There can be no doubt that the European Parliament plays an important and unique role in the system of European democracy. For example, in rejecting the ACTA Treaty on intellectual property rights the Parliament in its last legislature took action that no national parliament was willing to take and which had global consequences. In other areas inside its responsibility, the last Parliament has been bitterly disappointing: in accepting a badly structured European budget for example, cut for the first time in European history, the Parliament totally failed to use its power to stand up to the competing national interests in the Council.
Beyond the question of exercising well or badly its existing formal powers, however, the outgoing parliament has failed to protect democracy inside the European Union. The European institutions in dealing with the economic crisis have created a structure in which crucial decisions about the economic future of countries are taken outside of all public visibility, and in which austerity and the tutelage of countries in economic deficit is almost built into a system which has no way of commonly agreeing on budgets for investment or fiscal transfers: part of the responsibility for that situation coming about must rest with the Parliament which would be the natural place for such deliberation to take place.
It is therefore not unreasonable for some commentators to complain that in the context of this ‘revolution from above’ the European Parliament has been acting as a kind of ‘democratic halo’ for a system which has profoundly undemocratic tendencies. Demanding a new constitutional settlement which puts democracy at the heart of European decision-making must be an imperative of the new Parliament to restore its credibility.
The crisis in trust: Europe should be at the forefront of restoring confidence in politics
The question of confidence in the institutions is crucial in the current historical conjecture, and the way it is dealt with by the political leaders will shape the coming époque in Europe either in a democratic or totalitarian direction.
Eurobarometer surveys show that confidence in the European institutions has fallen to historically low levels: falling from 57% in 2007 to 31% now. What systematically attracts less attention is that confidence in the national parliaments has been consistently lower than trust in the EU institutions for the last decade, and now stands at 25% trust. The turnout for the European elections this coming week will no doubt be historically low, but the tendency is the same in national elections as well. This is not a news story about the European institutions but a stage in the history of democracy in Europe generally. The statistics may even be read to suggest that the European institutions are better placed to begin to address this crisis than the national ones.
The Elections and After
From this situation we can draw at least four conclusions which relate to the elections and political action thereafter:
Firstly, it is vital for all European decision-makers to realise that current policies of austerity are dividing Europe and undermining trust in the institutions, and that this is a pre-condition for the survival of the institutions themselves if they are predicated on democracy.
Secondly, institutional change is urgent to ensure the unity and publicity of European decision making. This institutional change must be done in a way which builds public trust by including the public either directly or through civil society organisations in deciding how it should be done. The European Parliament has a unique opportunity to lead in this.
Thirdly, a unified progressive voice for Europe needs to emerge which marks a break with the decisions of the past 5 years. The current dominance of the PPE and PSE in European politics, and the fact that both parties are hamstrung at a European level by their powerful national member parties, is hampering the emergence of a genuinely European subjectivity which can generate and articulate unique public demands on a transeuropean scale which hold national interests at bay.
Fourthly, citizens need to take the European elections as a reminder that politics is predicated on their will, and that gives people the power. Whether it be through voting at the elections or mobilising on other days of the year to express their opinion, taking initiative to build solidarity or find innovative solutions to problems for society, citizens need to take responsibility for the society they live in and act to change it where it is unacceptable. (See the Citizens Manifesto for European Solidarity, Equality and Democracy on that point)
Image credit: Elena Dalibot