Europe according to Franck Biancheri

Article published on April 22, 2002
community published
Article published on April 22, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Franck Biancheri is the President of the think tank Europe 2020, and the initiator of the European Union Student Vote project, the on-line election of a European Student Council. Here he shares his reflections on the benefits of the Council, the influence of the internet on European democracy, and his vision of Europe in… 2020!

Europe according to Franck Biancheri

Franck Biancheri is the President of the think tank Europe 2020, and the initiator of the European Union Student Vote project, the on-line election of a European Student Council. Here he shares his reflections on the benefits of the Council, the influence of the internet on European democracy, and his vision of Europe in… 2020!

1. What legitimacy will the European Student Council have compared to the institutional system of the European Union and what real powers will it hold? Which areas will they be exercised in?

In a democracy, legitimacy creates itself. It is never accorded in advance. It comes from the voters. On one hand, citizens (by the act of voting, by the notoriety and the credibility an institution acquires in their eyes); on the other hand by the actions of the institution (the relevance of its existence and its actions, its capacity to create change, to mobilise political, academic, financial, media forces…). The European Student Council will not escape from these constraints: power is taken, not given. In a democracy as in any political system.

The European Student Council is a new institution, the first to come from the bottom, from the students, and not created from the top by the European system. It will therefore have to create its own legitimacy, at least by the next elections in May 2004, among its electorate. In the eyes of students (the principle force), in the eyes of its partners (in an ever growing amount) who see in this Council a necessity for giving more space for young people in the ageing Europe, and more space for democracy in the ‘bureaucratising’ Europe. It will have to find legitimacy in the eyes of the media who await a Europe with a human face, that speaks the people’s language, and in the eyes of the decision-makers and numerous institutions searching in vain for new paths to the future.

Through being able to evolve at the heart of these challenges, through adopting a clear and simple objective for its 2 year mandate the European Student Council will obtain a large influence on student questions at the European level.

I speak from experience. When I created the first large European student network, AEGEE-EUROPE, in 1985, we were nothing, practically unknown, just a few dozen European students. Two years later, there were 12,000 of us and we were attending lunches with heads of State and pushing the adoption of Erasmus, despite its being blocked for many months. Now, the Student Council is starting with a very large amount of political visibility (9 heads of State and Government support it, as well as the President of the European Parliament), a large amount of media visibility, a huge university visibility… and the formidable tool of the web. And of course candidates soon to be well versed in internet campaigning. It is starting with the first generation of young politicians of the 21st century.

I am very confident in their capacity to make this council a generational thunderbolt in the agonising institutional Europe. Yet in the end, all this will depend on the quality and the will of the students that will make up the Council.

Their power will be influential, but a power that could be extremely important (for instance permitting or blocking the adoption of certain policies or programmes for students). The example of Erasmus in 1987 proves that this is within the reach of the European Student Council. It shall also be a power of information and mobilisation around these questions. The Council’s force will be its electors and potential electors, to create a dynamism behind its strengthening.

The limits of this power will be very simple:

- to concentrate student questions, and above all not to overstep this area where it will have no particular legitimacy.

- To concentrate on the European dimension, and above all not to interfere in national or regional student questions.

- To focus on first class interlocutors (heads of State or government, President of the European Parliament) and to keep at a distance institutions specialising in teaching matters who will seek only to ‘use’ or ‘make a satellite’ of the Council. These former could become partners. The latter will only be interlocutors.

2. The project EU – Student Vote is a clear example of what the internet can bring to our societies in terms of political and democratic communication. Do you believe in the eventuality of an electronic European democracy to elect, for example, the members of the European Parliament? Would you want this?

Since March 2001, EU-Student Vote has been elected by 25,000 internet users consulted by the John Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard and the site Politics Online as one of the global projects which will revolutionise the internet and politics. And, in fact, EU-Student Vote is creating a rupture, in its finality fairly classical, between two periods: before it and after it. Before EU-Student Vote, voting by internet, the trans-European vote, the emergence of new political forces as a result of the internet, all this was debated to see if it would be possible or not: after EU-Student Vote, all of these exist. The debate therefore becomes, how to integrate these changes? How to use them? What consequences will they have?

The internet is no magic wand. But it constitutes and evolution in the subject of democracy comparable widespread literacy and the development of rail networks in the 19th century in Europe: these two evolutions permitted at that time the enlargement of the number of participants in the selection of rulers (because they could read and sign) , the beginning of the road to universal suffrage and the construction of large States where the power of the capita could easily be transferred to the province and vice-versa. The internet is a tool which permits the diversification of approaches to democracy by introducing democracy into those areas where it was too complex or too expensive to introduce previously (as in the European case). It also permits the democratic management of more vast and complex groups (Europe again being a good example).

Concretely, I know already the EU-Student Vote has accelerated the establishment of student elections by internet in many European universities; and I have been invited to the European University Institute in Florence on 10th May to speak on the possibility of introducing voting by internet at elections to the European Parliament.

Yet we must be aware:

1. The internet is not an innovation to replace other forms of voting; it is useful for creating a democratic space where this did not previously exist.

