Far away, so close (a belated Europe Day post)

EPP (265) S&D (184) ALDE (84) Greens – EFA (55...
The European Parliament: EPP (265) S&D (184) ALDE (84) Greens – EFA (55) ECR (54) EUL-NGL (35) EFD (32) Non-Inscrits (27) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday was Europe Day, and in 364 days there will be another. Other than that, pretty much everything European is uncertain.

At various stages during the crisis, people have quoted the Gramsci line:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

But that leaves unanswered the question of what “the new” is. There’s no guarantee that it will be better. A bad outcome to the crisis could give us a “new” that looks like sixty years ago – a loose collection of independent countries with their own currencies, raging mutual hostility, and a shattered economy. A more plausible scenario has the Europe muddling along until the new economies step forth to the rescue of the old. Not much “new” about that.

We have to choose our “new”. This means more than appealing to economic or trade logic, the technocratic fallacy of much pro-European comment, and more than assuming that Europe doesn’t matter or isn’t of popular interest. It means making a political and moral case for what you think is needed.

You won’t be surprised to learn that my “new” starts from democracy. The scale and ambition of the EU has outgrown the at-one-remove democracy of the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament has not yet stepped into its role. The Euro and Europe are political projects, and need proper politics to go with them.

This pan-European debate is starting to emerge, as was seen during the French election, when Merkel almost campaigned for Sarkozy, and when the Greeks were cheering on François Hollande. More generally, watching the political debates across Europe – for example, through the excellent Presseurop service – you see multiple common themes, about services, rights, immigration, and very few issues that are purely local.

However, much of that increasing political conversation has been focused on nations and national leaders rather than on a decision that needs to be taken across Europe. “Merkozy” and intergovernmental discussions are perhaps useful for taking decisions in the midst of the crisis, but there is deep danger in framing the discussion around “Germany” and “France”, rather than the positions that each takes – there is plenty of “France” in German political debate, and plenty of “Germany” in Britain.

Political scientist Ronny Patz has said that the 2014 European Parliament elections “will be huge”, and maybe that’s true, as they choose the sole directly-elected institution of the EU, but the role that the Parliament has played in crisis decision making has been slight, at least in terms of public profile, and people will not turn out unless they know what they are voting for – as the consistent decline in turnout for EP elections demonstrates.

Others are looking past 2014. Merkel’s party, the CDU, proposes a directly elected EU President, and proposals from Irish campaigner Declan Ganley and academic Brendan Simms call for something similar. There needs to be a discussion on whether the presidential model is right for Europe, or whether a parliamentary system that de-emphasises personalities (and hence nationalities) is better.

Whether a presidential model is right or wrong, a single new office is certainly insufficient. A new European democracy has to be one that fits the emerging social model, not a replica of systems designed for a Victorian nation state. That means participation to go alongside traditional representation – ideas such as the Pirate Party’s Liquid Democracy are an interesting step in that direction.

Many people, not just Brits, would think that this is wasting effort on an institution that should just be done away with. National democracy works now, why try any sort of scheme at European level, or democratise what has always been an elite project. Better go back to the national level of democracy, and remodel the EU as a free-trade union, with the minimum powers needed to make that happen.

I don’t think that’s an adequate solution. There are issues where Europe can act best, and most efficiently, if it acts together. Climate change and energy policy are good examples, and for all the moans about red tape, there is far more red tape in twenty-seven distinct sets of product regulations than in one. Those policies and those regulations need to be drawn up in as democratic a way as possible. What’s more, Europe has created a single currency and free movement zone that could not be easily unwound – unless abolitionists would like to tell the million Britons living abroad to pack their bags and come home.

However, the alternative approach of “steady as she goes, nothing is wrong with the model” won’t wash any more either. It reminds me of a focus group I once ran with a group of UK civil servants, who insisted that the reason people disliked their organisation was that they just weren’t taking the time to understand the reasons for the policy. That seems like a realistic position only within the SW1 postcode, and people inside the Petite Ceinture evidently feel the same way.

A UK referendum, whether Farageux or Mandelsonian, seems very likely in the next few years. It might be “status quo or out”, it might be “properly in or out”, but whatever it is the pro-side will need to do more than sit back and let the opprobrium wash over them. They need a positive vision that’s more than “bicycle theory” (keep going forward or fall over). “Full federal union” isn’t going to be on offer, but a serious reform conversation might be – the sort of conversation that Declan Ganley (formerly of Libertas) and Brendan Simms of Cambridge University started with a joint reform proposal published earlier this year.

A new settlement won’t give a final answer on the balance of growth and austerity, or member-state and federal – just look at the US after two hundred years of federalism if you think it might – but it could give us a quicker, modern, democratic system in which we can make those decisions.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.