The European Union (EU) often is considered impossible to transform because it is governed by treaties that only can be revised by unanimity. While national politics, despite all the limitations of representative democracy, is an arena in which competition is arbitrated through universal suffrage, European politics often is perceived as being totally out of citizens’ control, governed through elitist, and often confidential, negotiations that are insensitive to the public’s discontent and aspirations. Are there only two choices––accept the EU as is or leave it?
First, this reasoning ignores democracy’s historical dynamics. The fact that a regime protects the status quo through formal rules never has prevented a democratic revolution. The authoritarian monarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries were much more conservative than today’s EU. Nevertheless, they have been transformed. The history of democracy is the history of its conquests, of its emergence where it was least expected.
Second, this reasoning does not reflect the reality of European politics. No, the EU is not blocked by the unanimity rule. Throughout its history, governments have invented many ways to overcome this obstacle and elicit reforms despite a reluctant minority:
- Compromise. If all member states had to agree on everything every time they drafted or revised a treaty, European integration would never have even started. Major advances were rarely consensual, but were made possible through transactions between states.
- Threatening the minority with marginalisation. This is what happened in the case of the 1986 European Single Act. Margaret Thatcher's UK (as well as Denmark and Greece) voted against the opening of negotiations to revise the Treaty of Rome, but eventually joined the negotiations out of fear of being left behind while other member states moved forward.
- Differentiated integration. The euro, Schengen and defence cooperation are policies that some states chose not to embrace from the outset, but did not prevent other member states from adopting them.
- Replacing treaty revision with an intergovernmental agreement between some member states only. This was done for the 2012 European Fiscal Compact, adopted by 25 states, but rejected by the UK and Czech Republic.
If these strategies could serve the objectives of yesterday’s elites, why should they not serve the democratic aspirations of today’s citizens?
Furthermore, it is possible to reform the EU and increase citizens' power without needing to revise treaties simply by reforming some member states’ practices.
For example, this is how the US presidential election became democratic. Indeed, the US Constitution leaves each state free to decide how to appoint the electors who vote for US president. Originally, most states chose them through their legislatures. The practice of choosing them via popular election became progressively widespread during the 19th century. This evolution was not the result of a constitutional amendment, but of state-level reforms.
Similarly, an EU member state today could declare: ‘On this important issue, the position we will defend in the EU Council will depend on the mandate our citizens will give us by referendum’. As for the appointment of the European Commission’s president, which currently is accomplished through negotiations between national leaders and members of the European Parliament, a member state could commit itself to consulting its citizens on their preferred candidate before taking a position. If these practices were to spread, even to a few member states, the nature of concerned EU decisions would change radically.
Therefore, the formal problem of unanimity largely is overestimated. However, a political problem remains.
If the democratisation of practices affects only one member state, citizens’ voices will not make a decisive impact. The Greeks experienced this bitterly after the July 2015 debt referendum. A large majority of Greek citizens voted against the agreement that the EU proposed, but Greece, nevertheless, found itself too isolated to be able to oppose the united front of all the other member states and eventually gave in. Therefore, it is not necessarily enough for citizens to have their say. They must have it in a sufficient number of member states so that their voices cannot be ignored.
Here again, political elites already have demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to transform the EU's political system by aggregating national mobilisations. This is how the European Parliament initially was empowered. Indeed, the European Parliament originally only had consultative power. How did it become a key player in EU decision making? Beginning in the 1960s, it benefited from the mobilisation of national parliaments, which pressured their respective national governments through the following message: ‘The parliamentary powers we exercise at a national level should also be exercised at the European level; that is why we will only ratify the treaties you have negotiated if they include provisions strengthening the European Parliament’. The German, Dutch and Italian Parliaments in particular have been at the forefront of this fight, and parliaments exercised pressure in enough member states for governments to be obliged to consider their demands.
Could citizens do in the future what parliamentarians did in the past? Can we imagine that one day, the governments of a significant number of member states will arrive in Brussels and say to their counterparts: ‘My citizens are demanding strong measures in favour of EU-level democracy, such as the popular election of the Commission or the creation of a European referendum on popular initiative. I cannot agree on anything if I do not have guarantees on these points’?
In other words, is it conceivable for a coalition of simultaneous popular mobilisations in favour of democracy to be formed in Europe?
To answer this question, we need not probe the future; it is the past that we must examine. A European revolution is possible because it already happened.
