Things are going badly in Europe? That’s because it is not federal enough, we are told. Accordingly it is proposed to give yet more power … to those who have reduced Europe to its present state.
Today, the insistent references to ‘federalism’ cover up the essential problem, which is that of democracy. In fact, the European political system does not meet either of democracy’s two major requirements: It is based neither on representative democracy, since its only elected assembly has extremely limited legislative powers, nor on any form of direct democracy, since the possibility of action by its citizens is drastically restricted.
If there is a description that can be used, it is, at a pinch, that of a deliberative democracy: Its institutions consult with a limited number of organisations and interest groups considered their ‘partners’, who act through consultative or accredited committees and auditions. However, two thirds of these ‘associations representative of civil society’, institutionalised by the Treaty of Lisbon (article 8B, clause 2), are composed of groups that defend private economic interests.
This decision-making standard of the Union is in no ways an exception. In 1975 a collective work, published under the auspices of the very elitist and opaque Trilateral Commission, attacked the ‘excess of democracy’ and invented the hitherto unknown word ‘governance’. This old, long forgotten, mediaeval term reappeared in the 1970s in the vocabulary of business management (‘corporate governance’). It began to assert itself in the 1980s both as a means of expressing the superiority of managerial models over administrative cultures and of legitimising the neoliberal demands for a ‘minimalist’ state managed by ‘elites’. Advocated by liberal circles, it serves as an ideological base for the widespread moves to reduce the extent of the state sector, of public deficits, of customs dues, of taxes on capital or state control of currency. It provides theoretical justification for the erosion of state power even as it delegitimises political and social struggles. As soon as trade competition became the indispensable horizon of all regulation, ‘governance’ appeared to be the minimal mode for public regulation in the context of a social balance based on negotiation of contracts between ‘experts’ rather than on conflict and law.
All public management, from the local to the world scale, is thus seen as a matter of tripartite sharing. The orientation of economic activities is entrusted to the financial markets and their self-controlling organs (rating agencies, for example); monetary policy and credit is in the hands of bodies now independent of political powers (IMF, World Bank, regional banks); political coordination is effected through what the political expert Bertrand Badie rightly calls ‘diplomatic connivances’, inspired by the ‘club membership’ spirit of the richest states.
This is the general spirit that rules European decision-making arrangements. It is essentially neither federal nor confederal but technocratic and only minimally democratic.
The time has thus come to agree that the present accumulation of treaties has created an irreformable situation. Any advance is worth the effort, even in the present restrictive framework, but half measures will very soon come up against its limitations and, ultimately, fail. Realism is on the side of a breach with the ultraliberal principles that have been followed for at least the last three decades and with the undemocratic methods of governance.
Faced with the crisis, Europe chose the discipline of the financial markets. It would be best to try, without further delay, another approach, which consists of using the enormous potential of present-day Europe but inverting the principles that control its future – those of liberalisation, of privatisation and delocalisation. There must be a massive injection of regulations, social appropriation, and re-localisation into the gears of the Union. The principle of the Stability Pact must be replaced by a monetary policy and a new budget and fiscal policy. It is not a question of putting up with structural deficiencies but of seeking to reduce them by renouncing tax favours and bailouts of banks without getting anything in return – which were at the heart of the recent abuses.
If the logic of some choices moves from competition to cooperation, from competitiveness to pooling resources and solidarity, institutional dynamics should be considered in this context. To be fully effective, the socio-economic breach must be accompanied by a break in decision-making procedures. In thinking about this, let us not be mistaken about where the responsibility lies: we must attack the very root of the democratic malady. According to some, Europe suffers from a lack of integration that we could remedy by limiting national sovereignty. Others, on the other hand, see the continent emerging from the crisis only if the whole European Community structure is ended and full sovereignty of the states is re-established. A strengthened federalism or a strict confederation? The problem is that neither of these two models takes into account the complexity of reality.
As a result of the ‘globalisations’ that have been at work for at least four centuries, the world has acquired a universal and previously inexistent substance that has gone beyond the stage of pure abstraction. Through the interplay of exchanges, the immediacy of intercommunication networks and the emergence of a European social area, Europe is tending to become a community of destiny that goes far beyond the commercial framework, clearly more than a simple network of established powers. The question thus arises of finding forms of association capable of adequately mastering and controlling the ‘supranational’ reality. For a long time, relations between the states – the balance of power and/or cooperation – sufficed to manage the continental and planetary areas. This is no longer the case when the ‘inter-national’ is clearly the ‘world’. However, a social form is not immediately supplanted just because it tends to become obsolete.
The strength of national self-image was derived from the fact that it turned a subject people into a political community of citizens able to carry out common projects. Today it is necessary and possible for other, vaster, communities to appear and to draw up collective projects, on a broader scale than that of nation-states. However, to date, these political communities have not been formed. The supranational ‘people’ is more virtual than real. Consequently the management of the transnational has tended to be delegated to great techno-structures, multi-national firms or supranational administrations. For some decades now, on the continental as well as on the planetary scale, an elite has been formed, which shares responsibilities, which continuously communicates, which is endowed with a collective experience and which has established a shared foundation of codes and values. In the absence of a political people, it is this limited group of leaders, often at the pivotal point between the private and the public, who exercise the functions of general regulation. Yet, by reaction, its predominance, virtually everywhere, aggravates the disasters of ‘ethnicity’, of withdrawal of those groups judged primordial. It is the cause of the dangerously violent breach between a ‘Europeanism’ that turns towards the elites and a more popular ‘euro-scepticism’ that fuels distancing and indifference if not outright resentment of the majority.
