It has become common talk across the European Union to blame the Commission for being undemocratic, and a better representative of financial elites than of the people’s interest. Populist parties wallow in corrosive attacks on “Brussels’ diktats”, while mainstream politicians do not dare risk a stand in favour of Commissioners widely seen as unelected technocrats out of touch with the grassroots.
Laszlo Andor, Commissioner for Social Affairs, recently ironised at a public meeting in London that no one had ever heard of elected technocrats – making the expression somewhat redundant. The phrase is not only redundant, it is wrong. An achievement of the Lisbon Treaty has been to defer to parliament the power to bring forward its own candidates for the positions of president and members of the Commission. While the final inducting authority remains the Council, nomination and legitimacy are, according to the Treaty, the matter of a parliamentary vote.
But for Parliament to convey legitimacy, it must be recognized as a valid and effective decision-making organ by the people of the Union, who elect its members and depend on its ability to function in order for the European democratic process to be a reality. Since 2009 and the first application of the Lisbon Treaty, the much decried democratic deficit in the Union is therefore not an institutional issue anymore, but one of public involvement.
This makes the run-up to the 2014 European elections all the more important. Recent events across the continent have highlighted the growing communality of concerns shared by its twenty-seven member states and their populations. While conservative governments have shown a worrying propensity to avoid consensus on anything beyond fiscal austerity, the progressives are on the march.
Far from staging angry walkouts or displaying sarcastic contempt towards one another, leaders of Socialist, Social-Democratic and Labour parties are preparing a unique consultation of their militants. With a view to make 2014 a groundbreaking step towards active democracy, the Party of European Socialists (PES) agreed at its 2011 conference on a primary election process, inspired by the French and Italian successes. This will allow for a single candidate to the Commission’s Presidency to be brought forward in 2014, directly elected by militants of member parties.
Besides the primary vote (to be held in late 2013), a wide consultation of activists is currently going on to collect views and opinions of progressive militants across Europe, through public events and online forums. Although a tough practical challenge, connecting grassroots militants beyond their national borders remains sine qua non of active democracy occurring in the Union, in a new and dynamic Public Space.
These party-led initiatives are not the only sign of a progressive movement gathering momentum in Europe. The European Charter for Committed Social-Democracy was signed by hundreds of personalities across Europe and is an activist initiative within the PES. The Manifesto for Rebuilding Europe from the Bottom-Up is a project set up by Ulrich Beck and Daniel Cohn-Bendit to spur public engagement in Europe, and signed by a string of intellectuals in Germany and beyond.
Is the European Nation ready? Or has the worsening economic crisis raised insurmountable fears that democracy cannot overcome? Francois Hollande may have captured the general feeling when he declared at a campaign meeting in January: “Democracy is more intelligent than the markets”.
Meanwhile the attention given to the French presidential election, including direct intervention by the British Press and the German Chancellor has heralded a new era for cross-national campaigning. Popular outbreaks in Greece and Spain have raised concern and emotion in populations far beyond their own borders, while the autocratic positions of the Orban government have attracted whistle-blowing statements in the European Parliament and press. The Euro crisis was the main running news throughout 2011 in all twenty-seven Union countries. These and more events have generated debates and given rise to common narratives that cut across borders, and give increasing substance to a specifically European public sphere.
With majority shifts showing a growing trend in favour of the Left in the last few months, the latest being the victory of the French left in the presidential election. The time might be right for the PES to turn the EU into a working federal democracy. The Union will have to be mindful of its older members, the States, and respect their prerogatives and experience. But it is now ready to leave its nest of concealed bureaucracy, and enter Habermas’ Public Space with the brimming confidence of an adult, independent democratic institution.
Contributions to the PES Fundamental programme can be made on the online forum Re:New: http://www.pes.org/en/renew/