The 13th Principle: The Importance of a European Public Sphere

It is essential to create a European public sphere as legitimator, commentator, and forum for discussion as well as a check on Union and regional politics. By Florian Le Gallo

See also this previous article on the need for a European public sphere.

Whilst every citizen of a Member State is also a citizen of the European Union, very few of them feel involved in a process which takes into account their voice. The debate about the ‘democratic deficit’ of the Union has been ongoing for several decades now. In the 2001 Laeken Declaration, the European institutions warned about the lack of democracy in the EU policymaking process and the necessity to strengthen the role of the European public. Yet it has also been argued that the successive reforms of the European institutions have given more and more power to the European Parliament, which, as a democratically-elected body, represents the will of the people. However, is this enough to involve the European people in the institutional processes? There is the further problem that referenda and European elections – the only way for European citizens to directly express their opinion about the EU – have largely revolved around national rather than European issues. Given this, the European Union cannot just continue with its marginal reform but must create a brand new place for the European public sphere.

The European Union is a historically unique initiative. Gathering different peoples all across Europe, it is not a nation-state whose legitimacy rests on a national consensus; it is consequently necessary to design arenas where those peoples are able to discuss common issues. The EU has the responsibility to produce this public sphere where a European demos could display its richness and feel involved in the democratic process of the Union. According to the Greek meaning of the term, the demos is the polity where citizens form a unique political body made of their different interests and points of view but also work for the general good of the polis (city). The spirit of European democracy, which is already well-established in every Member State and which has been codified by the European treaties, should then find a real and practical presence in the lives of citizens who wish to take the European project into their own hands. It is thus high time to involve them in the policymaking process. The Union’s legitimacy would be greatly reinforced.

We shall thus exhort Member States and national party leaders to bring European issues into national public spheres and ensure the EU institutions reform toward this path. Just as national civil societies are legitimate commentators on national politics, the European people should also play this role for European issues. A reinforced democratic Union would enable citizens to both have a voice in the policymaking process and be able to control policy outcomes. We need fully-fledged European parties across national borders; this would help European elections become discussions of Europe-wide issues, rather than just midterm vehicles for national party politics. (In this respect, responsibility also lies with national political leaders.) We also suggest the direct election of a President of the Union.

Issues concerning the whole continent, as we have seen with the recent economic crisis, could be better tackled if managed by a directly elected body which would also be representative of all the citizens. A more direct involvement of EU citizens in the policy-making process would reinforce the institutions’ accountability and bring them closer to citizens’ needs.

We believe the EU public should become a full member of the Union policymaking process. With the European people as a legitimate actor commenting its action, the EU would achieve a more democratic base and better fit the interests of its peoples. Reforms should therefore be instigated with the aim of bringing a new democratic spirit to the European project.

Image: “Puerta del Sol square in Madrid after the demonstration on 15 October” by Rafael Tovar via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons License 2.0.


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