UfE- Article "Outside Public Control"

Outside public control?

Why the people need to understand the European Union

by Rainer Breul

The European Union has seen many turning points, numerous crises, some periods of slow progress and others of rapid integration. Everybody seems to be tired of hearing about the uniqueness of the challenges facing the Union and yet another decisive moment for the whole project. The truth is that Europe was never shaped or changed in a moment, or a month or a year, but has so far evolved on a fairly continuous progressive route to peaceful Union. And yet while the route to integration has been fairly continuous, it does not presuppose to stay on the same track forever. The long awaited enlargement to 25, the draft for a constitution, the therein included institutional reforms and the upcoming negotiations on the financial plan for the period from 2007-2013 have created a very complex situation that will shape the EU along a certain path for many years. These challenges once again underscore a problem that is as old as the project of European integration itself. But now for the first time it may really endanger the integration process.

Central to this threat is the discrepancy that exists between decisions being taken at the highest levels in Brussels on one hand and the lack of public understanding and democratic legitimacy on the other. Since the earliest days of integration, national elites have tended to neglect, or were not willing to explain the full meaning of the European project to its citizens. It is possible Europe is now feeling the repercussions of this flawed strategy.

An important example of the harm this strategy has caused and is causing is the United Kingdom, where knowledge of the EU is the lowest, alienation from the “technocrats in Brussels” the highest and anti-European populism at its best with the yellow press producing anti-European slogans on a continuous basis. Prime Minister Tony Blair is now facing the challenge of having to explain the merits Europe to his voters to win a referendum on the European constitution and again on joining the Eurozone. But this problem is not an isolated phenomenon and is not limited to the UK alone, rather it can be found in nearly all member states. While elites are convinced of the benefits of integration, the population is left alone with its fears concerning the social and cultural consequences of integration. Public disinterest and fears, elite bargaining combined with a complicated bureaucracy, and the absence of any real effort to explain the integration process to the people have created a very dangerous mix – all of which does not augur well for the future of the EU.

For the first decades of the integration process this lack of public control was not really a problem, as the European Communities constituted a project of intergovernmental cooperation designed to control alleged German aspirations and to realize the benefits of a larger market. Decisions were made behind closed doors by the national governments. The success of the economic cooperation and the possibility of a national veto justified this procedure of elite bargaining. But the character of the Union has significantly changed over the years. Today, the Union is more powerful, visible and independent than ever before with wide-ranging competences in a large number of key policy areas. Some of its structures resemble a federal state more than an intergovernmental institution. Take the example of economic policy: The EU institutions have become the crucial actors concerning market regulation, competition policy, external trade and monetary policy, together forming a central element of the modern social welfare-state. It seems like the EU is omnipresent in the formulation of policies and new institutions on the European level have been created and been given more power with every step of integration. The nation-state is being slowly relieved of its duties in a myriad of areas and instead an increasing number of decisions that impact directly on the European citizenry are being taken by non-elected representatives.

The only thing that remains largely the same is the ignorance of its citizens. But can the citizens really be blamed for their disinterest? Let’s be honest, who of you really knows what the European Parliament does; what influence it has in decision making; and what it votes on? The EU is a very complex political entity that is difficult to understand and nobody seems to be willing to explain it to the people, also not many of us Europeans are demanding to know more. Political arguments are exchanged in national forums, the election campaigns for the European Parliament concentrate on national problems, members of the European parliament are unknown and articles about the Union politics remain highly technical and largely un-accessible for non-experts. Ironically the only paper with regular high standard reporting on EU politics is the British, Eurosceptic Financial Times. But the EU has become too important to still act outside public control or to be left to its critics. The output of the EU can no longer justify the lacking public legitimacy and accountability.