In the 19th century, Europe was governed by authoritarian monarchies. In 1815, these monarchs formed the Holy Alliance, with the objective of protecting each other against future revolutions. However, in 1848, in almost all parts of Europe, with the notable exceptions of Russia and the UK, people simultaneously rose up to demand democratic reforms. The chronology of the first few months speaks for itself:
- January: revolt in Sicily, then in southern Italy
- 24 February: barricades in Paris and proclamation of the Republic
- 4 March: uprising in Munich
- 13 March: uprising in Vienna
- 15 March: uprising in Budapest
- 17 March: uprisings in Venice and Krakow
- 18 March: uprisings in Milan and Berlin
- 21 March: mass demonstration in Copenhagen
- 24 March: riots in Amsterdam
Without knowing the outcome of the next European Parliament (EP) elections, or the name of the future President of the European Commission, we can already affirm that the Spitzenkandidat system has failed.
Most of the debate has focused on whether the European Council will again accept to nominate the lead candidate of the EU-level party that wins the most seats in the EP on 26 May. This focus presents the Spitzenkandidat as an elitist game that pits the European Council against the EP, and the European People’s Party (EPP), which supports the Spitzenkandidat process, against the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which attacks it. This approach misses the point.
Originally, the Spitzenkandidat idea was not intended simply to redistribute power among institutions and parties, but to contribute to the democratisation of the EU. By indirectly electing the President of the European Commission through the EP elections, citizens were meant to gain influence over EU decisions. By focusing attention on an EU-level competition, the procedure was supposed to Europeanise the campaign, making the voters’ verdict more coherent and more powerful.
None of these objectives has been achieved. EP elections are still a collection of national elections, which involve national parties promoting national manifestoes and national-level lead candidates. Only in their home states are Spitzenkandidaten really put in the spotlight. Besides, the main Spitzenkandidaten are selected by their EU-level party through elitist procedures involving only party officials. Whatever the outcome on 26 May, EU citizens will not have voted for a Commission President, even indirectly, and EP elections will not produce an EU-level popular mandate.
The idea of establishing a transnational constituency for EP elections, in addition to existing national constituencies, aimed to give more visibility to the Spitzenkandidaten. However, the proposal was voted down last year by the EP, not only because the EPP saw it as a threat to its dominant position, but also because representatives of smaller member states feared that it would work against them. Indeed, in transnational lists, EU-level parties would likely have put representatives of bigger member states in top positions, thus affecting the balance among nationalities within the EP. Transnational lists for EP elections would also generate complexity. For example, if one party wins the most transnational seats while another party wins the most seats overall, two different Spitzenkandidaten could claim to have received a mandate to lead the Commission.
Those who believe in EU democratisation should learn from these failures. Trying to make EP elections produce an EU-level popular mandate has proven an impossible task because the EP primarily consists of national parties, focused on their own political interests.
Why not create a transnational constituency to elect, not the EP, but the Commission itself? The full college of commissioners (one per country) would be elected through general ticket representation. The list that comes first would be elected en bloc. Compared with the Spitzenkandidat system, this procedure would have the advantage of circumventing national parties by establishing a truly EU-level competition. Instead of relying on one Spitzenkandidat coming from one member state, each list would promote 27 candidates coming from all member states. Thus, unlike transnational lists in EP elections, the direct election of the Commission would not affect the balance of national origins in EU institutions.
A directly elected Commission would break the myth that the EU could become a nation-state-like parliamentary system, with a government emanating from a parliamentary majority. However, such a system would require strongly unified EU-level parties. The logic of the EU regime is actually much closer to that of ‘checks and balances’ among independent institutions, the Council, the EP and the Commission, each having its own source of legitimacy and its own say in the legislative process.
Certainly, such a reform would be opposed by national leaders and the EP because it would take away their power to bargain over the formation of the Commission. But isn’t this exactly the point of democratisation: empowering the people at the expense of elitist backroom deals?
At a time when far-right parties are developing transnational alliances and claiming that they will soon be strong enough to transform the EU according to their values, democrats should not entrap themselves by defending the status quo. They should dare to articulate their ambition: a fully democratic Union.
An idea is haunting Europe. In the UK, it is invoked by both Brexit opponents and supporters. In France, it is the main demand of the Yellow Vest movement. In Eastern Europe, it crystallises confrontations between governments and civil societies. Everywhere new parties, citizen movements and associations appear with the intention to defend it and work to improve it. Dating back to ancient times, it is forever young, never to be taken for granted, always in struggle. It is democracy.
