Reconnecting Europe with its citizens


Picture of Isabelle Calleja Ragonesi
Isabelle Calleja Ragonesi

Many portray the European Union as a wounded animal, assailed on all sides by the upcoming UK referendum, the euro crisis, growing euroscepticism, the migration challenge and instability on its external borders.

Yet the EU has survived crises before and still managed to grow to 28 members, with many others knocking on the door. It is the world’s largest economic bloc, with a reserve currency that has challenged the hegemony of the dollar.

The EU successfully guided the democratic transitions of its eastern members in the 1990s, expanding a union of of prosperity and stability that contrasts with the chaotic politics of its southern and eastern neighbours.

It has a voting system weighted to favour smaller members, provides funds and space for eurosceptic MEPs, seeks the equitable redistribution of funds from rich to poor regions and has opened its borders to asylum seekers more readily than other parts of the Western world.

However, in its long march through history, the EU has neglected to win the attachment and the understanding of its people. This is its Achilles heel and it may well be its undoing

The average citizen often views the EU as something beyond their grasp, a union supported by – and run for – the elites, governing at a distance and responsible for many of the unpopular decisions taken at national level. Voter apathy is reflected in falling turnout at European Parliament elections.

The EU has periodically reviewed its governing structures in search of more popular setups. As a result, today we have an EP that forms part of a bicameral system alongside the Council, which represents member states. There’s a committee representing the regions and the subsidiarity principle to ensure powers are shared between different tiers of government.

At this critical juncture, however, the EU still has to build the grassroots support it needs to survive. Though the focus now is on border security and terrorist threats, changes to make the Union more democratic and more popular must not be neglected or delayed.

It is imperative that national and local government be brought into that process.

There has to be an important role for the subsidiarity clause that is designed to ensure decisions are taken at the level of government most competent to deal with them and most affected by the outcome. Subsidiarity cannot be a paper tiger, ill-defined under the law and difficult to apply.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, national parliaments were given powers to review EU legislation to ensure that it respects subsidiarity. However, the eight-week review period assigned is too short. In addition, the lawmakers’ work is hampered by a lack of communication between national parliaments, and between parliaments and their executives.

National parliaments can only accept or reject the legislation, they cannot amend it. Their response is funnelled through the executive and only governments can bring a dispute over contested legislation to the European Court of Justice. From the Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force in December 2009 up to 2012, only one piece of legislation was successfully challenged for violating the subsidiarity principle.

Among suggestions for change is a Swedish proposal for a new clause stating that if two-thirds of national parliaments consider a draft law to be contrary to the principle of subsidiarity, it would fall.

The role of national parliaments in the EU legislative loop certainly needs to be improved. A report from the Danish Folketing suggests giving national parliaments powers to review legislative proposals from the the European Commission and to request the Commission draft new laws, if there is agreement from at least one-third of national parliaments.

Swedish lawmakers have suggested the inclusion of a representative from national parliaments at European Council meetings.

National parliaments however need more resources to fulfil these tasks and even to make use of others already in place – like the 2012 agreement from the Commission to respond to questions from national parliaments.

At the local level, the Committee of the Regions should be upgraded from a mere consultative organ to a regional chamber with power-sharing mechanisms. Local and regional authorities implement approximately 70% of all legislation and the president of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the Committee of the Regions argues convincingly on the need for it to have new powers to delay and amend EU regulations.

Finally, the supranational needs to meet the local by improving relations between Members of the European Parliament and their constituencies. MEPs must find a way to engage with their electorate and to bring the EU closer to their homes.

The EU of the future will be more diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion, and it must derive its legitimacy from its citizens. Only then can we recognise that what binds us together is a sense of community underpinned by the shared values of democracy, liberty and equality, and avoid being driven apart again by narrow nationalisms that should have no place in the Europe of the 21st Century.

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