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“ Can the European Union Become More Democratic?”

Institut Aspen France organized in Lyon on December 10-12, 2004 a Think Tanks European Forum, that brought together some forty participants from European and American Think Tanks and movements, and also academics and representatives from the world of politics and business. In an open and informal way, the dialogue was dedicated to the question “Can the European Union Become More Democratic?”

In order to survive and prosper, Europe can strengthen its democratic legitimacy and procedures, in ways yet to be invented. Based on this shared assumption, the EU actors taking part in this first Forum answered three questions: can a democratic European Union do without a European people? How can we bring Europe closer to its citizens? How can the community political system be organised to strengthen its democratic nature ?

In answer to the first question, it is clear that without a European “demos”, European democracy cannot exist. And yet, a democratic European Union will obviously have to do without a "European people" in the traditional sense accepted by nation states. Europe's political identity will necessarily be diverse and multileveled, depending on issues, situations and citizens' future aspirations. Any identification to a higher supranational political entity can only come on top of citizens' local and national identity, in "concentric circles" of allegiance. Elements of this supranational identity can already by identified in the emerging "collective sense of acceptable State behaviour", in "a certain vision of the role of the State", in the values embodied by the Charter of fundamental rights, and in reaction to the United States' foreign policy. On the other hand, abstention rates at European parliamentary elections are growing continually. Citizens find European debates boring. "The real problem is that national political markets do not overlap with the European political market," mainly because national political leaders prefer "being kings in their own kingdom rather princes in an empire." As a result, "the political market remains national."

In order to bring citizens closer to Europe, it is therefore essential to ensure that local, national and European political debates and issues are no longer distinct but overlap through greater horizontal dialogue between relevant national and European authorities, from the highest to the lowest ranks of government, as well as through greater dialogue between citizens across borders. "Measures as symbolic as the creation of a European Olympic team" could stimulate a feeling of European pride and "patriotism." Concurrently, EU democratisation must take place at the level of the ruling elites, which need to work out a constructive project for the European Union. Because the glue which binds EU Member States together cannot rely solely on a hypothetical single and common identity of a European "people", only shared project(s) and objective(s) can bring citizens together. It is however very difficult to identify which unifying project could achieve this today, as the Single Market once did. The Lisbon agenda does not receive unanimous support. International cooperation seems more promising; it could "build on the population's generosity." In the meantime, until the Union's fundamental project has been redefined, many practical, concrete steps could bring Europe closer to its citizens. A European "office of best practices," the creation of large European universities able to compete with the best on the world stage, better communication of issues related to Europe, perhaps the simultaneous organisation of European and national parliamentary elections, "finding ways to involve citizens in policy thinking, for instance through consensus conferences," and the mobilisation of "intermediaries" such as trade unions and think tanks which can help create greater "demand" for European affairs are examples of useful steps in this direction.

Regarding the organisation of the community political system, it is clear that EU institutions need to be made more accountable to citizens. Several measures could help reinforce European institutions' role and legitimacy, including giving the Parliament a right of initiative and true power to elect the President of the Commission, changing the voting system in Member States, solving the issue of MEP expenses, and involving national parliaments more closely in the EU decision-making process. We also need truly European political parties that offer transnational programs and do not disappear between each election. The debates indeed also questioned the role played by national political parties today, and underscored their inability to generate a truly trans-European political debate to date. EU institutional life should become more "dramatic" and the democratic benefits of the Constitution should be implemented as early as possible, including ahead of its ratification.

Beyond institutional reform, the democratisation of the community political system and EU citizens' identification to the European project will necessarily raise fundamental questions regarding the very nature of the European project: is a pause in the construction process required? Do we need more community policy debates according to a traditional right-left divide? Should we encourage Member States to build Europe at varying speeds? Can and should European leaders answer these hard questions? These questions will probably never find a definitive answer, and we should accept that this will leave European citizens unclear as to what Europe is about.
European democracy, which will neither be "national nor supranational" but "transnational", is currently being invented. The European democratic jigsaw is gradually taking shape, based on institutions that are becoming more transparent, a growing body of common values, and different levels of community identity. The debates stressed how "Europe has reached the stage where the question of greater democracy has become a real issue, but it has not matured enough to find clear answers." The debate initiated in Lyon on December 11 and 12, 2004, will therefore need to be continued, in particular with the help of think tanks.


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