Make it or break it: what is civil society’s role in European democracy after the financial crisis?

Academic Article

Abstract: This essay argues that the persistent lack of a shared European identity and political culture does not pose an insurmountable obstacle to greater democratic legitimacy in post-crisis Europe. Rather than through the recreation of representative democracy at the European level, such progress may be accomplished through democratic innovations that enhance civic involvement at all levels of the European polity.

In May 2003, two of the most-eminent European intellectuals sat down to formulate their vision of a future Europe that is an influential, unified stakeholder in a coming age of “global domestic policy”. Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida stipulated that the simultaneous protests across Europe against involvement in the Iraq war might constitute “the birth of a European public sphere”. While European leaders were bitterly divided, the public had seemingly succeeded in expressing a more-coherent position on the streets of London, Rome and Barcelona. Back in 2003, the common theme of these protests arguably reflected an emerging sense of European identity and European values, which made involvement in the war untenable.

The financial crisis as a catalyst

Less than ten years later, such unity could not seem any further out of reach. The opaque manner in which European leaders have desperately tried to cope with a sequence of financial, public-debt and euro crises since 2008 have fed concerns about the future of European democracy. For many Europeans, the increasingly credible prospect of a fiscal union, in particular, has come to symbolise loss of national autonomy on budgetary questions, thus nourishing fears of a loss of democratic control.

After years of half-hearted muddling through, fundamental dissent over how to move forward with the European project cannot be sidelined any more.

Although specific areas of concern such as bailouts or Eurobonds are new, they are related to a broader and more-enduring pattern. Over the last decade, steps towards deeper integration have faced both political opposition by elites and rejection at the ballot box by the public, culminating in the rejection of a European constitution in 2005. Habermas and Derrida’s hopes for a more-unified and distinct European appearance on the world stage have given way to the uninspiring reality of continuing dissent among and within the member states and a persistent lack of shared vision for Europe. In this sense, the crisis acts as a catalyst for exposing Europe’s deep-seated problems: After years of half-hearted muddling through, fundamental dissent over how to move forward with the European project cannot be sidelined any more. Overcoming the crisis will necessitate not only sorting out fiscal problems, but also finding common ground amidst incompatible claims and fears of what exactly the European project entails.

In that sense, the urgency of the crisis has created momentum for change within the European Union – both in the political arena as well as the public square. Whether in nightly summits in Brussels or on the streets of Athens, Madrid or Lisbon, politicians and citizens alike  are finally realising the tangible implications of a commitment to a unified Europe.

Time to rethink

A bolder effort to rethink democratic governance in Europe is required. This effort should appreciate the genuine scope of the challenges that contemporary democracies face, including growing public disenchantment with purely representative institutions. This broader perspective also will help to correct some misconceptions in the long-standing debate on the democratic deficit in the European Union, which still is framed too often in terms of recreating the familiar institutions of the democratic nation-state on the supranational level. Patterns of political mobilisation that have become visible during the crisis may inform our thinking about possibilities for creating a more-democratic Europe in the years to come.

There are at least three reasons to debate democracy in Europe at this time. First, the crisis marks a crossroads for where Europe is headed, and as such also provides a window of opportunity. Second, amid longings for a “European identity” or a “new European narrative”, the debate often lacks empirical grounding and context. Third, the fixation on a model of democracy based on the nation-state fosters a false dichotomy that envisages the EU either as a democratic federation or as a loose assembly of democratic states; this fixation obscures opportunities for meaningful democratic innovations on a national and European scale.

Europe at the crossroads

The crisis has exhibited the economic and political interdependence of European countries in an unprecedented way. One critical question now is whether this experience of interdependence has engendered a sense of European solidarity or caused friction and discord across the continent.