In EU-Student vote, it is the duo of a ‘trans-European’ election / vote by internet that is innovative. Each term reinforces and gives meaning to the other. Concerning elections to the European Parliament, let us remain clear. As long as 50% of MEPs are not elected from trans-European lists, the Parliament will have no real popular legitimacy and the number of voters will continue to decline as it has consistently for the last 20 years. And without the flexibility of the internet in multilingual campaigning (necessary in the case of trans-European lists), this will remain impossible as too expensive and complex.

3. In the perspective of enlargement, outside of decision mechanisms, we should build a European political culture, common to the civil societies of western as well as eastern Europe. Do you think they will be compatible? What must be done to bring them closer together?

The political cultures of central, eastern and Union Europe are converging. In my opinion, they will reach their optimal point of convergence (that is to say a point near to fusion) 4 or 5 years from now when, notably, the generations formed before the fall of the iron curtain (those over 40 before 1989) will begin to leave the decision-making posts and those generation formed after will begin to take key positions in State apparatuses, political parties and civil society.

As with many things, we must know how to pick the right moment: neither too early (which is still the case), nor too late (which will be the case if we wait until after the end of the decade).

The participation of the citizens of central and eastern Europe in European election and in trans-European lists will be a formidable vector of integration, on condition that this is done seriously and with political preparation that respects the meaning of democracy, which decrees that citizen electors know for whom and for what they are voting. In this sense, the participation of some candidate countries in the European elections of 2004 will be a mascarade (as with the ratification of treaties of adhesion and other procedures, the peoples concerned will not discover the election until a few months before it is held). This can only weaken even further the European Parliament.

Yet for the election of 2009, I hope that an entire continent, ours, Europe, will be able to participate in the first great democratic trans-European election.

4. What level of integration should Europe attain?

That’s a question to ask Europeans! And one to be asked regularly, every 10 / 20 years. In a democracy, it is up to the citizens to decide their collective future. And in a world that changes quickly, it is useful to ask these fundamental questions every 10 / 20 years in order to know if opinions have changed.

Political ideas, in our time, should have a best before date imposing that they be questioned again at the end of a decade or so. And with the rapidity of historical evolution, it is necessary to integrate as soon as possible the growing generations in collective reflection on the future, as these generation feel more keenly evolutions in hand than do older ones. Considering this, I am not sure that the quasi-monopolisation of the Convention on the future of Europe by the over-50s helps the latter to answer the question you have asked me and which has been asked of them. Integration is an historical process relative to a collective entity:

- Relative to the internal diversity of this entity.

- Relative to the external pressure on this entity.

The response to this question therefore varies with time. Another perhaps more useful question could be: how can the enlarged and democratic European Union function efficiently in the coming decades? Levels of integration then become what they are: one element of the answer, not an answer in itself. For example, myself, as a European citizen, wish to live in a democratic space, on a prosperous and peaceful continent, in a society that functions efficiently for the benefit of all its members and which promotes peacefully yet effectively its values in other cultures and civilisations. The level of integration which would appear useful to me would be different according to each term of my wishes.

One thing is certain today, that is that we have left the phase of European construction and that we are entering the phase of European functioning. This phase possesses new constraints, such as those of efficient functioning and democratic functioning. Without which the EU will be rejected by its peoples. And, if there is already a degree of integration to be reached, it is between the institutions. There are too many European institutions for too few functions. It is necessary to reduce the number of European institutions at the same time as reinforcing their political legitimacy and associating them closely with citizens and populations.

Following my work with the think tank Europe 2020 and in light of the experience gained with EU-Student Vote, I will publish on 17th June, with Europe 2020, an important document intitled ‘Visions and concrete propositions for Europe in the next two decades’. This text will attempt to present a coherent vision and actual ways of making an efficiently and democratically functioning EU for the years 2005 to 2020. So, a more precise response to your question will follow 2 months from now!

5. Does a European culture exist? Are we witnessing a progression of a feeling of allegiance towards Europe?

There exists a European culture of tomorrow! What I mean by this is that contrary to popular belief, the roots of the European culture are as much in the future as in the past. If European culture exists, it lives. If it lives, it must be in the future as well as the past. I don’t know how to define it and moreover that isn’t my problem. My problem, for the last 17 years, has been to make Europeans invent together new European things. And it is notably through this that a feeling is reinforced, not of allegiance, but of belonging to a common identity. We recognise it as common because we have invented it together. What is true of living culture is due to the future. And there we see that I make a difference in a common patrimony which may be much more passive to another… and may be widely shared… without however generating anything but a certain intellectual complicity.

The Europeans of today, living in a single market, possessing a single currency, studying in the universities of other member-states, travelling massively in the EU are more integrated, more conscious of their constraints, fears and hopes than those of 15 years ago. Their ways of life are also much more similar. And they are beginning to have a new common aspiration: to participate more directly in the important decisions of the Europe they live in. This is moreover one of the great challenges of the coming decade. And it is there that the feeling of belonging will become strong. In democracy, we belong to a community when we have the feeling that that community also belongs to us in some degree (by our vote, our influence as citizens, our participation in debates that concern us). Yet today, and here lies the problem, citizens have the justified feeling the Europe does not belong to them at all! It is also in an effort to remedy this that we launched EU-Student Vote.

Europe belongs to you… It’s up to you to take it!