This ignorance about the EU is opening the doors for a cheap anti-European populism, because it is always easier to argue against something than to painstakingly explain complex solutions. It is quite obvious that the easiest way for a political party to gain a seat in the EP is to be either anti-European or a national opposition party. The governing elites have long lived very well with the ignorance of its people. The EU could be used as a scapegoat for national problems and also helped to push through unpopular policies. Keeping the public attention at the national level helped to secure the power basis of national politicians and one could leave the technical issues to Brussels. The EU parliament is filled up with politicians either too inexperienced or too old to play the real game at home. Using the EP as a retirement bench for national politicians certainly does not help to raise public awareness. We might now all be paying the price as the new constitution is put to national referenda in a number of countries throughout the next year or two. So far, as with the Maastricht treaty in France or the Nice treaty in Ireland, national elites have always somehow sneaked their way through difficult votes on the Union. Current polls suggest that the situation is worse this time. Political sclerosis, ineffective institutions and even greater public resentment of the EU might be the consequences.

Is it already too late to produce public consent? Are we now facing the consequences of neglecting the democratic dimension of the EU? Has the time for a public backslash come?

The problem of popular support is of course well-known in Brussels and the new president of the Commission Mr. Barroso has announced a massive information campaign to improve the understanding of the Union and the work of the Commission. But is there really a lack of information from the Commission? The EU institutions are more transparent than most of the national institutions. Whoever is willing to invest some minutes on the web, can easily access most of the important documents of the EU institutions. The problem is that nobody is doing it, because the public debate is focused on other issues. How does an office of the European Parliament in Berlin help a normal citizen to understand its purpose, if the newspapers never report its debates? What does it help when everybody can download the speech of the party leaders from the European parliament, when they provoke no echo in the press and their parliamentary record is long forgotten, at the time of the next elections.

The problem I am referring to is a lack of a more active transparency. The information is there, but in a very unattractive style and it has no importance in the battle for political power. There is a lack of motivation to get the citizens interested and to create a public demand for information, because there is no political competition on the European level. This can only be changed by the creation of a truly European public space with debates on European issues. The people need to want to know more about the Union and need to develop an opinion. There are two institutions in the political system that can help to overcome this problem and help to stimulate a public demand.

The first institution is the media in its various forms. It controls the flow of information and can often set the agenda of the public debate. They need to be more effective in explaining the EU and providing continuous information on EU policy making.

The second institution is the political parties running for the election of the European Parliament. Article 22 of the German Basis law outlines these tasks very clearly by stating that “political parties shall participate in the formation of the political will of the people”. This is true of all political parties, as they try to win votes and inform voters accordingly on their program. To overcome the current national competitions for seats in the EP a truly pan-European party with a coherent program and view on European politics needs to be founded. This party will have to explain its positions to the people. Where there is one opinion, there will be counter-arguments leading to debate. Only parties running on a purely European ticket can stimulate this much needed public attention and debate, because they can provide the necessary focus and background knowledge. This cannot be done by a public administration like the European Commission, because it does not have the incentives to explain the EU to an ordinary citizen.

The European web-magazine Café Babel is a great initiative to overcome the described deficit and it deserves full support. It does not only offer a forum to voice your opinion on European issues, but also informs its reader on high-quality scale about EU politics.

And there is also movement concerning the second institution. A small group of Europhile students and young professionals from a number of member states has started an initiative to overcome the lack of a truly pan-European political party running for the European parliament. This group, which calls itself United for Europe, wants to help to stimulate the necessary debate on European issues. With the long-term goal of becoming a real political party, it wants to begin by offering young Europeans a forum for discussion and formulate concrete European policy goals. The current group is still small but growing, and is always looking for motivated Europeans who wish to engage in their debate and contribute to the initiative.

While national elites have steered the project of European integration with great success and to unexpected progress, it is now time for the people to become engaged in the process. National populists and eurosceptics have long come out and positioned themselves in the public debate. There is a need for convinced Europeans to speak out and get their fellow citizens interested in the European Union and the further integration process. You can contribute to this goal by engaging in the work of Café Babel and United for Europe.

The author is a founding member of United for Europe. To know more about this initiative, visit the homepage under www.unitedforeurope.org or write to info@unitedforeurope.org.

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