While the overall benefits of European economic integration are apparent from the sheer volume of trade between EU members, the flawed architecture of the monetary union facilitated bubbles and unsustainable imbalances both within and between Eurozone economies. European economies and financial markets have become so closely intertwined that the resulting burst now threatens the welfare even of countries that had been regarded as economically sound and stable – not to speak of the ramifications of preserving a common currency. In the eyes of many, the political dimension of the project also will be at stake if the EU fails to prevent the bankruptcy of one of its members, with the agonising consequences for common welfare that such an event would create for that country. In this sense, the crisis is a genuinely European issue without apparent precedent, exceeding the reach of most foreign-policy issues by directly affecting the lives of citizens. For instance, the media attention dedicated to the Greek elections in 2012 across the continent almost would have been inconceivable before the crisis. If we are to witness the birth of a European public sphere, when if not now?

At first sight, the significant civil society mobilisation across Europe that has occurred in the last years may seem to support this view. But even though issues of European relevance have clearly driven mobilisation, citizens’ agendas have hardly been unified, nor have they generally been favourable toward European integration. Rather, mobilisation largely has been driven by nation-specific motives and the desire to influence national decision-makers. Greece and Spain have seen large-scale protests against austerity and welfare cuts in their countries, while some of the most-visible activities of German civil society have addressed national democratic institutions’ perceived loss of power. The 2012 constitutional court case on the legality of the European Stability Mechanism illustrated the unlikely coalition driving these efforts: individuals expressing elaborate concerns about political processes and legal principles united with habitual EU critics and others plainly opposed to supporting “lazy southerners”. Contrasting with such unexpected cooperation within national civil society, the debate across European publics rather has been characterised by divisive, inflammatory and sometimes outright-insulting discourses.

Meanwhile, initiatives driven by overarching European rather than nation-specific concerns have remained very rare. Among the few notable exceptions is the Occupy movement, which however cannot be seen in a uniquely European context. An established core of highly organised European civil society organisations – such as NGOs and think tanks typically based in Brussels or in European capitals – may have sought to create platforms for more European perspectives, but the reach of such organisations has remained limited to an elite audience.

The chimera of European identity

Such observations may be discomforting because they fundamentally question the prospects of democracy in a unified Europe. Indeed, the old debate about the European democratic deficit has never been concerned primarily with the state of European institutions. Scholars rather have identified the absence of a European identity and the poor development of a European public sphere – in short, the lack of a European demos – as the main challenge to democratic and legitimate governance at the European level. In his seminal work on legitimacy in the EU, Fritz Scharpf pointed out that “input legitimacy”, or the allegiance to the institutional settings that enable “government by the people”, presupposes a sense of collectivity and shared identity that is unlikely to be achieved in Europe in the foreseeable future. Arguably, the legitimacy of the EU has traditionally relied on the mere provision of desirable outputs, such as increased efficiency and economic growth. Scholars such as Giandomenico Majone even identify a functional trade-off between democracy and political integration that is bound to persist as long as a majority of citizens oppose a European super state. In this view, the EU can retain legitimacy only as long as its activities remain as apolitical as possible (in other words, solely concerned with technocratic, regulatory matters). Institutional arrangements for democratic representation, such as a strengthened European parliament, accordingly would do little to promote democratic legitimacy in the EU. Any “political” issue, basically understood as a question involving conflicts of interest or beliefs, should remain within the purview of the nation-state – that is, until there is a genuine transformation of the European political community into a single demos with a shared identity and political culture.

While Poles and Germans, for instance, are on average rather indecisive about whether they fear a loss of power or national culture and identity as a result of their country’s involvement in the European Union, a plurality of British citizens have such fears.

