Direct Democracy in the EU: The Myth of a Citizens' Union

Direct Democracy in the EU: The Myth of a Citizens' Union

by Steven Blockmans, Sophia Russack

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The European Union is grappling with a democracy problem. The succession of crises which have plagued the increasingly executive EU for years, has led to a rising cacophony of voices calling for fundamental change to the integration project. Yet despite the seismic shock of the Brexit referendum and the electoral upsets by nativist parties across the continent, few of the plans for EU reform include concrete proposals to reduce the age-old democratic deficit. This book is concerned with the two-pronged question of how the relationship between citizens, the state and EU institutions has changed, and how direct democratic participation can be improved in a multi-layered Union. As such, this edited volume focuses not on populism per se, nor does it deeply engage with policy and output legitimacy. Rather, the research is concerned with process and polity. Building on the notion of increasing social, economic and political interdependence across borders, this volume asks how a sense of solidarity and European identity can be rescued from the bottom up by politically empowering citizens to ‘take back control’ of their EU.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786609991
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 468
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Steven Blockmans is Senior Research Fellow and the Head of the Institutions and EU Foreign Policy units at CEPS; Professor of EU External Relations Law and Governance at the University of Amsterdam.

Sophia Russack is Researcher in the Institutions unit at CEPS, PhD candidate at Maastricht University.
Senior Research Fellow at the CEPS and Professor of EU External Relations Law and Governance at the University of Amsterdam
Sophia Russack is a Researcher in the Institutions unit at CEPS. Besides her responsibilities at CEPS, Sophia Russack is currently conducting research for a PhD at Maastricht University. Her main research interests lay in the fields of EU institutional architecture and decision-making processes, with a particular focus on the European Commission. She publishes analytical reports and commentaries on topics such as institutional reform ideas, the European Parliament elections, the internal structure of the current Commission, as well as the concept of differentiated European integration. Together with Steven Blockmans she was co-rapporteur in the Task Force Regroup and Reform: Towards a More Responsive and Effective European Union chaired by Danuta Hübner, MEP (2017).

Read an Excerpt



Steven Blockmans & Sophia Russack

1.1 Identity crisis

The state of democracy in the European Union is a subject of constant debate. While some have argued that concern about the 'democratic deficit' is misplaced, the prevailing sense is nevertheless that the EU has a democracy problem.

This sense of a problem is compounded by recent figures about the decline of electoral democracy and the protection of civil liberties, including freedom of expression and backsliding on the rule of law in a growing number of member states. In Europe's patchwork of political cultures, languages, national memories and diverse press channels, the algorithms behind social media are polarising people in a way not seen since the creation of the EU. The seismic shock of the Brexit referendum and the electoral upsets by nativist and Eurosceptic parties across the continent show that, in the EU too, "all politics is local".

Paradoxically, half a billion people living in a Union that has advanced the notion of 'citizenship' since 1991 have never before shared such an intertwined destiny. The single market, free movement and the Erasmus student exchange programme have all helped to break down cultural boundaries. But these achievements risk being reversed by political narratives that drive citizens into ever more divided national mindsets. The popular anger that populists feed on seems to be deliberately channelled towards a growing list of targets: from the single currency and austerity policies attached to it, to EU trade agreements with third countries (mainly the US and Canada), refugees and economic migrants. Now, the radical right is encouraging Europeans to turn against each other.

At the grassroots level, citizens' perceptions have drifted a long way from the European 'demos' imagined by the architects of modern Europe. European integration is often perceived as an elite-driven project that is too remote from ordinary citizens. The 'polycrisis' that has plagued the EU for the past few years has led to a cacophony of voices calling for fundamental change to the European integration project.

Insofar as such proposals exist, they have been developed by elites, either "as damage limitation to placate a restless populace" or as an effort to reduce EU institutional interference at the national level. Examples of the former include the aim to create transnational lists for the European Parliament elections and to revive the lead candidate ('Spitzenkandidat') system pioneered in 2014. An example of the second category is the renewed call from Central and Eastern European governments to arm national parliaments with a red card to shoot down the European Commission's unpalatable legislative initiatives. Emmanuel Macron's proposal to organise civilian assemblies to debate the future of Europe may be more in tune with the mood of the masses, but a self-declared 'Jupiterian' president seems hardly the right person to push for its implementation.

While the leaders of the EU institutions and member states increasingly invest their hopes in reviving 'output legitimacy' by delivering on policy objectives (e.g. shoring up security and defence cooperation, reform of the eurozone and the Schengen area, striking up progressive trade deals), the democratic legitimacy problem has in effect been left to fester. The (perception of) nontransparent decision-making continues to feed into popular frustration about how governments and EU institutions operate. The risk of an even greater negative feedback loop is therefore real.

