of the EU. We’ll publish their responses in a short series of posts, starting with our interviews with EU blogger Jon Worth and Benedek Jávor, a Member of the National Assembly of Hungary and leader of the green-liberal “Politics Can Be Different” (LMP) party.

The first comment we put to Benedek and Jon was sent in by Catherine, who argued that:

Europe should set up a system that mirrors the Swiss. Referendums called on any matter that EU citizens feel ardently about… This is true democracy.

Benedek supported Catherine’s call for greater use of direct democracy in the EU, replying that “we have to work out new and innovative measures to reinforce the feeling among European citizens that they can control and they can participate in European decision-making.”

Jon, however, was much more cautious about the idea of referendums in Europe, arguing that Switzerland might be the only country that could really make them work. Instead, he thought there needs to be better accountability of the Commission and that the European Citizens’ Initiative (which we covered in our interview with Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič) should be simplified and strengthened. Jon also agreed with Benedek that new and innovative democratic tools should be developed, highlighting the example of “liquid democracy” as something that could be interesting to explore.

We also had a comment come from Jovan, who argued that:

The democratic deficit exists because you need to get a university degree in European studies in order to understand how the EU works.

He called for “simplification of the institutional framework… Until then, it will be very hard for people to relate to, or feel comfortable around something they don’t understand.

Benedek partly agreed, but pointed out that national governments are also incredibly complicated and little-understood by most citizens. The solution, he thought, was for there to be greater democratic control over EU institutions, including the strengthening of the power of the European Parliament relative to the Commission.

Jon also agreed, but, like Benedek, only to a point. “If you get into the nitty-gritty of any political system“, he said, “you really need a degree in order to understand it.” Instead, Jon thought it was more important to encourage a greater “politicisation” of EU politics, with a clearer distinction between different parties and political ideologies at the European level. This would, he believed, help citizens to identify more closely with the broadly “left-wing” and “right-wing” political movements in European politics that they understood at the national level.

What do YOU think? How can we make the EU more democratic? Do we need more referendums like the Swiss system (including, perhaps, referendums on membership itself)? Is the EU’s institutional framework too complicated, and in need of simplification? Could “liquid democracy” or other innovations help decrease the democratic deficit? Or would a great politicisation of EU politics help citizens to identify more with MEPs and Europarties? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – European Parliament

24 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Nikolai Holmov

    Mr Schulz, President of the European Parliament yesterday spelled out a 10 point plan of how EU democracy must work.

    Not exactly revolutionary, more like a return to what most people would consider the ingredients of any democracy, which begs the question how the EU has become so far removed from democratic accountability.

    The answer lays within the way it is set up as an institution. Do I have the power to recall my MEP as I do my MP?

    I can certainly vote out my MEP every few years just as I can my government whose ministers make up my representatives on the European Council.

    I have absolutely no way to hold an EU Commissioner accountable as they are not democratically elected no matter how they try to spin it.

    A serious and underlaying issue is that the EU institutions (elected or appointed) are there to put “Europe first” above the interests of any specific nation, whereas my national elected politicians are there to put my nation and its interests first.

    Now it is very easy to identify with national politicians, policies and national politics. Parties are clearly defined as are manifestos, policies, and media coverage hardly goes an hour in the day without a national politician (or politicians) on the television, radio or social media.

    When it comes to the EU politics it is a different matter. What exactly does the EPP represent as opposed to the S&D MEPs?

    Why is the EPP by far the biggest party in the European parliament and what do they do with that overwhelming number?

    When a government elected is affiliated or members of the EPP and then replaced by a government affiliated or members of the S&D, do I notice any difference in what emanates from Brussels and the European Parliament?

    Quite honestly I don’t notice any difference in comparison to changing the politics domestically. The EU rolls on completely unchanged regardless, with no changes no matter who I vote for as an MEP or which European party any sitting government I have elected is affiliated to or not.

    There seems to be no difference whatsoever in what comes from the EU regardless of who I vote for or what colour government I have domestically.

    How did Martin Schulz become EP President? Because it was the S&D parties “turn” to hold the presidency. If the disproportionate numbers of EPP MEPs had voted against him instead of honouring this “gentleman’s agreement” it would have been another EPP President.

    Since when did democracy make such decisions as European Parliament Presidents based on a “gentleman’s agreement” to take turns? Maybe because it really doesn’t matter who holds such a position? If so what does that say about EU democracy when it is simply a matter of “taking turns”?

    It is not hard to see why such instances make EU citizens disenfranchised with “EU democracy”. It is more akin to “jobs for the boys” when things become a matter of whose turn is it.

    Yet another issue relates to whether a supra-structure that has so few popular anchors in sovereign nations will ever hold any form of legitimacy amongst the citizenry (forgetting the political classes.)

