Participatory democracy in the EU

John Parry

By John Parry

Sovereignty originally meant the absolute worldly power of the sovereign or monarch. Out of self-interest, absolute monarchs tended to regard their sovereignty as an expression of the Divine Will. They therefore surrounded themselves with all the mystique of pomp and ceremonial. Then, with the growth of democratic institutions in the 19th century, this mystique was transferred to the ‘people’ in the ethnic sense, leading to the consequent disasters of nationalism and its 20th century form, fascism.

Yet as early as 1690 the Englishman John Locke had expressed a more down-to earth view when he wrote in his Two Treatises of Civil Government that the power to levy taxes on the people must be with their consent, that is “the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them” (1) No mysticism here! Those who pay must have a say.

Federal systems also concentrate the mind on practicality and thereby demystify the nature of sovereignty. Government conducted by elected bodies at several different levels of society – whether European, national, regional, or local – is of its nature functional and cannot work effectively without citizen participation. Its main concern is the division of competences – Who does what? – and the control of resources. No amount of ceremony can disguise these realities.

Moreover, as the subsidiarity principle demands that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the persons directly affected by them, the smallest political unit in a federal structure is clearly not an elected local council nor a party committee, but the individual elector.

It follows that sovereignty in a federation therefore rests with the individual voter and the choice he or she makes in the secrecy of the polling booth. The result, and the formation of a ruling majority, certainly depends on how many people vote for the same candidate or party; but when voting in secret, each person does it as an individual and not as part of a collective.

But however numerous its supporters, the ruling majority must never be allowed to act as if its authority is unlimited. Over the past hundred years the world has seen several examples of how democracy can be destroyed by the unbridled acts of elected majorities. It must be emphasized, therefore, that the powers exercised by a parliamentary majority do not endow it with sovereignty. Such powers are only temporary and must be subject to restraints imposed by a constitution whose primary function is to defend the sovereignty of the citizen – that is, his or her individual rights – expressed politically through their elected institutions.

All this may seem relatively straightforward, but at the level of the European Union a different form of mystification appears, namely in functioning of its decision-making structures. To some extent, the EU’s institutions mirror those of national federations, yet the division of competences is considerably more complicated. For example, the relationship between the EU’s elected Parliament and the chamber of states, i.e. the Council, is often difficult to fathom.

In the matter of law-making, while the underlying principles of the cooperation procedure may be comparatively straightforward it is far from easy to explain why this does not apply to all draft legislation. Even the authors of the draft EU constitution pulled back from the brink of total rationality by listing several exceptions to what they called the “ordinary legislative procedure”. Faced with such a wide variety of provisions and hesitations hemming in the EU’s legislative competences, it is no wonder the public gives up in despair.

Representation

In ancient Athens all the citizens would gather in one place to take important collective decisions. That was possible because there were not many of them. Women were excluded, and so too were the vast numbers of slaves who formed the majority of the population and did the real work.

Today, in our much larger society, we must rely on our elected representatives. They may not always do exactly what we want. They are not our puppets, nor are they-officially at least-mouthpieces for one sectional interest or another. Their role as representatives is to take decisions on our behalf after considering the issues and arguments on all sides of the debate.

The best an election can do is to produce a result which roughly mirrors our views in proportion to the votes cast. But though a voter might agree with one party on the broad thrust of its economic policy, he or she might disagree with it on other issues such as, for example, immigration or nuclear power.

Participation

At both European and the national levels something more is therefore needed: namely, democracy must become more inter-active with citizen participation in the current debates, seeking other ways of influencing our elected parliaments and governments. Simply going out to vote every few years is not sufficient.

In this respect the role of the civil society is vital. Only organised citizens’ groups can afford to acquire the expertise needed if they are to influence national governments or the EU in each specialised field. Many European groups are highly skilled at this job, particularly those representing business interests. As a step towards greater and more effective participation the EU has promised greater openness, yet the Commission drags its feet over registering supposedly publicly available documents (2), and although the 2nd Chamber of the Legislature, ie. the Council of ministers, has recently agreed to meet in public session when legislating within the cooperation procedure, it still conducts most of its business behind closed doors.

The Swiss approach to ensuring participation is to allow every citizen to vote in a referendum on issues that specifically affect them. This can work well where the issue is specific and easily understood, though it did lead to Switzerland becoming the very last country in Europe to give women the right to vote. A different example demonstrates how this method might have unexpected consequences. Local referenda held in Wales on whether pubs should open on a Sunday, and at what time they should close, resulted in an increase in road traffic. Drinkers ejected at closing time in their own county then drove swiftly across the administrative border into the next county where the bars stayed open half-an-hour longer.