Recent survey data suggest that such a transformation is unlikely to occur magically any time soon. Some convergences and shared identifications notwithstanding, European concerns continue to play a minor role for national publics. Almost across the board, respondents to the latest wave of the European Values Study indicated that they were more concerned with people in their home country and their region than with “Europeans”. Although the number of people for whom Europe is a relevant geography of reference has generally risen the last ten years, they clearly remain in the minority. Other relevant attitudinal dispositions vary significantly among European publics: While Poles and Germans, for instance, are on average rather indecisive about whether they fear a loss of power or national culture and identity as a result of their country’s involvement in the European Union, a plurality of British citizens have such fears. Europeans also hold diverging views on fundamental questions of public policy that relate to fiscal integration, such as the role of the state. While Brits and Germans increasingly have come to emphasise individual rather than government responsibility over the last ten years, more and more citizens of countries such as France and Poland wish to see the state in a more-active role. The emergence of a European public consensus on key governance questions thus remains, for the time being, elusive. Of course, such cleavages also exist within European member states, but there they tend to be embedded within a broader sense of identity that has evolved over time. If the latter is largely missing on the European level, substantive divergences over such broad public policy choices may arguably erode confidence in the desire for political integration.

Two old stories about European democracy and a (somewhat) new one

There are two long-standing narratives about the future of democracy in Europe in the wake of deeper economic integration. The first is a logical continuation of the argument that Europe lacks a demos. It assumes that Europeans simply will remain too divided over their political and cultural allegiances as well as over fundamental public policy questions to allow for genuine democratic legitimacy at the European level any time soon. European leaders at best would establish institutional mechanisms for the democratic control of European policies, but those would remain empty shells for the public. The current agenda for economic recovery and consolidation through further integration thus would result almost inevitably in widespread public alienation. This would threaten the EU at its very core by obstructing functional economic integration through political quarrelling. In the history books, the politicisation of the European Union would be considered a grave mistake. Rather than an agent for participation and accountability in European governance, civil society in different countries permanently would assume a more-adversarial role and channel public dissent within the EU.

The second narrative is based on the assumption that the adoption of a shared European identity by enlightened European publics is only a matter of time, perhaps occasionally nudged by European-minded intellectuals. This is the crisis-as-opportunity story, in which European publics finally recognise their common destiny in overcoming the crisis through a concerted effort. In an ironic twist of history, the very predicament that threatens the European project’s existence would create a chance to resolve some of the most persistent discontents of European integration, and to finally establish genuine democracy at the European level. With the socio-cultural preconditions falling into place, bold steps towards the institutionalisation of European democracy would be needed. Those would roughly emulate the representative structures of contemporary nation-states, with a vibrant pan-European civil society as a driver, stakeholder and corrective.

Both of these narratives abide by an idealised version of the nation-state as a political community with an emphasis on the traditional institutions of representative democracy. Whereas the first one stresses the indispensability of that model, the second one essentially advocates its recreation at the supranational level. However, this fixation on the specific institutional form and socio-cultural underpinnings of the nation-state as a democratic panacea is misleading and unhelpful. In the context of the ill-fated constitutional convention of the early 2000s, Kalypso Nicolaidis identified roughly the same two narratives and suggested the notion of European “demoi-cracy” as an alternative. Demoi-cracy conceptualizes the EU as a union of states and of peoples, rejecting the necessity to choose between a union as democracy and a union of democracies. In this view, the key characteristic of the EU is its commitment to transnational pluralism. It entails an affirmation of the choice made by the peoples of Europe to embark upon a journey of integration without renouncing their unique national identities.

A key benefit of this perspective is that it takes into account the sui generis character of the EU as a transnational multi-level democracy. It follows from this insight that the democratic legitimacy of the European Union is not solely determined by the design of its institutions at the supranational level. It is instead determined by the experienced quality of democracy across the different levels. In that context, it is critical to recognise that challenges to democracy in Europe do not in fact exclusively or even mainly arise at the European level, and that they have also not exclusively resulted from the crisis. For several decades, publics across Western democracies have expressed increasing disaffection with a conception of democratic governance that relies almost solely on representation, while granting relatively few opportunities for participatory involvement. As scholars such as Ronald Inglehart, Pippa Norris and Russell Dalton have argued, these societies have experienced gradual-but-profound changes in value orientations and political culture, particularly increases in emancipative values. For an increasing number of citizens across Western democracies, political participation is not primarily a civic duty limited to periodic elections, but is an opportunity driven by personal concern for specific issues, which often manifests itself in unconventional forms of participation such as protests, petitions and boycotts.  It is hardly surprising that these forms of political participation, often in the form of civil-society mobilisation, have occurred so prominently over the last few years. To the extent that such participation is elite-challenging rather than elite-driven, the addressees of such challenges in the current crisis do not all sit at the EU level, but equally in national governments. Considering the complaints about declining political engagement in the Western world, the sudden representation of the national level as the natural locus of democratic legitimacy in the current debate is ironic: How can the nation-state be so central to political legitimacy if so many citizens habitually express their lack of confidence in national institutions? Indeed, there is nothing inherently legitimate about democratic institutions within European nation-states, just as there is nothing inherently illegitimate about European institutions. The legitimacy of all of these institutions is a function of their ability to conform to the expectations of citizens. This is the challenge for both the nation-state and the EU.

