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The Face of European Democracy

, by Federica Martiny, Translated by Marion Denis

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It is incredibly difficult to tell what the real face of democracy is. In the course of history, many thought that they knew it well, that they could see it in front of them and that they could identify it among many others. However, its features would always change. Someone saw in it a demonic face, someone else an evil grin behind a mask, or a stern face, or an expression inspired by passion, or else a fair one. Yet, democracy has always appeared to us in different ways, depending on the time and place. In the 5th-century’s Athens, back to its origins, democracy was focused on the assembly, thus on the debates and deliberations of free citizens within the Assembly. However, the so-called democracy of the moderns is a representative, parliamentary and liberal democracy: it is the democracy of nation-states.

If the European federal state is meant to overcome the partition of the continent into sovereign nation-states, it will be difficult for it to cope with a democracy which was born within those same nation-states, and which made them strong. The Old Continent may now need a new democracy. Indeed, already a few years ago, Zygmunt Bauman wrote: “Global democracy will be different both from the current one and from the parliamentary model, because if all the forms of democracy invented during the modern times have been devised, modeled and then redefined for the nation-state, a global democracy, which takes into account a world so drastically varied, and different in terms of thinking, seeing, living, believing and hoping, will have to be different from the form of democracy that we know.” Probably, before applying to global democracy, this applies also to European democracy.

Democracies of the European nation-states are experiencing a time of unprecedented crisis: as they are unable to find an answer to the economic crisis on their own, they are undermined by nationalisms and xenophobic discourses. In almost every European country, the political systems are facing disillusions and crises of legitimacy, elections’ abstention rate is extremely high, citizens’ trust in the national institutions and in their representatives is at its lowest, and this leaves room for the emergence of populism and racism. In front of this snapshot, it may not be enough to think that the problem is going to be solved just by suggesting once again national democracy at the European level. Obviously, when European parties will be elected on the basis of their genuine European programmes, which will then be implemented by a federal government, the situation will be far better than the current one, which suffers from the constant rule of the intergovernmental method. But the evermore urging request for public debate and political participation will not be met.

We could go on thinking that the cultural level of the average citizen is too low in order to justify that power is still given to a selected minority; or, reflecting on the fact that this theory has always been used to perpetuate the dynamics of the existing power, we can also try to imagine a different European democracy, which would really be participative, inclusive and take into account many different voices and points of view. In other words, this kind of democracy would be better and more controlled.

Nowadays, Europe is in dire need of democracy. The first essential step should be a project of revision of the European Treaties before the 2014 elections of the European Parliament, in order to define a new architecture of the European institutions that foresees the strengthening of political unity in a federal way, starting from the Eurozone countries, and then the convention of a constituent Assembly with the role of devising a Constitution. Should all this happen, we cannot stop there.

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  • On 4 December 2012 at 20:39, by I want out Replying to: The Face of European Democracy

    What exactly do you mean by the comment “this kind of democracy would be better and more controlled”. Who does the controlling ?

    Let us assume you establish your convention to devise a constitution, do you intend to put it to the people for their verdict given the annoying habit of the electorate to turn such wonderful opportunities down or will it simply be presented as a fact and imposed on them without consultation ?

  • On 11 December 2012 at 15:01, by Peter Replying to: The Face of European Democracy

    In Europe citizens already have various options to participate. I personally would not think creating even more diffusion makes it easier for citizens to control the political process. Rather than creating lots of new ways to participate we should strengthen existing institutions and mechanisms. Citizens will only participate if they see that their participation has an influence on society. Strengthening the European Parliament, reforming political parties, investing strongly in civic education and protecting media pluralism in my opinion should be the way forward.

    Where we really lack possibilities to participate all together is the global level. Zygmunt Bauman’s call for new forms of democracy does not impress me until he offers a detailed alternative model which he believes would work. Also it has to be noticed that he has signed the appeal for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly and thus seem to not oppose institutions which are at least partly based on the experience we have already made in the nation states and in the European Union (Appeal for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly: en.unpacampaign.org/appeal). Obviously global democracy is a long term project with many obstacles still ahead.

    Awareness for global decision making is growing though. Campaigns like 350.org or projects such as WWViews.org are trying to bring citizens voices to the negotiation tables without running into the problem of difficult institutional reforms. We do have to think of all kinds of measures how to make global governance more accountable to the world citizens: building institutions such as a parliamentary assembly at the United Nations, eradicating poverty and hunger (poor cannot make themselfs being heard in political decision making), offering education, protecting the internet as a global platform for deliberation, making global governance more transparent, etc.

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