1.2 Towards a Citizens' Union?

Against this backdrop, 20 renowned think tanks from the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN) have joined forces in a three-year research project supported by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ programme. The 'Towards the Citizens' Union (2CU)' project is concerned with the two-pronged question of i) how the relationship between citizen, state and EU has changed, and ii) whether and how direct democracy (this volume), representative democracy (volume 2, forthcoming in 2019) and the accountability of democratic institutions (volume 3, forthcoming in 2020) can be improved in a multi-layered EU. As such, 2CU uses the phenomenon of populism not so much to engage with policy, but as a research handle to assess process and polity.

Building on the notion of increasing social, economic and political interdependence across borders, this first volume asks whether and, if so, how a sense of solidarity and European identity can be rescued from the bottom up by politically empowering citizens to 'take back control' of their EU.

This first 2CU book on the state of direct democracy in the EU presupposes a common understanding of the semantics of direct political participation. Some clarifications may nevertheless be in order.

The EU is founded on the principle of representative democracy (Article 10(1) TEU). Citizens are thus directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament. The functioning of the EU is thus based on the assumption that the elected representatives reflect the goals and preferences of the citizens. Yet delegates might follow their own agenda more than the citizens' will. Complementary procedures may therefore help maintain the legitimacy of governance. Mechanisms have been created to give more substance to the right of every citizen to participate in the democratic life of the EU (Article 10(3) TEU). The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) is the most emblematic of these (Article 11(4) TEU). It has been hailed as the world's first transnational tool of direct democracy. Yet, as neither the ECI nor any of the other of the Union's own instruments (cf. Article 11 TEU) is able to directly catalyse or constrain EU decision-making, the term 'direct democracy' is probably a misnomer at the supranational level. The power to govern the EU certainly does not lie directly in the hands of the people and cannot be expressed through, say, EU-wide referendums. The term 'participatory democracy' might thus be better suited for the EU as this concept challenges what is perceived as elitist forms of representation in liberal democracies and puts a prime on the active participation of civil society in public decision-making.

In a narrower sense, however, 'participatory democracy' is a process of collective decision-making that combines elements from both direct and representative democracy: citizens have the power to decide on policy proposals through referendums, civilian assemblies, public consultations, initiatives, petitions, etc., for example and politicians assume the role of policy implementation with little personal discretion. In this sense, instruments of direct democracy are no silver bullets but may be valuable supplements to representative democracy. They provide "the opportunity to break the cycle of increasingly distant, technocratic political institutions and increasingly disconnected citizens supporting populist positions".

In its original form, 'populism' is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: 'the pure people' and 'the corrupt elite', and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale of the people. Practically, populist politicians almost always combine it with other ideologies, such as nativism on the right and socialism on the left. Populism is a particular view of how society is and should be structured, but it addresses only a limited part of the larger political agenda. For example, it says little about the ideal economic or political system that a (populist) state should have. Its essential features are: morality and monism. In his seminal book, 'What is Populism?' Jan-Werner Müller argues that 'populism' is inimical to pluralism. Its target is pluralist, liberal democracy, with those vital constitutional and social checks and balances that prevent any "tyranny of the majority" from prevailing over individual human rights, safeguards for minorities, independent courts, a strong civil society, and independent, diverse media. Müller rejects the term 'illiberal democracy', arguing that it allows people like Viktor Orbán to claim that Hungary just has a different kind of democracy. Timothy Garton Ash stresses the need for

a term to describe what happens when a government [like that also of Jaroskaw Kaczynski in Poland] that emerges from a free and fair election is demolishing the foundations of a liberal democracy but has not yet erected an outright dictatorship – and may not even necessarily intend to.

1.3 Structure of the book

The volume opens with a chapter that digs into the existing EU-level mechanisms intended to give European citizens a louder voice and have it heard. This analysis is complemented by a handful of thematic chapters on narrative, procedural and technical aspects of political participation (Part II). The main body of the book (part III) comprises an empirical analysis of local demand and upward mobilisation. In a representative cross-section of half of the EU's membership (determined along geographical, economic, political, cultural and other lines), 14 country reports provide a bottom-up framework of political change and power contestation in the EU. Working with the grain of these socio-economic, cultural and political developments across the Union, the book concludes with a chapter that synthesises the research findings, debunks the myth of the unifying effects of direct democracy and offers recommendations to improve participatory democracy in the EU.


Pathways for Citizens to Engage in EU Policymaking

Sophia Russack

Introduction: direct democracy at EU level?

Participatory democracy has been a topic of discussion since the beginning of European integration, but mainly around the question of whether treaty revision should be legitimised by popular vote. The right to petition the European Parliament (EP) was for a long time the only instrument at EU citizens' disposal. Only with the Treaty of Lisbon was the role of participatory democracy formally recognised (through Article 11, TEU), when four more mechanisms were introduced. Most notably the European Citizens' Initiative, which is the first instrument that provides the opportunity for the direct participation of European citizens in the EU decision-making process (Böttger, Conrad and Knaut, 2016, 16). There are five EU instruments that can be classified as participatory:

• European Citizens' Initiative

• Petitioning the European Parliament

• Formal complaints to the ombudsman

• Public consultations

• Citizens' Dialogues

These will be subject of this analysis. Certainly, this requires a very wide interpretation of the term 'participatory', which more closely resembles mere channels of communication between the EU citizens and the EU institutions.