    The EU supra-structure is sadly devoid of imagination, visionaries, leadership and ability. With the best will in the world, Herman VR, Barroso, Ashton, Fule and Schultz are hardly the charismatic visionary leaders able to unite the citizenry of Europe. They are all grey, uninspiring, bureaucrats that are probably very good managers and administrators, but there is a huge difference between managers and leaders.

    They lack visible energy, the ability to sell ideas and ideals to people from Spain to Slovakia, Poland to Portugal or Germany to Greece.

    In short they are dull and it is quite impossible to see them every whipping up a feel-good factor across Europe over any subject across the entire political or social spectrum.

    Democracy works well when the hoy polloy are engaged and want to be engaged. It will take a leadership that is charismatic, colourful and engaging to bring about anything like a majority wave of positive engagement across such a large number of nationalities.

    Looking around, I don’t see that day coming very soon at all. Meantime, the EU continues to systemically fall apart and will soon be all form and very little substance unless a real leader comes to the fore very, very soon!

  2. avatar
    Doris Manu

    The EU’s institutional framework is without a doubt too complicated and getting even more so. The point is to make Europe not necessarily more democratic but more inclusive, and the problem is that most of the institutions, think tanks, seminars and consultations on EU affairs are based in Brussels. Of course, at the moment of the creation of EEC it was the perfect place for the institutions, but now it’s so far from most citizens and gives them the feeling that they’re excluded.

  3. avatar
    Debating Europe

    That’s an interesting point, Doris! Would a decentralised approach be better for democracy, or would it prove a logistical nightmare? Some people complain already that the European Parliament is split between Brussels and Strasbourg. We’ll try and get a reaction your suggestion.

  4. avatar
    Debating Europe

    And Albert – liquid democracy is definitely a topic we’ll touch on in future! Perhaps we could get someone from the German Pirate Party to comment on it?

  5. avatar
    MandyandPj Leneghan

    Could the problem be that the EU already runs under a ‘liquid democracy’ or ‘delegated voting’ system? It certainly does not feel like even representative democracy. From the outside, even though there is a huge swag of MEPs and EU bureaucrats, major decisions (especially, extra-European alliances, international aggression and the like) appear to being made by national governments or rather the parties in power in those national governments. Many with as little 20%-30% support of their respective nations, where they then become ‘proxies’ for the other 70%. I believe that the problems with the EU is not just in the one area, had it restricted itself to Europe and internal European matters only and insisted that if individual member nations wanted to play away, they should do so on their own and not use the EU as a shield, then the EU would be in a better position. That ‘playing away’, in my opinion has exposed the EU to forces that the EU was supposed to protect against in the first place. What is missing are a few de Gaulle,s. It must be obvious to anyone, who really believes in democracy, that the EU should do all in its power, to determine what populations actually want to remain members of the EU, asking the ‘proxy’ reps of national governments is not good enough. To do otherwise is conscription. This issue will remain a severe handicap until it is resolved. It can be resolved in a managed way or it will be resolved in a destructive way eventually. with such turmoil in place and the blame game is in full swing, now would be a good time to determine who is and who is not serious about the European Union….pj

  6. avatar
    Lazaros Kalaitzidis

    At the point that we have reached (close to a break up) the best solution (and most immedient) would be that the EU parliament auto-declares itself constitutional and votes for a EU constitution that then would be ratified by all european peoples through referendums.

    This of course doesn’t solve by itself all the EU problems but it’s a first (big) step towards democracy in Europe.

  7. avatar
    Gabriel Dostert

    i’m not from the german, or any pirate party, but I would like to express that a federal europe would necessarily have a simplified framework approach, since centralized authorities are necessarily unique (at least for headquarters)…

  8. avatar
    Vicente Silva Tavares

    Let’s look at Switzerland! They have lots of referendums and they are a stable and a progressive country. Better than this?

  9. avatar
    Christos Mouzeviris

    In Greece we have all power gathered in Athens, half of our country’s population lives there..And you see the result… A more federal style typed democracy but with no all powers gathered in Brussels would be the solution for me…A Europe of regions, with national parliaments and then regional authorities implementing the decisions taken by the European Parliament in Brussels.. Some decisions will be taken in Brussels, some in our national parliaments and some others in our municipal, regional authorities.. Pan-European political parties and politicians should be promoted… Simply because in some countries, native politicians and political groups form a customary relationship with the local population, a “give and take” relationship that promotes the preservation of the interests of a certain group of people, for the detriment of the progress of the common good…Protectionism is called I think…..

