WP8 Political Rights
Political rights, the right to participate in the collective decision making of the citizenry – in some countries balanced by a related citizenship duty to vote – can be considered the core of citizenship. Yet, paradoxically, many – both in academia and in politics – have seen the EU as a threat to political rights rather than a source of them.
First of all, European integration moved political decision making arenas further away from the average European citizen: away from nearby national capitals such as Tallinn and Lisbon, Dublin and Bucharest, and towards distant Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxemburg, where ‘they’ tend to speak a different language than the European citizens themselves. ‘There’, citizens’ votes become further diluted into a larger mass of votes.
Secondly, as Scharpf (2001) has argued, the complex intergovernmental and joint decision making modes in the EU may score well for democratic legitimacy, but are low on problem solving capacity. By contrast, the supranational EU institutions such as the Commission and the ECJ, score poorly for democratic legitimacy, but well for problem solving capacity. The greater civic diversity creates problems which can be bypassed by relying on less democratic decision making procedures. As a result, it is claimed that for ‘practical’ reasons, decision making has moved to distant technocratic arenas where ECJ judges, Eurocrats and Comitology make collective decisions affecting European citizens in non-transparent and diffuse procedures, that lack democratic accountability and legitimacy producing what Majone (2009) has referred to as ‘integration by stealth’.
Thirdly, political rights offer a good illustration of our hypothesis that a major, principle hindrance to the exercising of certain citizenship rights is the existence of other rights that intervene in or reduce these rights. The EU is and has been foremostly an economic project. The four economic freedoms – of mobility of goods, services, capital and labour – have liberalised markets and given citizens ‘market citizenship rights’ above all else. However, free markets – especially where enacted in basic legal documents like treaties, charters and pseudo-constitutions – severely limit political choice. Many options are no longer available, as they contravene these freedoms. This has been criticised by renowned scholars such as Yves Meny, long-time president of the European University Institute in Florence. He wrote: ‘What I do not accept is the supremacy of market forces on every dimension of life and the actual incapacity of governments to reconcile through political choices economic and social constraints’, the more so as the latter ‘has for the past 150 years been at the heart of politics’ (in Moravcsik and Meny 2009). And: ‘Many social rights are challenged or turned down at the national level because economic regulations permeate and condition them.’ The same can be said for many other attempts to constrain markets, e.g. with consumer and worker protection rights or migration regulation. This is all the more a problem, as the destruction of market constraining regulations is a case of negative integration (elimination of economic barriers), which is easily achieved through supranational decision making by the European Commission and Court; while positive integration – the enactment of new market regulations – has to be done through the more complex and slower decision making procedures of inter-governmentalism.
The power of markets and the powerlessness of politics have recently been forcefully brought home by the financial crisis involving the euro. A recent cover of the German magazine Der Spiegel (12-12-2011) was particularly symbolic as it depiocted the political leaders of the four major nations France, Germany, the US, and China as puppets, being moved and played by invisible actors hidden in the Global Stock Exchange, which these leaders themselves had liberalised.
Paraphrasing Skowronek (1982), who once called the emerging United States of America a ‘state of courts and parties’, one might argue that an emerging United States of Europe is a ‘state of courts and markets’. What is left for politicians to decide? In such a polity, the unwillingness of EU citizens to exercise their political rights may be understandable. If political choice is reduced if not minimised in and by the EU – to overstate it perhaps a bit – why should citizens bother about political participation, elections and actively holding politicians accountable – short of forcing them to recapture the political priority? But by now this would be a major political and legal undertaking, not really facilitated by the inter-governmentalism, between 28 Member States, of European decision making.
This is illustrated by the futile attempts to regain control of the financial markets by regulating them and fighting speculation by a tax on financial transactions – the Tobin-tax. Although Member States tax almost all economic transactions – from labour to food to real estate – financial transactions were untaxed. And although a large majority of Member States would now be willing to introduce such a tax to put a brake on speculation, the unwillingness of one major Member State with a major stake in financial markets – the UK – coupled with free international financial markets, has blocked this initiative, as unanimity is required to prevent financial markets from playing off states against each other.
Whether or not the EU itself has a ‘democratic deficit’, as is often argued, remains controversial. See, for instance, the debate between Ives Meny and Andrew Moravcsik about Europe’s democratic deficit in EUI-Review Summer 2009. Meny argued: ‘As Europe has forgotten its political dimension to privilege a rather technical management of more and more issues related to the economy, we have deprived the national democracies of what was their flesh and blood from their very inception: debating and deciding about economic issues. Today everywhere in Europe there is a feeling of powerlessness and frustration. People understand that they can still debate but that it does not matter. The economy is too important to be left to the people.’
Such claims and complaints are increasingly voiced by nationalist anti-European political parties from the right as well as the left, which have seen their electoral appeal rise. The negative referenda on EU Treaties and the subsequent fear among politicians of more of such popular votes, as Greece recently experienced when it proposed a referendum on its emergency budget policies to help solve Europe’s financial crisis. Europe does not seem to trust its citizens enough to respect their national democratic rights to voice their opinions in referenda on Europe-related issues.
The only solution to these problems of legitimacy is a further democratisation of higher levels of political decision making. The EU has attempted to do so by providing new political rights at or from EU level: direct elections for the European Parliament some time ago now, a gradual increase in decision making powers for the EP; a version of the right of petition with the ‘citizens’ initiative’, whereby one million citizens can request the European Commission to come up with legislative proposals in a specific policy area; more national parliament involvement in EU decision making; and new local forms of democratic participation in Euregios crossing national borders. Finally, the whole concept of European citizenship and identity can be seen as a compensation for this loss at national level, including the economic, social and civic rights investigated in other work packages.
Therefore, the objective of this WP is first of all to elaborate this tension between economic and the OLD political rights of EU citizens, by investigating whether the hypotheses formulated here can be supported by empirical evidence.
Secondly, the aim is to identify more practical hindrances to the exercising of NEW EXISTING European political rights, created by the EU as compensation for the loss of national political rights. There is already extensive literature dealing with the low voting turnout at elections for the European Parliament in many Member States. Therefore, we will investigate the possible representational biases this may create. Furthermore, we will investigate constraints, opportunities and conditions for other forms of democratic participation, notably the practice of involvement of national parliaments in EU decision making, as well as the options for direct democracy in such a large territory as the EU, borrowing thereby from the extensive experience with referenda in Switzerland, a country that can be considered a microcosm of and a model for the EU (see also WP4).
Thirdly, we will elaborate on NEW FUTURE options for democratic participation and accountability in the EU, borrowing from political theory. Options to be considered are representation of functional categories of citizens, rather than the usual territorial ones and extending the concept of ‘market citizenship’ by giving European citizens more ‘economic voting rights’, e.g. by extending the rights that workers have in their organisation through European works councils to other economic stakeholders (e.g. consumers) and the organisations they are economically active in.
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