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EU: Does It Rest On The Will Of The People?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union has a popularity problem. Despite the economic prosperity that the EU has undeniably helped spread through its member states, there are vocal minorities that oppose further European integration. These voices, from both the right and the left in the political spectrum, point mostly to what they see as the EU's "democratic deficit," and they question the democratic legitimacy of its pan-European framework.

Prague, 16 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "Demos" is the Greek word for "people." It is the root of the term "democracy" -- meaning rule by the people and for the people. Therefore, it follows that there can only be a democracy where there is a demos, a people.

Applying that notion to the European Union, critics say there is no such thing as a European people upon which to legitimately rest such a weighty structure as the EU.

Others, pointing to the common spiritual and cultural heritage stemming from the Greco-Roman world, say the European demos is present but its existence is largely obscured by a preoccupation with nation states.

The subject may seem somewhat academic, but in fact it has practical importance, for instance, on the issue of the coming eastward enlargement of the union. Citizens in the old, as well as the new, member states need to feel that they are building the right future if they are to lend their political support to the European project.

One of the leading voices in the critics' camp is Anthony Coughlan, a senior lecturer at Ireland's Trinity College. For him, the EU does not have the legitimacy to set laws Europe-wide. He says that in a stable, democratic political entity, the people are normally a nationality or a nation, where there is sufficient solidarity and mutual identification among its members as to make them obey majority rule. Coughlan said there is nothing comparable to that at European Union level. "The EU project sets up a supranational identity, which is unique in the world, because in no other part of the world do sovereign states surrender national power to supranational bodies, where the laws are made and people cannot change the law. How can the Czechs, the Irish, and the British change European law? They cannot. They can at most get their own government to vote a particular way, but that government is in most cases likely to be outvoted on the union's Council of Ministers. That is the fundamental democratic problem; I think it is insoluble," Coughlan said.

Another academic, Karen Smith of the London School of Economics, took a different view. She said she's uncertain whether the common historical legacy shared by all Europeans is sufficient to constitute them as a European demos. But she said they are now becoming a demos exactly because of the existence of the EU. In other words, what she calls the "we" feeling does not have to precede the development of a governance system. She rejects theories resting on ethnically homogeneous national states.

"To that extent, any national government is an alien structure being imposed on people because there is not a country in Western Europe -- and especially in Eastern Europe -- that consists of some homogeneous ethnically unified grouping. Every country consists of a variety of peoples that have emigrated and crossed the land in the course of millennia, so to say that any national government is governing on behalf of some ethnically unified group is simply false. From that perspective, any government is imposed on a people who might not be described as a demos. They, the governments, created the demos, historically," Smith said.

Professor Alexander Smolar, of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, sais the problem of the demos centers on whether Europe can be considered as a political community.

"We don't have yet really the feeling of belonging to a political community called Europe; in all critical moments people will fight for their own national interest. Partly, certainly, this is a consequence of [the methods used in] the process of European integration until now, which is associated with the name of [one of the EU founders] Jean Monnet, whose strategy was not to formulate the integration process in political terms, but rather to try to impose political changes as a consequence of piecemeal economic transformation. For example, let's say, for instance, that you make some economic changes, then you would later need to make political changes leading to further integration," Smolar said.

Smolar added that this was the strategy that was used from the very start of the integration process in Europe, and has continued "quite successfully" almost until the present day. The drawback of such an indirect method is that people have not been encouraged to feel like citizens of Europe, but instead have come to regard the EU merely as a bureaucratic process between governments.

Smolar said that if the EU is to be popularized, and people brought to feel "European," then its institutions must be democratized, possibly including direct elections for a European president. In addition, the EU must show by its actions that it matters in the everyday lives of the citizens.

He identified another problem in popularizing the EU in Eastern Europe, namely the fact that some people worry that their countries are giving up part of their sovereignty to the EU so soon after escaping from Soviet influence, with all its restrictions. He said most people recognize the difference, namely that the EU is a voluntary union.

"It is a problem that after leaving Soviet space with limited sovereignty, it is quite difficult for people to recognize that in the modern world, to have bigger influence over your own fate, you should give up part of your sovereignty in order to strengthen European structures. So this is certainly a problem for new democracies," Smolar said.

The European Commission in Brussels has to some degree recognized the problem of lack of popularity, and is undertaking a campaign to give itself and the EU in general a more positive image.