Increasingly, citizens are no longer willing to have so little influence on the decisions made on their behalf. They often see the officials who are supposed to be their spokespersons as obstacles that keep them away from power. At the European level, this feeling reaches new heights. Citizens do elect the governments represented in the EU Council and the parties represented in the European Parliament, but the opaque compromises and coalitions formed in Brussels are completely beyond citizens’ control, making EU decisions seem disconnected, even arbitrary.
Some believe the solution is to return to the nation as the only possible framework for genuine democratic power, exiting the EU or at least returning power to the national level. But isn’t this option a renunciation, a betrayal of democratic ambition? Let’s think about it. Did the revolutionaries of 1789, confronted with a French state based entirely on the idea of an absolute monarchy of divine right, choose to withdraw into local communities? Did they say “Let’s dissolve tyrannical France to better restore power to our municipal or provincial representative institutions”? No. As undemocratic as the French state of the time was, the revolutionaries chose not to destroy it but to transform it. To revolutionise it.
Yes, you might say, but in 1789 the French were already a people with a widely shared culture and language. The conditions necessary for a self-aware popular will were in place before democracy came into being. Since these conditions do not exist at the European level, there can be no European democracy. This reasoning is logical, but beware of retrospective illusions!
The link between the nation and democracy did not make the construction of national democracies possible; it is the product of national revolutions. Many 18th-century Europeans were convinced that a great nation could not be democratic and could only preserve its unity through the authority of a monarch. For them, the criterion for popular power was not language but physical proximity – living in the same place, meeting regularly. All the great political thinkers had been saying this for centuries. For Aristotle, the criteria for a viable political community were that citizens could meet in one place and know each other personally, so that they could elect officials based on merit. This could only take place in a small town. More than two millennia later, Rousseau reaffirmed the same criteria, and when he praised the merits of the Republic of Geneva, his homeland, he pointed out its small size and the citizens’ knowledge of one another.
What characterises a nation? Exactly the opposite. According to a classic definition, a nation is an “imagined” community that binds people who “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them”. In short, before being considered as the framework of democracy par excellence, the nation was considered incompatible by nature with the formation of popular will because it was too big and too abstract. The French Revolution was a bombshell precisely because it established democracy where it was least expected – in France, the largest nation in Europe.
If it has been possible, against all odds, to bring the democratic revolution to European nations, why should it not be possible to bring it to Europe? If citizens meeting in one place is no longer an essential condition for democracy, why should the same not be true of a shared language? At a time when the world is increasingly dominated by multicultural and multilingual continent-sized states such as China, India or even the US and Russia – which base their identity less on a national culture than on a project of civilisation – why should democratic struggles be left behind? Is there not a risk that democracy will condemn itself to weakness, becoming again what it was in the 17th century, a regime adapted to small states but not the great modern powers?
Alongside the deepening of democracy, through referendum or sortition, the enlargement of traditional democratic communities is another great contemporary struggle. Those who believe democracy must remain confined to a narrow national framework are the objective allies of the new 21st-century monarchs, Xi or Putin, who base their legitimacy on the idea that only an all-powerful leader can preside over the destiny of a great people. The common objective is to prevent democracy from growing.
Can the EU experience its own democratic revolution? The answer to this question is a fight. It is a political fight, first of all, to mobilise European citizens around democratic demands such as the direct election of the European Commission, the establishment of a European referendum on popular initiative or the creation of a European Citizens’ Assembly drawn by lot. But it is also an emotional, memory-based battle. To become a collective actor, the European people must acquire an awareness of their shared identity, discovering, under the veils of national narratives, what makes Europe a community of destiny.
An example is the 732 Battle of Tours between Charles Martel’s Franks and Abd al-Rahman’s Umayyad troops. This event was dramatised by the French extreme right to promote a Christian, Islamophobic and generally anti-immigration national identity. Yet historians have long pointed out that, far from the religious war it was painted to be, the episode was closer to an attempted raid. For Abd al-Rahman, the main objective was plundering. Charles Martel hoped to extend his influence over the Duchy of Aquitaine, previously at war against his authority. Behind modern reconstructions remains the perception of 8th-century witnesses. The most detailed account of the battle comes from the Mozarabic Chronicles, written in Spain beginning in 754. When referring to the victorious army, the author used an unexpected term – almost a neologism – a Latin word that can nevertheless be understood without a long classical education: Europenses.
The European people are a sleeping giant.
Let’s awaken them!
The Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe, promoted by economist Thomas Piketty and recently published in several European newspapers, is a welcome contribution to the debate on EU democratisation. Instead of waiting for elected officials to propose reforms, the citizens who signed this manifesto have decided to put an ambitious project on the table to launch a Europe-wide public debate. This is exactly the kind of bottom-up initiative that the EU needs today.
