The reaction across European capitals to the Greek elections appears to be one of sober relief. With Greek so deeply divided and with Europe still short of a road map to solve the Eurozone’s structural problems this is not a time for jubilant celebrations. European leaders now have a slight breathing space ahead of the European Council meeting later this month to bring forward a balanced package of economic and political proposals.
If closer economic union holds the key to overcoming the euro zone crisis, then a political union to close Europe’s democratic deficit will also be required. The crisis of European legitimacy is such that it is difficult to imagine Europe’s electorate sanctioning any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels without more adequate democratic safeguards.
In its submission earlier this year to a Parliamentary select committee inquiry the Church of England argued that “popular disenchantment with the EU might be most marked in the UK, but the EU’s crisis of legitimacy is a Europe-wide rather than a uniquely UK problem.” Europe needs a revival of the vision of Europe which fired the EU’s founders and which is deeply rooted in Europe’s many cultures and, now, its many communities of faith.
From a UK perspective the Government needs to move beyond the defensive measures provided by the 2011 European Union Act to articulate new channels by which voters can be engaged in the political choices facing the EU. These measures need to be complemented with steps to tackle at both a national and European level some of the issues that fuel populist debates about Europe, some of which are based on miscommunication.
There are some interesting proposals out there as to how this democratic deficit can be reversed. Last November, Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union imagined a future European political union involving an elected European Commission President and the development of a bicameral legislature involving a reconfigured European Parliament and the Council of Ministers sitting as a some kind of an upper house.
Whatever the merits of these structural proposals, the Archbishop of Canterbury is right to warn of the dangers of encouraging a majoritarian approach to politics. In his lecture last Friday on “Sovereignty, Democracy, Justice: elements of a good society?” marking the forthcoming 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoned that:
“ …..if every complex society needs systems of representation, we have to come to terms with the fact that legitimacy is never a matter of electoral majorities alone. Good, ‘legitimate’ government involves both direct election and mechanisms for representing (i) concerns that are of longer-term importance than electoral cycles allow, (ii) minority interests that can be silenced by large electoral majorities, (iii) groups with conscientious reservations about aspects of public policy, and (iv) the expertise of professional and civil society agents that will not necessarily be engaged in party political elections.”
The Archbishop’s thinking here echoes an earlier submission in 2008 from the Church of England’s Europe Bishops Panel to a European Commission consultation on the reform of the EU budget. The Bishops concluded their submission with the following observation:
“In its present configuration the EU Budget fails to provide sufficiently for the European common good. The dislocation between stated aims and objectives and current budgetary allocations threatens the public legitimacy and credibility of the European project. It is not the size of the EU budget that is the problem, but rather its distribution to sustain outdated industries and sectors that all too often serve narrowly construed national interests. Faced by the global challenge of climate change, the EU budget should be refocused in support of low carbon growth both within the EU’s border and beyond. A restructured budget would help respond to the competitiveness concerns of a number of member states and reinforce the EU’s position as the global front-runner on low carbon growth. Introducing a greener budget would have the wider support of EU citizens and would help to renew the EU’s raison d’être. To sustain this initiative we recommend the development of a European-wide participatory budgeting process to help embed within the EU’s decision making process, mechanisms that actively and consistently engage its citizens on budgetary matters.”
All of this is by way of stating the blindingly obvious – the democratic distance between the the EU, its institutions and voters has never been greater. Resolving the crisis in the Euro zone hinges as much on coming up with calming economic policies as it does political ones. It’s time for some creative thinking to tackle Europe’s democratic deficit!