Rebuilding trust in governance and democratic accountability

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Some types of sharks must swim constantly in order to keep oxygen-rich water flowing over their gills. If they stop swimming, those sharks slowly die. Political parties are much the same, writes Ruža Tomašić.

Ruža Tomašić is a Croatian MEP with the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR).

If parties stop delivering positive change to the electorate, they will be replaced. We have seen this in the collapse of electoral support for many social democratic parties in the last few years.

There are very good reasons why trust in the political elites is at an all-time low. The eurozone and migrant crises highlight why the citizens would be right to question if the ‘traditional elites’ actually are superior at running the society or whether they, in fact, cause these various disasters.

The electorates might also have reason to question the sanity of those in the elites who are prescribing the same medicine – more Europe – that arguably caused the affliction in the first place. When the democratic system is unable to deliver change, it drives further mistrust and scepticism of the entire establishment.

Reforms that count as dramatic changes in the European Quarter are often hardly perceived in the day-to-day life of the voters. But, since the consensus view always is that the solution is ‘more Europe’, what most Europeans will notice over time is the direction of travel. That the Union, already seen as too distant, interferes more and more in their lives without clear evidence that this is improving their standard of living.

Politicians arriving in Brussels too often are assimilated into the EU-consensus. Instead of being the political representatives of their electorates in the European Parliament, they become the ambassadors of the received opinion in Brussels in their home countries.

We often see the same process replicated at the national level. And, once received opinion has been assimilated, meaningful change becomes next to impossible and those advocating for change are viewed as outsiders.

The clearest proof that the electorates want change and no longer trust the establishment to deliver, is that the traditional parties’ share of the vote is falling in every election and they are being replaced by new parties.

We saw it the victory for the Five Star Movement in Sunday’s Italian elections, the success of Alternative für Deutschland in the German federal elections in September, the triumph of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche in the last French presidential and parliamentary elections last summer and the decision of the UK voters to leave the Union.

What these parties have in common is that they have an appeal beyond conventional “left” and “right” divide and are adept at reaching people online. But probably most importantly, these parties are outside the establishment and advocate for real change; for the voter noticeable change.

Trust that has been lost can often be repaired with a good old-fashioned apology. The first step in every act of contrition is an admission of guilt. I believe the old establishment parties should acknowledge that the dogmatic vision for an ever-closer union and a deepening in European integration has failed the citizens in many areas.

I believe that making the EU more democratic requires more real debate, more input from the voters, and more involvement of national and regional parliaments in the EU decision-making. I believe the principle of subsidiarity should be applied more rigorously and powers moved back to the member states. But I recognise that others may want something else entirely.

Since change starts at home, I’m delighted that the ACRE has opened its conference on the Future of Europe to the public and invited speakers and panellists from across the political spectrum – even those who disagree with our views – to be part of the debate on 22 March.

In Brussels it is seen as somewhat risky to have real differences of opinion in a political panel; you opponents may just win the debate on your stage.

But I believe that the only way forward is to encourage a more vigorous debate on how we can reform the EU, redefine European values, what goals and priorities need to be revisited and how to empower our citizens without infringing on their liberties. Having the debate will be a win in and of itself.

I hope we are not like late Rome, obsessed with past glories, ruled by a self-satisfied elite, and powerless to respond to the changes around us.

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