Awareness of the important role Europe plays, dissatisfaction with European policies and a lack of confidence in both national and European political institutions are just a few of the ambivalent feelings coming out in opinion polls, which serve to reveal just how frail the European Union currently is, a frailty exacerbated by national elections and referendums giving opponents to European integration the upper hand.
However, if the European people can agree on a common outlook, these feelings also open up the possibility of an exciting future for Europe. Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, marking the beginnings of the European Union, both the world and Europe have radically changed. It is time to work with the European people to create a new outlook for Europe.
The European Union in its current form is based on market unification. This was not, however, its initial purpose. As global trade now operates under a unified market, the EU has become the weak underbelly of economic globalisation. While it has removed internal barriers, allowing the free movement of goods, persons and capital, it has failed to ensure a common approach to security, defense and migration at its borders, to build an economic policy, to unify taxation, to ensure social cohesion and to stand united in international affairs.
The challenge of getting the twenty-eight members of the European Union to reach an agreement on the way in which to go about strengthening Europe, and on the best way to ensure the institutions envisaged for the six founding members still operate effectively, is clearly the most visible aspect of the problem. But this is only a manifestation of a much deeper issue: the fact that a single market and a single currency, along with the title of ‘European citizen’, are not enough to create a common spirit and bind a community towards a common purpose. Without this common spirit, any form of sacrifice for the sake of the common good, any new limitation of sovereignty will be met with resistance.
Fostering this common spirit, creating a context where European citizens can talk together about their values, their vision of the world, about what is important to them, about their fears and hopes, is the only way forward and the only way we can breathe new life into Europe. This requires overcoming fears, clearing up misunderstandings, and embarking upon a foundational process.
Overcoming fears. European institutions are petrified by the rise in populism, and, aware that recent referendums have not been good for Europe, they are afraid to let citizens have their say. Communication has become too patronizing, there are too many attempts to explain the rise of euro-skepticism through biased information, and national governments are all too happy to take credit for the successes and lump all the failures on Europe. Referendums are the worst way to give people a voice right now. A yes or no answer based on easily-manipulated and limited information is not the way to answer a question as vast and complex as the way in which to go about building our common future. But Europe cannot be built without the input of its citizens. They just need to be given the means to do it.
Clearing up misunderstandings. The priority is not to initiate a citizen-led debate on European institutions, which are inevitably complex and poorly understood. Too much energy has been spent over the last few decades discussing the inner workings of institutions instead of focussing on what really matters. Adequate institutions are of course necessary, but the focal point should be first and foremost ensuring that the European community is a living and breathing community,
Inventing a foundational process is a long-term process. As Europeans we must turn Bismarck’s statement on its head and prove that there are ways of founding a community other than ‘blood and iron’. If the European people are able to do this, as they have been able to peacefully put sovereignty aside for the sake of the common good, Europe will once again become a leader on the world stage, because of all things, creating a global community united by a common spirit is primordial.
This foundational process should be based on the principles of deliberative democracy. Democracy involves discussing different social projects and political platforms, but it represents first and foremost an ethical approach and a methodology: enabling all citizens and all sectors of society to together identify and discuss common challenges in a spirit of transparency. Deliberative democracy is the process by which a random selection of ‘ordinary’ citizens, aptly reflecting society’s diversity, form an opinion on complex subjects and deliberate in order to identify common beliefs and visions.
Experience has shown not only that it is possible, but that it works, and that in line with the methodological optimism that underpins democracy, citizens are as much equipped as experts to answer the complex questions of our time – provided several conditions are respected: political institutions and leaders must commit to consider the proposals put forward by citizens; there must be an accurate cross-section of representatives; the questions tackled should be as broad as possible; the process is understood to be long-term in order to give citizens time to appropriate questions and establish a common viewpoint; substantial human and financial resources are invested in the process, particularly at the second stage (Europe-wide deliberation) which will require translators; clear and robust methods are followed to develop a synthesis of the discussions.
We suggest a two-stage process is the best approach: first at local and regional level, and then at European level.
Stage 1, a cross-section of randomly selected citizen panels, organised by those cities and regions that wish to take part: this is a way to break away from the idea of ‘national interests’, local deliberations are also often significantly more concrete; and it would also give a new impetus to ‘twin cities’ partnerships across Europe. These panels will work together for six months with access to a solid range of information and whatever expert opinions they deem necessary.
Stage 2, a European Citizens’ Assembly that would bring together a thousand citizens delegated by local panels for a period of between ten and thirty days in order to share ideas and proposals, following rigorous working procedures that ensure the traceability of each representative’s contribution from the time it is made to the resulting common conclusions.
Social networks, the internet and the media will also play a key role, enabling everyone to follow panel discussions and access information and expert assessments, fueling more debate and discussion across society. The idea of local panels could also be reproduced in schools and universities. That way, all of society would be contributing to the future of Europe.
Such a foundational process, initiated by European local authorities, requires the clear commitment of European leaders, so as to guarantee the necessary financial and human resources and to ensure the conclusions reached are discussed within each European institution. These conclusions should be ready in time for the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. (More on the website: Initiative for a Foundational process)
Armel Prieur (Debaters « Changing Europe, yes! But how?)