Anti-democratic forces are gaining ground at many levels of European society. Now is the time for Europe to renew democracy and introduce participation, Niccolo Milanese and Peter Oomsels write.
Niccolo Milanese is co-president of European Alternatives. Peter Oomsels is vice-president of JEF Europe. Both sit in the Europe+ steering committee.
In a global perspective, democracy was the most successful political project of the 20th century. Today, while we are still at the beginning of the 21st century, its success seems to be dwindling.
Citizens are losing their faith in what they have been told is ‘democracy’ as the best possible mechanism to reach collective decisions that are of the greatest benefit to the largest group of people. In recent years, ‘democracy’ has become associated with myopic decisions that caused accumulations of national debts, political dysfunctionalities and increasing inequality in our societies. In the European Union specifically, the financial crisis and its outfall were fought through technocracy rather than real European democracy, strengthening the perception that democracy is slow, ineffective and unfit to deal with urgent and severe societal challenges.
Furthermore, some of representative democracies’ most cherished institutions look outdated in the context of globalisation, in which democracy is increasingly challenged by other models of decision-making, and the digital revolution, which is reflected in peer-to-peer initiatives and movements for change that question democracy as a system exclusively based on representation “guaranteed” by political parties.
Democracy is under heavy pressure, beyond but also within the borders of the European Union. In order to reinvigorate the flame of democracy, there is an urgent need to update and upgrade democracy in Europe. Indeed, beyond short-term technocratic fixes, enhanced European democracy is the only sustainable future for a peaceful and socially cohesive continent.
This parliament must renew European democracy
The recent European Parliamentary elections have certainly revealed a strong desire for change amongst the European population and an unease about the future of Europe. We believe that this call for change must be answered resolutely by pro-European forces in favour of more democracy in Europe, otherwise anti-European and anti-democratic forces may seem to provide more immediate answers to people’s frustrations. The newly elected European parliament has a responsibility to lead this drive for democratic renewal and to address concerns about democratic deficit inside the European Union.
The European Parliament is the EU’s only directly elected institution and has come to be at the core of the decision-making process, gaining new powers with each treaty revision. We are particularly pleased to see that the Parliament has again increased its influence through the nomination process for Commission President, marking significant progress in transparency and democratic participation compared with the past. Building greater trust in the European Union will require going even further, specifically allowing more frequent and direct involvement of citizens and organised civil society in decision-making. Elements of participative democracy are a necessary compliment to representative democracy in contemporary Europe, and this is the way for the European institutions to become closer to the people.
The Parliament must lead the drive to fully implement the measures in Article 11 of the Treaty of Lisbon on civil dialogue. Some aspects of this, such as the European Citizens’ Initiative, have already been implemented but need dramatically improving; other aspects around regular dialogue with organised civil society on all policy areas are still highly underdeveloped. Beyond this, the recommendations of the Civil Society Alliance for the European Year of Citizens to promote an informed, active and organised European citizenry and open and responsive institutions should become important elements of the new Parliament’s agenda and way of functioning.
A democratic, transparent, inclusive and participatory Convention
Ultimately we believe that the European Parliament should initiate a treaty change procedure and call for a new Convention to ground Europe in democracy, solidarity and equal access to fundamental rights for all. We see such a move as the best way to win back a sceptical public to the European cause and mark a clear break with recent years in which – rightly or wrongly – for many people ‘Europe’ has become associated with austerity, loss of democratic rights, lowering of living standards and a breakdown of social cohesion. The European Parliament should insist that a new Convention to revise the treaties be democratic, transparent, inclusive, participatory and ensures the close involvement of civil society from throughout Europe. This treaty revision process should be a model for how the European institutions should relate to the citizens on a continuous basis, and not a space of back-room compromises which undermine trust in the institutions and the European project.
A civil society alliance for the renewal of European Democracy
The Europe+ coalition of over 40 civil society organisations has been formed to call for and accompany a process of democratic renewal in the European Union. We believe that more democracy in Europe requires more European integration, and that the promise of recovering sovereignty through national solutions is a chimera. We believe pro-Europeans in- and outside the institutions need to work together to propose significant changes in attitudes, ways of working, communicating and taking decisions, which visibly demonstrate that citizens and their interests are at the heart of the European project.
Today, Neo-Nazi and fascist parties are challenging the viability of European democracy in the European Parliament, and anti-democratic forces are gaining ground at many levels of European society. The need to renew democracy in the European Union is urgent. If pro-Europeans fail to set the agenda of the democratic renewal of the European Union, Europe may begin to lose its role as a global beacon of democratic progress, and put its peaceful future at risk.