But major problems can arise when the issues are complex, as the French and Dutch referenda on the draft Constitutional Treaty have demonstrated. This is not because the people voted against the draft Treaty, for that was their right, but because–according to various surveys–a significant number of voters used this opportunity to express their views on quite different subjects : to show general disapproval of their own government, to protest against immigration, or to express their outrage at the provisions of the Services Directive which was published during the campaign and which they saw as a threat to their own jobs.

Some, in particular in France, also disliked the implications of certain parts of the Treaty which they felt to be an attack on the social market model. Above all, voters often said they did not understand the Treaty. That it was too complex.

Engagement

In short, the referenda results were indicative of a failure to engage the public in the ongoing debates surrounding European project. In a sense this is a problem of subsidiarity. If, in a democracy, sovereignty ultimately rests with individual citizens who exercise it in the secrecy of the polling booth, then their political leaders have a duty to involve them in what is happening in their name. This is particularly necessary at the European level where the links with the citizens’ everyday lives are not so obvious.

The early signs are that the European Commission has realised that its past information campaigns and other attempts to involve the citizens have not succeeded. Commissioner Margot Wallström has now launched a new initiative with her Plan “D” for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate. Her analysis is valuable, and particularly the emphasis on Dialogue and Debate, though it is far from clear how this plan will overcome the citizens’ instinctive distrust of official institutions.

It is not sufficient that the Commission should promise to produce documents in more popular language, which in any case can only be achieved by using native speakers. The question involves far more than language. To be truly democratic, and to help people identify with the European project, not only interest groups but also the citizens themselves should be encouraged to participate in genuine debates before final decisions are taken, although this is primarily a task for civil society organisations and political parties rather than officialdom.

Influencing attitudes

For most people, newspapers, television and radio are the prime sources of information. They also, in the best instances, offer an opportunity for participation through discussion programs, vox pops., and the use of audience letters and emails. Public opinion polling is also now developing sophisticated techniques by providing an informational context for their questions, offering either/or choices and in some instances promoting discussion of the issues. In this way they hope to counter the superficial influence on public opinion of media bias or inaccuracies.

One of the most interesting experiments with this approach has been developed by James S. Fishkin at the Center for Deliberative Democracy, Stanford University, USA (3). Using his method, the polling exercise involves several stages, the first being to poll a representative but random selection of people on their views concerning the chosen subject. After these initial results have been analysed, the same people are next invited to spend a weekend together to discuss the issues, both among themselves and with specialists. To prepare the discussions they are also sent briefing materials in advance, putting different sides of the argument. One additional element is that their weekend together is also shown on public television, thus sharing the experience with a broader public. This is not quite reality TV of the Big Brother type but it does have the same human interest and therefore attracts an audience. In the final stage the participants are asked the original questions once again, and it has been found that, now they are better informed, their views have modified.

Registered under the name Deliberative Polling®, Professor Fishkin’s approach has already been successfully tested in the USA, Britain and several other European countries. If a Deliberative Polling exercise could be held simultaneously in every EU country the impact on public opinion could be considerable. Techniques of this kind not only help to shape public attitudes. The arguments put forward within the group can also help EU institutions towards a better understanding of the public’s concerns.

Such an exercise would be a useful tool to supplement both the proposed Parliamentary Forums (4) and the Commission’s Plan “D” project and an important stage in the growth of participatory democracy in Europe.

Yet, valuable as such projects may be, so long as the EU is structured in its present form it seems unlikely that citizens will ever become as thoroughly engaged in the debates at the European level as they are in the political issues in their own countries. With national political leaders still treating the EU as an alliance rather than as a Union, it is not surprising that citizens do not feel fully engaged with the European project. It is the EU’s intergovernmental character which hinders the development of a fully active citizenship.

Not until we have an elected federal government financed by some form of direct taxation will citizens feel that they have an absolute need to participate at the EU as well as national levels and to exert a genuine influence over the policies which affect them in their daily lives.

(1) John Locke, Two Treatises of Civil Government, Bk.II,, chap.XI, para.140
(2) See Statewatch, September-October 2005, page 1
(3) Debating Deliberative Democracy, 2005
(4) Duff-Voggenhuber Report, 2005

This article is based on a speech prepared by John Parry for the European Citizens’ Convention in Genoa on 3 December 2005. John Parry is a Honorary Vice-President of the UEF. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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