The various referenda on the European Constitution held this spring demonstrated one of Europe’s greatest weaknesses: the inability of the political elites to legitimise the integration process before their own citizens. The French and Dutch No votes may be nothing more than a protest “addressed towards the whole political class”, according to a statement by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in the newspaper El País just days after the outbreak of the constitutional crisis.
If Eurobarometer says it...
Months later, Eurobarometer – the public opinion analysis office of the European Commission – confirmed this theory in its most recent poll. Although European citizens continue to declare that the membership of their countries in the European Union is very positive and they are seeking greater integration, the image of the European institutions has worsened in comparison to the previous poll published in 2004. Approval levels for the Commission fell from 53% to 46% in just one year. What’s more, 31% of Europeans do not have trust in the highest European institution of democratic representation, the Parliament (26% level of distrust in 2004). However, this should come as no surprise to us; the last European elections already showed the worst voter turnout in history: a telling 45.7%.
One of the main reasons may be a lack of information. The Eurobarometer poll itself points out that 7 out of 10 Europeans have little or no knowledge of the policies pursued by the Community’s institutions. Another reason closely related to this might be the lack of evaluation of the expectations of citizens by those in power. Thus, 53% of Europeans claim that their voices are not heard by the European institutions.
All of this comes hand-in-hand with a political and economic situation of uncertainty in the face of the transformations resulting from globalisation, which make way for Eurosceptic arguments and attitudes. As Habermas pointed out, “for a long time, it was possible for the European project to earn legitimacy thanks to its own results. However, in times of global economic change, conflicts of distribution are around the corner in the complex Europe of 25 member states, where this type of results-based legitimacy is no longer enough. Citizens now want to know where this project, which influences their daily life, will lead.”
Public debate as a solution
If they do not want to open up the path for Eurosceptics, the European institutions must act now to regain trust and legitimacy before their own citizens. There are many ways to achieve this.
For the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, the solution involves “creating new European co-national and national participation arenas” and “creating a democratic structure which will strengthen involvement and supervision both of the European Parliament and the national parliaments”, as he suggested in his article The democratic heart of Europe published in El País.
According to the French political scientist Sami Naïr, “it is clear that the ruling elite of today’s Europe is incapable of offering this [common European] project. The European civil societies must do their share and, by means of a serious debate, open up the channels for the creation of a true European public opinion.” He is not alone. On the other side of the Atlantic, the American thinker and economist Jeremy Rifkin, in his articleCreating a European conscience, proposed organising “a major European seminar on the future of Europe” in which the voices of the different non-governmental institutions of each community will be heard. Its goal would be “that civil society, the third sector in Europe, will join the fray and promote public debate.”
Be that as it may, the institutions must take note. Only by creating a true European public opinion will the European dream be able to continue.