After a Decade of EU Pragmatism, It Is Time to Talk About Democracy Again

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Demonstration in favour of the European Union. Italy - January 2019. [Shutterstock/Mike Dotta]

This article is part of our special report Conference on the Future of Europe: EU overhaul in the making?.

During the crisis-ridden last decade, the EU has stumbled into a new intergovernmentalism presented as an apparently pragmatic problem-solving approach. But side-lining the European Parliament is not just a problem for the EU’s legitimacy, but also results in negotiation deadlocks on important policies. To enhance the legitimacy and the efficiency of EU decision-making, it is necessary to put the debate on European democracy in the centre of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Manuel Müller is Senior Researcher at the Institut für Europäische Politik, Berlin.

Julian Plottka is Senior Researcher at the Institut für Europäische Politik, Berlin, and Research Associate at the University of Passau.

The German Council Presidency seems to prove, once again, that EU intergovernmentalism does not work. From the multi-annual financial framework and the rule of law mechanism to the Conference on the Future of Europe, the list of dossiers stuck in intergovernmental negotiations is long and ever growing. Only the hope remains that the German government will secure some last-minute compromises before Christmas eve.

Almost to the day twenty years ago, on 11 December 2000 in Nice, another generation of European leaders learned the limits of intergovernmentalism. In a four-day European Council summit, they hammered out a last-minute deal for an EU treaty reform. The result was so miserable that one year later they not only decided to embark on a new reform, but invented a whole new procedure: the European Convention that was meant to put the EU on strong democratic feet.

However, the Convention’s democratic spring was short-lived. After the failure of the European Constitution, its main contents were rescued in the Lisbon Treaty, but only through an intergovernmental conference and avoiding further citizen involvement. Subsequently, rapidly accumulating crises put the European Council even more at the centre of EU politics. In the name of pragmatic and quick problem-solving, informal intergovernmental institutions like the Eurogroup frequently side-lined the European Parliament. But this new intergovernmentalism not only damaged the EU’s legitimacy, as the level of citizens’ satisfaction with the EU dropped and national-populist parties rose during the crises. It was also an invitation to power plays and blackmailing by national governments, ultimately leading to negotiation deadlocks on important policies. Meanwhile, calls for comprehensive democratic reforms were dismissed for a long time referring to the “Pandora’s box” argument: Should we really risk opening such a big issue in such a complicated time?

Of course, even during these years of ill-guided intergovernmental pragmatism, there have always been efforts to make the EU more democratic. The Spitzenkandidaten procedure in 2014, the Hübner-Leinen report on the reform of the European electoral law in 2015, the debate about transnational lists all pointed in the right direction. Still, all these efforts finally got stuck or were watered down beyond recognition by the Council. Today, the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) is working on a report on the Parliament’s right of initiative. The inter-institutional negotiations on a mandatory transparency register, covering the European Commission, Parliament and Council, have resumed after the 2019 elections. But irrespective of the quality of ideas, little to none of these efforts is noticed outside the Brussels bubble. And even though the level of citizen satisfaction has been recovering since the end of the Euro crisis, more than one in three EU citizens are still unsatisfied with EU democracy and almost two in five believe that their voices do not count in the EU. Meanwhile, ten years of avoiding fundamental institutional reform have done little to stop national populists in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere from undermining Europe’s democratic base.

It is thus time to take the debate to a new level. Both the deadlock of intergovernmentalism and the unacceptable levels of citizen dissatisfaction underline the urgency to strengthen EU-level democracy enabling the EU to address future challenges. As a contribution to this necessary debate, our recent study on “Enhancing the EU’s Democratic Legitimacy” analyses reform needs and presents both short and long-term proposals in order to reinforce parliamentary and participative democracy. It outlines specific recommendations for making European elections more meaningful and civil society involvement more bottom-up. Additionally, a special focus is placed on economic governance of the monetary union as a policy area that has particularly strong effects on citizens’ evaluation of European democracy.

During the last years, it has often been argued that citizens are not interested in institutional navel-gazing. Whether this is true or not, citizens do have a lot of interest in democracy. Since it has come under threat from right-wing populists all over Europe, citizens have become concerned with the future of democracy. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the 2019 European elections, when many feared that Eurosceptics could capture the European Parliament and that the European project itself was in danger, resulted in the first increase in turnout since 1979.

But as crucial as fighting back the enemies of democracy is, it is even more important to turn the debate. Defensive restoration will not suffice to win the hearts of citizens. They long for a positive vision of the future of European democracy: a vision that goes beyond the day-to-day policies without getting lost in the vagueness of an unattainable utopia. The planned Conference on the Future of Europe is the venue where such a vision could emerge. The debate on European democracy must become the centre of its deliberations.

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