18 February 2011

Direct democracy in Europe: Free beer for everyone?

We have been following for years the often misleading debate on the so-called “democratic deficit” in Europe. The adoption of the citizens’ initiative this week by the European Parliament and the Council provides the occasion to ponder its validity.

The US system of initiatives and referenda allows for some comparison. While Article 1 of the US Constitution does not allow for a federal level initiative, several states do allow it in one way or another. One of the most famous such initiative was the recall of Governor Gray Davies in California in 2003, which paved the way for the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor.

The Golden State, incidentally, is notorious for the use and, as sometimes alleged, abuse of direct democracy by well funded interest groups, as it seems to be a rather expensive exercise to field a successful initiative. “There is no big secret to the formula for manipulating California's initiative process. Find a billionaire benefactor with the ideological motivation or crass self-interest to spend the $1-million plus to get something on the ballot with mercenary signature gatherers.” (John Diaz) For the downside of direct democracy, see the rest of this commentary.

But the US system (and the famous Swiss Direct Democracy) is very different from the new European citizens’ initiative. The European version is not a legislative initiative or a referendum, but a non-binding initiative, which does not oblige the Commission to follow it up with a proposal. The Commission can decide not to propose legislation and has also wide ranging powers to block initiatives (e.g. in case of not serious initiatives).

Some hailed the citizens’ initiative saying that it may help reduce the democratic deficit of the EU. The question whether the EU should be referred to in the third person notwithstanding, which would also merit some examination, we are not really convinced by this argument, simply because the much discussed “democratic deficit” may not exist.

Kovács and Kováts despise propaganda, are bored of “success stories” and like nothing more than some healthy skepticism. But we find critiques of the legitimacy of Union decision-making mostly misleading. (Not least because the usual subjects of institution bashing are the Commission and the European Parliament while the Council rarely gets its share.)

The Commission and/or the European Parliament are often branded as “distant from citizens”, “elected with a low turnout” (EP) or simply ”unelected and unaccountable to citizens” (Commission), “removed from the people’s will as shown in the rejection of the Constitution by voters”, “elitist”, etc. In 1774, well before the time of our founding fathers, Edmund Burke has presented a concise rebuke to such critique of representative democracy in his Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll. Kováts being a fan of Burke, we must quote him here extensively:
“... it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. … But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. … Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
How does the European citizens’ initiative relate to that? If the European Union is a representative democracy and not a country with a mixed system, what is the point of having a direct democratic element in the system, like the citizens’ initiative?

With modern communication technology new forms of civil engagement are evolving. Communication becomes interactive between the public and politicians. The citizens’ initiative can highlight issues for the Commission and thus provide a channel for the public opinion. This can create a sense of ownership of Europe and sow the seeds of a real European public space and debate.

The fact that the 1 million signatures must come form at least 7 different countries (one quarter of the Member States) will already create a European political space and political debate. This is what Kovács and Kováts see as the greatest potential result of the citizens’ initiative. Its existence may motivate citizens to use it and thus create a European public space. One may see it as the political equivalent of the Erasmus program or the research framework program, both of which (promise to) create a single European community out of disparate national communities.

Finally, we’ll be watching the Commission if it will show a healthy sense of humour when registering proposed initiatives. According to the regulation the Commission must deny, inter alia, registration if an initiative is obviously not serious (e.g. frivolous, abusive or vexatious). Imagining the college of commissioners debating an initiative for granting subsidized beer for everyone (a long-time political demand in our native Hungary), would not hurt the European Union’s image, but might just bring it closer to its citizens…

1 comment:

  1. Well, I think that the idea of subsidised beer for everyone is the epitome of a "frivolous, abusive or vexatious" proposal.

    So, right there we see that the notion of censoring citizens' initiatives on even such apparently respectable grounds would be problematic. And yet the EU commentariat, as well as the legislature, evidently thinks it a good thing.

    Is not the requirement of 1 million signatures from 7 member states not a good enough filter ?