A wakeup call for Europe

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UK citizens will be less well off outside the EU, according to the OECD. [Joe Kingston/Flickr]

The UK referendum was a clear signal that Europe is not working. Citizens are tired of paternalistic, closed-door decision-making. The time for a democratic overhaul is now, writes Gerald Häfner.

Gerald Häfner is a member of the board of Democracy International. He co-founded Germany’s Green Party.

For over 30 years I have been fighting for more democracy and citizen participation. I co-founded the German Green Party, I dedicated my work in the German Bundestag and the European Parliament to strengthening laws for direct democracy, and I initiated the citizen movements “Mehr Demokratie” and “Democracy International”. When I now look at the European Union, I see that we are facing a major crisis. To me, this is first and foremost a crisis of democracy.

A majority of voters in the UK used the 23 June referendum to show the EU the red card. But citizens of the British Isles are not the only ones to feel excluded and patronised. The EU is becoming ever more technocratic and centralised – instead of being perceived as a project of and for the citizens. Citizens are experiencing Europe as something they have no stake in, a Europe from above, an un-transparent, elitist Europe in which ordinary citizens have no substantial influence. What kind of a democracy is that?

At the geographical centre of the European Union lies Switzerland. Switzerland is itself a union of cantons with diverse languages and cultures. The cantons are part of the union out of full conviction, though they are free to vote on a withdrawal anytime. The citizens can themselves collect signatures to initiate an exit referendum. But the Swiss citizens know that they live in a democratic society. We need this same conviction in Europe.

But for this to come true, Europe must change. The Union must become much more transparent, democratic and closer to its citizens. If the EU does not reform, the anger of the public will grow and anti-European movements will seize power in the nation states. More states could leave the EU, which would mean an end to the EU.

Democracy International demands the initiation of a democratic constitutional assembly (a Convention) for the European Union. This is the only forum in the EU that offers a more open and inclusive way of developing a proposal for a truly democratic Europe. Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty provides that a convention can be initiated after being proposed by the government of any member state, the European Parliament or the Commission, to make substantial legal changes. The convention must have sufficient time and transparency for its work, and citizens, civil society and national parliaments must have the opportunity to contribute proposals. All European citizens should then vote on the new constitution, on one day right across Europe. That would be the start of a new, leaner, truly democratic EU.

Many well-organised financially powerful lobbyists are trying to steer Europe in the opposite direction, to less democracy, more decisions behind closed doors, more paternalism. But the citizens of Europe should not only complain about this, they can also do something about it. I believe that 85% of citizens are no longer satisfied with the current situation.

Democracy International launched a petition for a democratic relaunch of the European Union, which within hours was signed by 30,000 people. The petition addresses the national heads of state and EU representatives with the call to initiate a democratic Convention. The vote in Great Britain should be understood as a wakeup call to fundamentally renew and democratise the EU.

This is a historic moment. The EU is at a crossroads: the choice is between break-up and democratisation. The EU must turn the crisis into an opportunity, prove it is capable of political and institutional reform, and build a democratic Europe of the citizens.