Does this project respond to the aim of democratising Europe? Unfortunately, not really.
Piketty’s manifesto proposes the creation of a new Assembly, constituted of members of national parliaments (80%) and members of the European Parliament (20%). This Assembly would have the power to vote for a budget financed by several EU-level taxes.
At a time when citizens are increasingly expressing their distrust in their elected officials, creating an Assembly that would be elected, not by citizens, but by parliaments, would represent a step backwards. All over Europe, citizens’ movements are demanding more direct democracy; indirect election is not the solution.
An indirectly elected Assembly would also face practical issues. Such an Assembly would be very similar to the European Parliament before 1979, when it was elected by national parliaments. Members of the European Parliament who were, at the same time, members of their national parliaments often complained that they were constantly commuting between two parliaments and that they did not have enough time to take their European job seriously. Allowing them to become full-time specialists in European affairs was among the key motivations behind the switch to direct election.
The central assumption of the authors of the Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe is that sending members of national parliaments to a European Assembly would make national parliamentary elections become de facto ‘European elections.’ The problem is that, today, even elections to the European Parliament are not real ‘European elections,’ and are dominated by national platforms. This would be even more true of a European Assembly that relies on national parliaments.
The very indirect nature of citizens’ influence on EU policies is actually one of the major sources of the EU democratic crisis. Both the national executives represented in the EU Council and the members of the European Parliament are elected on the basis of national campaigns, led by national parties promoting national platforms. When they negotiate in Brussels, they enter into a diplomatic logic, seeking compromises that facilitate convergence among member states and parties but tending to disconnect them from citizens. Decisions thus adopted often reflect elitist and depoliticised consensus, not popular mandates. This logic would likely be replicated in the Assembly promoted by the Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe.
This is not to say that such an Assembly would be completely useless. It would certainly be a catalyst for the European socialisation of members of national parliaments, but it would fall short of democratising the EU.
What the EU actually needs is a more direct link between citizens and EU decisions. For example, the direct election of the 27 European Commissioners, through general ticket representation, would create a genuine European popular mandate. An EU-level majority would be built by citizens themselves, through their votes, not by elites through confidential negotiations.
The question of EU democratisation is one of the most important issues of our time. The debate is only just beginning.
We, citizens, Europeans and democrats:
CONSIDER that the European Union is plagued more than ever by old and new evils: elitism, which confines debates and decisions to a small circle of leaders; immobilism, which increasingly hinders reform; national egoisms of all kinds, which maintain the illusion that problems can be solved by being pushed to neighbours; authoritarianism, which threatens public freedoms.
UPHOLD our commitment to the ideal of unity and solidarity among the peoples of Europe. This ideal is much older than the European Union, held for centuries by writers, philosophers, women and men who hoped for a better future. Our hope remains for a Europe capable of overcoming its divisions and controlling its destiny.
OBSERVE that the European Union today gives little power to its citizens. We elect the national governments represented in the Council and the national parties represented in the European Parliament. However, none of these elected representatives holds a European popular mandate. Compromises between governments and parties are the subject of negotiations conducted among elites, away from citizens’ eyes and influence.
DECLARE our conviction that the European Union can only be regenerated through a bottom-up movement from its citizens. For decades, the European Union has been treated as belonging to technocrats, governments and parties. This can no longer continue. Europe to the people!
AFFIRM that only the European People can legitimately arbitrate the major debates among national and partisan positions on economic, social, environmental, and migration issues. Only the European People can produce a European General Will.
PROPOSE, in order to empower the European People, the following three institutional reforms:
1) The direct election of the European Commission by the European People;
2) The creation of a European Citizens' Assembly, whose members would be drawn by lot and would have the power to block proposals contrary to the general interest;
3) The establishment of a European referendum on popular initiative, allowing all citizens of the Union to express themselves simultaneously on a legislative issue.
UNDERTAKE to do everything in our power to promote and advance these proposals and the overall objective of a European Union regenerated by democracy.
This text is not a request to Europe's leaders. It is a solemn manifesto addressed to all European citizens.
People of Europe, stand up! Your Union can only be saved by you and for you.
Long live Europe! Long live the European People! Long live European democracy!
My name is Pierre Haroche and I am a co-founder of À nous la démocratie, a French-based citizens' movement dedicated to promoting direct democracy at a local, national and European level.
This blog presents our manifesto and our 3 proposals for Europe's democratic regeneration, as well as my personal views on the topic.