The Democratic Imperative

Article published on July 8, 2004
community published
Article published on July 8, 2004

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

Long awaited, both at home and in the world, the EU parades all its disagreements in the middle of its political and institutional reconstruction. Is this the promise of an inescapable democratisation?

Europe is naked. As for the outfit, it’s a virtual one. A little too big for a European Union endowed with a Constitution, original in ambition, but cut down to accommodate the divisions between member states. Too wide for an EU endowed with a new Parliament, upon which the shadow of abstention or disinterest weighs more heavily than the interests of the sides represented. An ill-fitting outfit even for an EU that is the victim of petty jealousies and which has some difficulty in agreeing on the name of Romano Prodi’s successor.

Virtual Europe

This European outfit, too wide, too global remains largely invisible, like an iceberg only the tip of which is encountered in the political year 2004: the need for economic governance in the euro zone and tax harmonization at the very least. In light of the recasting of trans-Atlantic relations, the responsibilities of the EU to the Middle East can Europe ignore the pressing expectations in the Arabic-Muslim world for much longer in favour of trying to restabilise the balance of power between Europe and the Israeli-American axis? The historic election of a Turk to the position of Secretary General of the Islamic Conference last week reflects this evolution. All eyes are now on the response the EU will give to Turkey next December.

It is an outfit that’s a bit too big and heavy but it’s the one that belongs to the EU. It is no longer the time to cut the cloth, but to wear it. How is the EU going to wear this outfit that the world intends for it? The EU exists, it’s a fact. The time of construction is behind us. The question of Europe: yes or no? Has been replaced by Europe: how? By carrying the burden of an imposed internationalization against which barriers are erected? Or by choosing a globalization, the flow of which must be carefully directed to manage the risks and stakes? In the Europe of today it is less a question of doing, than acting. This art of beginning and founding is, in its essence, political and democratic.

At this moment two solutions stand out. One option would be for the EU to retreat into elitism and bureaucratic thinking, ever more bereft of all democratic legitimacy. The community system would persevere, acting as a buffer between member states which prefer to leave the privilege of making difficult and unpopular decisions to the Commission, leaving them to delude themselves and to adding to the bureaucratic phenomenon. The case last month of genetic engineering is one good example and the treatment of the Turkish issue another. This option would be a huge failure because of the lack of a European political dimension so that key questions are left to the carelessness of the states who cannot tackle them themselves. This leaves all the unpopular decisions to the community system which, lacking this same dimension, drowns itself in a “technocratic” pond. The result of this is a Europe that constantly stumbles over the sum of the individual nations’ powerlessness, whilst exacerbating the populist tendencies which aim to discredit it.

A second choice is for the EU to definitively decide to embark on the path of a horizontal democracy which is tuned into reality. This has several implications. On the one hand, it would involve a reform of the Commission less in the direction of a becoming a government than in becoming a point of impetus. The construction of a real European nervous system made up not only of governments and parliaments but also, and above all, of NGO’s, associations and universities. A civil society whose demands the Commission could address; outlining responses and proposing bold and legitimate policies. On the other hand, the development of trans-European political forces able to transcribe and formulate the demands of citizens in European terms is also needed. What is at stake is the creation of and the opening up of a public space, or even of a European “common world” (Arendt).

The Europe of Networks

These trans-European political forces would play the crucial roles of educators, inventors and even mediators (on a national and European scale) or Stalkers as they are called in Tarkovsky’s masterpiece - where the heroes never progress in a straight forward way, but groping along in a world, a zone, where certainties have given way to complexity.

What is outlined here is the creation of an experimental democracy, a formidable, humanist and ethical challenge. The odds are that such possibilities will not be realised without arousing vivid tensions and conservative irritation at these attempts at “counter-reform”. It is even quite certain that a democratic Europe will not assert itself without a strong political polarisation taking place. The lines are already being drawn between the conservative vision of a culturist patrimonial Europe and another, more progressive, Europe the outer limits of which are still rather vague.

The assertion of a European democracy happens paradoxically by the bypassing of an agreement (area of peace, freedom and prosperity) on Europe. A perilous, but oh so necessary and welcome move highlighting that which is at the very heart of democracy. This should be the new reality of power in Europe, barring any new equivocations.