Some ideas for the way forward

Civil society organisations and social movements that appeal almost exclusively to nation-based constituencies can become effective at the European level by influencing national governments on certain European issues, but they hardly can establish positions as genuine stakeholders in European governance space.

This wider perspective on the current challenge to democracy in Europe has two main implications. First, if harnessing the political awareness and activism of a new generation of engaged citizens is a key to democratic legitimacy in the future, less attention should be devoted to the possibility of recreating representative democracy – and its limitations – at the supranational level. Instead, we should seriously pursue democratic innovations that allow for meaningful, more-direct civic participation at all levels. Even with a fiscal union, governance in the EU will continue to be a multilevel enterprise, albeit one with even greater competences at the supranational level. Deepening and recreating European democracy thus will require new ideas about how to make decisions at that level in a more-democratic fashion, but it also entails tackling existing democratic deficits at the national, regional and local levels. Thinking about direct democracy in Europe needs to go beyond referenda and initiatives. We should consider, for example, more substantive involvement of organised civil society in deliberative formats. Some first steps have been taken with the creation of the European Citizens’ Initiative, which allows 1 million citizens from at least a quarter of EU member states to forward a proposal to the European Commission. However, such large-scale instruments usually do not relate to people’s lives or civic engagement in an obvious way. While the European Citizens’ Initiative is not a proper deliberative instrument, deliberative forms of decision-making exist in many countries at lower levels, including citizen budgets, citizen-set public agendas and the self-directed reform of a local political system (as realised in Rotterdam, for instance). In a European Union that takes subsidiarity seriously, there should be mechanisms to connect these deliberative practices. Subsidiarity does not mean that processes happen at lower levels of aggregation without any form of interaction or coordination. Instead, different spheres of civic activism across member states should be connected, not only to share best practices, but also to learn from these processes about citizens’ perspectives and to incorporate them directly into broader policy discourses. The EU is in an exceptional position to act as such a facilitator, making use of both directions in a subsidiarity model.

Second, for such an approach to be successful, European civil society will need to find ways to act more cohesively and inclusively in matters of European relevance. Civil society organisations and social movements that appeal almost exclusively to nation-based constituencies can become effective at the European level by influencing national governments on certain European issues, but they hardly can establish positions as genuine stakeholders in European governance space. While such organisations and movements could become more effective by adopting a more-European outlook, those movements in which such European-mindedness is more prevalent may wish to reconsider some of their attitudes as well. Specifically, intellectual and social elites that shape civil society discourses should make a conscious effort to engage the broader public in a more-inclusive manner. There seems to be a degree of acquiescence among many involved in the more transnational European civil society initiatives that the high-minded questions of European governance are ultimately bound to be elite issues. But civic participation in European governance cannot foster broad public legitimacy if citizens are seen as disinterested, incompetent or concerned with economic benefits. Instead of assuming what people can and want to do, democratic innovation should connect to the places where people are involved and build on that foundation.

Constructing a democratic and participatory European polity has to be both a top-down and a bottom-up endeavour. The crisis has created significant opportunities in this respect, but it will take courage and creativity to seize them.