Reduce the national sphere? In fact, no good will come from a confrontation between a globalised technocracy and some individual societies atomised by tribalism or communalism. If any outcome is possible, it is from the democratic control of an accepted mixture of the national and the supra-national.
The most reasonable course would be to tie the European Union to two simple and mutually compatible principles: that of subsidiarity, which implies that the Union only does what the states cannot themselves do; and popular sovereignty, which pre-supposes that citizens act in all circumstances. This could be made concrete through seven simple points of practice:
1. The Union’s decisions cover subjects that are considered relevant to the common framework: establishing and observing legal and ecological standards, defining and managing a public community area (including European public services), setting up sectoral policies and managing community institutions. The major overall directions, which condition the establishment of these domains (the private/public balance, institutional systems) come under the states’ prerogatives. A third of the states could oppose the adoption of a proposal by those institutions having legislative powers – should this proposal be nevertheless passed, a majority of the national parliaments could block it.
2. The exercise of European citizenship should be broadened. The forming of associations by citizens and their possibility of self-expression will be materially encouraged. Direct legislative action is possible: Any European project signed by a million people will be discussed by the Parliament and put to the vote. Proposing citizens’ initiatives, which allow bills or directives of the Union’s institutions to be put to a popular vote, will be made easier. The Commission must not have, as it does today, the power of filtering them, which turns it virtually into a constitutional judge empowered to interpret treaties. Moreover, a citizenship of residence will allow all people residing in the Union, whatever their origin and under identical conditions in all the states, to enjoy the same civic rights as Union citizens.
3. The European Parliament’s powers must be effective. The current measures limiting them will be abrogated in matters pertaining to laws and the budget. The Parliament controls the executive and the European Central Bank. Its cooperation with the national parliaments should be developed.
4. From the moment that it is based on full popular sovereignty (broadening of citizenship and effectiveness of the powers of the European Parliament), European regulations will have a legitimacy that will enable them to become the Union’s common standard. In the event of a persistent disagreement by one state, a referendum in the country concerned could decide on the non-application of a European act.
5. The role of national parliaments would be strengthened by applying the principle of subsidiarity, by discussing European policies as well as by the mandate given to the representatives of each country to take part in the management of the public affairs of the Union.
6. No European Institution, neither the European Central Bank (ECB) nor the European Court of Justice, can operate in a manner that, in any way, make laws in the same way as the Council or the Parliament. For this reason, the recent Treaty on Stability, Co-ordination and Governance Within the European Economic and Monetary Union and the Fiscal Pact shall absolutely be abrogated.
7. The public authority would possess tools for carrying out its missions: It would freely decide on its budget (without the restrictions of the Stability Pact) and control the ECB and monetary policy. It would have at its disposal a European public banking centre, reorient taxation and depend on more and stronger public services
The European institutional mechanism is faced with an overall crisis of legitimacy. The piling up of treaties has created an irreformable mechanism; consequently there is no other way out but a global refoundation. This reconciliation of the peoples of Europe with the Union literally requires a constituent process.
In the present context of the coexistence of states and the Union, the objective of this process is an international treaty. Unlike the existing treaties, it will not have to decide on the economic model and even less on the policies to be adopted. A new treaty would have one objective and one objective only: democratically to bring into existence the Union and its operating system – by improving and giving greater value to the mechanisms of representation, by developing and legitimising the practice of citizenship and by opening the way to a European democracy of participation. The Europe of the Treaty of Rome, of the traders and technocrats, will be excluded – a new way must be opened up for Europe and its peoples: a Europe of rights.
The implementation details of this constituent process are of fundamental importance: No institutional construction can be fully legitimate unless it arises from the will of the citizens. Thus the only reasonable method would have three stages: a phase of in-depth discussion involving the citizens of all the countries of the Union; on this basis representatives would be elected to an Assembly whose function would be to draft a new foundation document; finally, the document emerging from the work of the Assembly would be discussed in each state of the Union and directly ratified by referendum.
Some people object to direct consultation of the populations for fear of national withdrawals. It is true that there is no assurance that in a democratic constituent process the populations might choose a way other than a European Union, even if the latter were to have new foundations. However, nothing is worse than maintaining the status quo, for the peoples’ Europe has already been bled white.
If the constitutive process is a requirement and it achieves its ends, the cards will be reshuffled. Some former cleavages may be overcome: European citizenship would become a reality and not just a constantly disappointing pious hope; the balance between the Union and the states could be rethought once the fears, bitterness and suspicions have been removed. The Union could then work as a political community, based on the free involvement of its peoples and its citizens.
Life will assert itself and clarify the major choices, distinguish between the people who want a social Europe and those who only want a big market place. The issue of the component parts of the Union, such as that of its borders, should become relative. If a people decides, temporarily or not, to withdraw to the sidelines of the Union, would that be such a tragedy? If, on the other hand, another decides to take part in the common building process, why should this be seen as a danger?
What counts is the bringing together of peoples who decide to share a project for the future. The last word must remain with them.