  10. avatar
    Debating Europe

    An interesting idea, Lazaros. It raises the question, though, of whether the EU parliament is sovereign or not. Another problem with your suggestion would be that, in order to organise referenda in all 27 (soon 28) EU Member States, the European Parliament would need the agreement of the Member State governments. Which would, of course, undermine the idea of declaring a new EU constitution unilaterally.

  11. avatar
    Debating Europe

    MandyandPj, by ‘playing away’, do you mean military operations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Because weren’t those mostly carried out under the flag of Nato or the UN?

  12. avatar
    Debating Europe

    It’s an interesting idea, Vicente. But (as Jon says in the video here: ) even if referenda work in Switzerland, does that mean they will also work on an EU-wide level? And should they be on individual questions of policy (such as in Switzerland) or only on broader, constitutional questions (such as the recent Irish referendum on the fiscal compact)?

  13. avatar
    MandyandPj Leneghan

    By playing away I certainly do mean those military crimes but not only. It is pretty clear to anyone that can actually see what is in front of them, that NATO & the UN are merely tools, conveniences when it suits, the current dominant military empire and their economic system owners. It is also clear, to me at least, that the EU as a singular entity, has becomd just another tool of this dominant empire. An empire that should be treated as a hostile competitor to Europe and European social democrat values. In fact, this social democracy is openly condemned by the ruling elite of this dominant empire, in much the same way as communism was and is. That empire of course is the US which is supported by a few trojan horses within Europe. In my opinion De Gaulle was correct in these matters. The EU, by its very nature, could have been a self sufficient entity in its own right but this wasn’t to be. Look down the road, 1 year from now, 10 years 50 years…the movie mad max comes to mind…pj

  14. avatar
    catherine benning

    To be more democratic Europe must make far more effort to educate the people of all twenty seven states on what you plan for the future of this union. And this means at every level.

    For example, what the intention is regarding more states entering and who and what their financial circumstances are and whether they are socially and culturally acceptable to the existing society. How will you ensure they are fiscally responsble or whether they too will become a financial drain on the union of tax payers who live in the wealthier regions of the continent.

    Additionally, you cannot expect the 500 million people of this union to simply take on face value, without debate, discussion and acceptance, the plans you feel will be of benefit to us all, without explaining why this is so and making sure all the citizens, via their media, press and whatever means required to know what these plans are.

    What is most important to Europeans is who we are connected to with an influence of serious importance on the political policies we are adopting and why they have this powerful influence. What does such a connection obligate us to? And explain how and why we need this connection which could affect our lives in every way.

    Accountability on every level is necessary for a democracy. And if that is felt to be adverse to a significant proportion of the people, we should have the benefit of the Swiss to make a stand against it, via referendum.

    Inclusion is important to us all. And what the vision for our future is, as this is paramount in order for us to vote for it in a democratic way with full knowledge of what it is we are getting ourselves into.

    Further, it has to be the responsiblity of the EU Commission to make certain the governments of each state openly reveal what is truly EU policy, as many of these governments lead the people of their state to believe the EU is not working in their interests. As is the situation heavily and daily in the UK. The British people are almost entirely ignorant with regard to EU vision and policy.

    This is important as some of the social decisions taken on our behalf go almost entirely against the grain of the majority who are citizens of this union. Here it is necessary to seriously consider referendum on such personal and life changing decisions for us.

    Of course, this is a small part of what it means to live in a democracy, but, it is a start.

  15. avatar
    Ermanno Martignetti

    Lack of democracy in EU is due to lack of true powers in Parliament. The very first step to build a real European democracy is to give to MEPs legislative initiative. They are the only ones democratically legitimated. Why wouldn’t they have the power to fulfill their mandate? Referendum can be a good help to make democracy more “democratic”. But first we have to make this one a true representative democracy. Switzerland is something completely different from any other country in the world and they are stable because of their political and institutional system, not only because of referendum.

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      Switzerland began a referendum programme to enhance democracy not with an idea they would wait until all was perfect for them to do so. What is it you fear about referendum that would not suit us now?

      The Swiss began this process in the middle ages, are you saying Europe is less able than the Swiss people of the middle ages? If you are, then you think very little of your fellow European. Or, is it a get out for those who feel uncomfortable by the premis of direct democracy?

      It was formally made law in 1802. Most importantly it involves people in the politics of their government and this in turn makes it relevant to both sides, the people and the parliament. It creates a sense of responsibility across the board, and further adds to the stability desired by all as the people are secure in the knowledge they can object to policies that do not improve their life.

      More of the history.