The five instruments can be categorised as either bottom-up or top-down. Whereas the European Citizens' Initiative, petitions to the European Parliament, and complaints to the European ombudsman fall into the category of bottom-up instruments as these offer citizens the opportunity to trigger certain processes themselves, Citizens' consultations and Citizens' dialogues account for top-down' approaches that are instigated by the EU's political elite. Bottom-up instruments facilitate citizens' influence over policy outcome because they challenge the existing policy preferences of the political elite. Top-down instruments are generally weaker as they aim for support of existing policies and the clarification of policy value to achieve more effective governance.

This chapter looks at how effective these instruments are at influencing EU policy and decision-making and what impact they have on the democratic quality of the EU. It offers a descriptive and analytical view of the benefits and shortfalls of the current system.

The main body of this contribution (sections 2.1 – 2.5) gives some background information on each of these five instruments and assesses them from three different angles, following the research design of (Hobolt, 2006)). First is the behaviour of citizens – who makes use of this tool, and how? Second, the political elite, who are the main institutional actors and do they (publicly) support the respective instrument? Third, the (potential) effects of these tools are analysed, as is whether they are able to influence EU policy outcomes. This analysis concludes with presenting the key findings (section 2.6).

2.1 The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI)

2.1.1 Background

This is the most prominent but rather recent participatory democratic instrument at EU level. It claims to allow for the direct participation of citizens in the development of EU policies by granting them the right them to ask the Commission to adopt legislation. It is the world's first transnational direct democracy tool (Greenwood and Tuokko, 2017, 5).

Articles 11(4) TEU and 24 TFEU allow citizens ("not less than a million" and "nationals of a significant number of member states", currently seven) to invite the Commission to act within its powers and submit "any appropriate proposal" on matters where they consider that a legal act is required "for the purpose of implementing the Treaties". If the required number of signatures is gathered within the timeframe of one year, then the Commission will consider the proposal.

The ECI idea was developed in the context of the Convention on the Future of Europe (2002-03) and incorporated into the draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe only at the last meeting of one of the Working Groups (Kaufmann, 2012, 3) thanks to the efforts of civil society organisations and two convention members. There was no wide public debate beforehand, which is why it caught many observers by surprise (Interview 15). Due to this rather hasty inclusion, the legal text outlines the contours of the ECI only broadly (Dougan, 2011, 1809). Despite the failure of the Constitutional Treaty, the ECI found its way into the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009.

To give hands and feet to the treaty provisions, the Commission published a Green Paper, followed by a formal proposal a few months later. The institutions reached final agreement in December 2010, and the current ECI regulation came into force in April 2012. The legal framework for the ECI is complemented by a Commission Implementing Regulation, which further defines technical specifications.

Since its implementation in 2012, various stakeholders have raised concerns about the functioning of the ECI and claimed that the existing instrument and procedures are too complicated and user-unfriendly. They have repeatedly called on the Commission to revise them. Among these stakeholders are civil society organisations, former campaign organisers and academics. Also, EU institutions and bodies have been very vocal on this, including the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman, the Committee of the Regions, and the European Economic and Social Committee.


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Table of Contents

Part I / 1. Introduction, CEPS, Brussels / 2. Instruments and Procedures of Direct Democracy at the EU level, CEPS, Brussels / Part II / 3. Country report Austria, Austrian Society for European Politics, Vienna / 4. Country report Bulgaria, Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia / 5. Country report Czech Republic, Institute of International Relations, Prague / 6. Country report Denmark, EUROPA, Copenhagen / 7. Country report Finland, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki / 8. Country report Germany, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin / 9. Country report Greece, ELIAMEP, Athens / 10. Country report Italy, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome / 11. Country report Latvia, Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Riga / 12. Country report Poland, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw / 13. Country report Romania, European Institute of Romania, Bucharest / 14. Country report Slovakia, Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Bratislava / 15. Country report Spain, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid / 16. Country report United Kingdom, Centre for European Reform, London / Part III / 17. How to Strengthen European Political Parties from a National Perspective, PROVIDUS, Riga / 18. Reflections on the Democratic Conventions throughout the EU, CIDOB, Barcelona / 19. ‘Civic-tech’ – Impact of digital technologies on democratic processes and political participation, WiseEuropa, Warsaw / 20. EU Storytelling and the New Narrative for Europe – Who is going to listen?, European Institute, Sofia / Part IV / 21. Conclusions and the way forward, Carnegie Europe, Brussels

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