The standoff between the European Union, the European Central Bank (ECB), and Greece is a crisis born at least partly from a problem with democracy. In the EU as at any other level we hope to be governed by consent. We expect those who rule us to do so with our collective permission. In this crisis the Greek people want one thing and the ECB and the EU want another. And while there is debate over who the EU is acting in the interests of, we do know that only 43.1% of EU citizens voted in the parliamentary elections in 2014, the lowest ever.
The European Union has almost always faced the issue of how to get and maintain democratic consent at a level that feels legitimate. Legitimacy comes from people feeling they have some power over the government, that they will be governed in their interest because their votes are needed or their opinions will be listened to. This is difficult enough in nation states of millions, but the EU is home to 503 million people. The problems of remoteness, hierarchy, potential capture by vested interests and centralisation that now make national governments seem disconnected and untrusted by their people might seem many times worse at the EU level.
At a conference in Brussels last week organised by the Greens/European Free Alliance Group of the European Parliament, the question of whether reform of EU electoral law could restore some legitimacy was discussed.
It is heartening that such a conference should take place and of course initiatives and experiments in this area are to be encouraged. The ongoing drive to focus on EU wide political parties and EU wide candidates for the Presidency nominated by these parties or Spitzenkandidaten is well intentioned and should probably be built upon. Improving the EU’s model of representative democracy is crucial, and a European society radically altered through technology and new media presents both threats and opportunities to achieving change.
However this should not be the only approach. Questions should be asked about whether replicating the national political structures, institutions and demos is enough. Can the EU maintain its remarkable achievement of European unity and cohesion while devolving and sharing power? Can new democratic spaces be created where citizens can get involved in EU decision making and not necessarily on national or regional lines? Bringing together citizens with shared interests from different parts of Europe to take part in deliberative decision making might be part of a new way. It is no longer enough for the EU institutions to be united – we need to bring the peoples of the EU closer together.
The Electoral Reform Society is calling for a citizen-led constitutional convention for the UK, and in partnership with academics and civil society groups is to run two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Hampshire this autumn.
Perhaps now the EU should also be considering something along these lines…