  16. avatar
    Lazaros Kalaitzidis

    @Ermanno Martignetti, and because the whole world’s rich people send their money there, no questions asked where they’ve found this money, let’s not forget that ;)

  17. avatar
    Eusebio Manuel Vestias Pecurto

    A Europa tem uma população democratica e saudavel os politicos tem um compromisso com os seus cidadãos da Europa como os direitos humanos e os valores democraticos

  18. avatar
    Vicente Silva Tavares

    Why to reduce the referendums to constitutional matters? There are many questions the European People would like to have a say. I do like to give my vote on questions like low customs tariffs, non-reciprocal relationships, immigration, security, European army forces, budget integration, fiscal uniformity (why some countries can steal the taxes of other European countries?), some crazy rules (the size of hen’s cases, or fruit rules, are some times a joke). People will find what it matters to the point of referendum.

  19. avatar
    Nico Keppens

    I agree that the EU has to be as democratic as possible. But what does this mean? In practice not all of us really want to take responsibility, and it is not possible to have all of us (even in a smaller village) a vote for every decision. So the need for a representative model is obvious, and it works well if the procedures are preserving the common purpose and if they are not manipulated.
    In Europe citizens can elect MEPs which then (as it happens in national parliaments) choose their president. Representatives of elected governments have elected the Council president and proposed the Commission president. The Commission is something particular, and not because its president is not elected by citizens. In a national government parties try to get a majority or to make a coalition in order to have one. The purpose of the Commission is not in the first place to represent a (possible changing) political majority but to guarantee the common goals identified in the Treaties. Commissioners are also supposed not to represent a country or even an ideology. In practice this resulted in a composition with members of very different political backgrounds, who managed to find compromises in line with the Treaty, to serve – with the help of their administration – the purpose as said before. That is a big difference with national governments and should result in better continuity. Politicising the Commission more could work contraproductive because loosing the long term perspectives.
    In order to improve democracy, therefore not necessarily the institutional setup has to be changed that much (apart perhaps the need for the possibility to make people in charge more accountable if they did not make the common wellbeing a priority), but more the way citizens can express their view – after being well informed about the different alternatives – on what is at stake and should be done. Bringing us back to the start of this contribution: how many really do want to make efforts to be well informed, to express their opinion?

  20. avatar

    How about creating first new EU constitution copying Swiss federation way, created by public consultation with ALL european citizens, then accepted on EU wide referendum for creating EU federation with EU federal government elected by the EU citizens directly and having all executive powers. All important EU laws should be accepted on referendum and the people of EU should have the right to call out MEP.

    • avatar
      Ben Hedenberg

      To copy the Swiss constitution and to create a system with checks and balances by the people is probably the only possibility to save the democracy. When people votes on issues the decisions are becoming better for everybody. Thats why the Swiss people are better-off then the rest of Europe.

  21. avatar
    Stephen Shellard

    I would suggest that the current decision making institutions of the EU could be made significantly more democratic and acceptable to citizens of the EU by the adoption of a couple of simple but related principals with regard to legislation. These principals would give status to the importance of consensus at both national and supra national level and so would both enhance the ability of nation states to opt out of certain legislation but also the ability of the European Parliament to overrule such an opt out where a clear consensus at that level was established by a Parliamentary vote.

    Democracy from a practical point of view decides on the basis of simple majority and this should continue to be the basis on which important decisions are passed into European law.

    Where a European law is established, which would currently be binding on all member states, if opposition to the law at a member state were to generate the supported of a two third majority of a member state Parliament, this would permit an opt out from the law in question; however, this opt out could be over ridden by a corresponding first level consensus vote in the European Parliament in favour of the measure.

    In a European context this interplay between the European Parliament and the Parliaments of member states would create a sense of accountability.

    Laws which are considered so important in the context of the community as a whole that they must be embedded in the law of all member states, will in many cases be accepted as broadly uncontentious. Clearly however, if we take a measure such as the right of prisoners to the vote, in the UK there is significant resistance to the idea that prisoners should be allowed the vote. There is a widespread sense that the imposition of this law on the UK by the EU is an infringement of UK Parliamentary sovereignty in an area where the EU has no business interfering.

    There are of course many citizens in the UK who believe that prisoners should be allowed the vote. If the split in opinion hovers close to the 50% mark then no great injustice has been done by the imposition of this law. However if resistance to the law can be established at a first level consensus by a UK Parliamentary vote, then according to the principal as outlined, the UK could opt out of this particular law. My guess is that at the level of the EU Parliament, an opt out on this basis and in this case, would almost certainly go unchallenged.

    However, were there to be a sense of outrage in the wider community at such an opt out, then the Parliament would be at liberty to test this with a debate and a vote on this issue in an attempt to establish a first level of consensus to override the opt out. Such a debate would of course include the contribution of British MSPs and their votes would naturally be of significance in deciding the outcome.

    The adoption of these principals by the EU would I believe immediately make the business of the European Parliament more interesting to citizens in general and would increase their belief that this important institution can co-exist with and respect a diversity of opinion at the level of the member states.

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