In our ‘Europe2025’ series, Jan Zielonka offers a vision of a normative, not a technocratic, Europe, driven by the values of democracy and equality.
Governments are fond of long-term strategies which are seldom implemented in practice. This is because political reality is usually about coping with unexpected shocks, which turn neat strategies and careful planning on their heads. It is also because we are confronted with many challenges and have limited resources to address them. Choosing priorities is therefore the most important and contentious exercise.
While priorities should emerge from our vision of a good society, they must also be guided by practical considerations. Not everything can be achieved overnight and there are various routes to our destination. In the next few years, I would like the European Union to make progress in two crucial domains: democracy and equality.
My vision of the good society envisages a government by the people and for the people. The latter is primarily about equality, the former democracy. Of course, there are as many notions of democracy and equality as there are different ways of achieving them. And what I consider priorities may clash with other objectives. Security may demand some curbing of democracy, while prosperity and equality are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. We would therefore need to perform a difficult balancing or ‘rebalancing’ act.
In recent years, the EU has however put more emphasis on prosperity and security than on equality and democracy. The acquis is very thin in social policy and democracy has been perceived mainly in terms of representation rather than participation, deliberation or contestation. Unfortunately, representation at the European level is still opaque, while representation on the national level has been discredited. We therefore need to be innovative and engage in experimentation.
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Without enhancing democracy, it is hard to implement any other task in Europe. The era of elite-led ‘permissive consensus’ on European politics has ended. The Eurosceptics may not be in the driving seat but this does not mean that we can take pro-European citizens for granted. They want to see more transparency within European institutions and they want to have a greater say on European matters. They also want the EU to work for them and not just for a privileged few, which highlights the issue of equality.
Transparency should not just concern the process of political decision-making. The EU is primarily an economic giant and citizens ought to be granted more insight into financial and contractual matters. The existence of tax havens in Europe is particularly deplorable and the fact that we learned about them from WikiLeaks speaks volumes about the selective transparency of European institutions.
These EU institutions also have murky relations with lobbyists. It is telling that the European Parliament recently snubbed a proposal to make contacts with lobbyists more transparent. This kind of attitude must end or else it will be impossible to talk seriously about enhancing Europe’s democratic credentials. There is no democracy without transparency. The EU is cosy with big business and lobbyists while ignoring its citizens, especially the poor ones. (As the EUobserver recently revealed, the European Commission has for months refused to disclose the results of emissions tests it did on a Porsche diesel vehicle—at the request of Porsche.)
Democracy can also be enhanced by curbing central powers in Brussels and bringing them closer to the local level, both territorial and functional. When decentralisation within the EU is discussed, the focus is on subsidiarity, which is about giving more power to states rather than citizens. I am more interested in empowering citizens, as individuals or as members of various sub-and trans-national public and private bodies. And dividing power helps to enhance transparency, accountability and access. The concentration of power, far from citizens, is usually difficult to understand or engage with, let alone control.
The first step towards dispersing centralised power within the EU could be to set up a second chamber of the European Parliament, featuring representatives of cities, regions and non-governmental organisations. The latter category would include business associations and trade unions. I would prefer entrepreneurs to argue their case in the European Parliament, rather than in private dining rooms in Brussels, Berlin or Paris.
This second chamber would likely have not only a different membership but also a different logic from the first chamber, which is dominated by professional national politicians. Cities, regions and NGOs handle migration and poverty differently from states. They are from a different political universe in terms of their priorities, organisation and corporate culture.
Another step to curb centralised power would be to strengthen the numerous European regulatory agencies. These are located across the entirety of Europe, not just in Brussels. Actors involved in distinct domains, from food safety and maritime traffic to human rights and migration, watch them closely and take part in their work.
More power and resources could also be given to the European ombudsman, who has proved effective in enhancing transparency and ethics within the EU. Numerous documents have been made public upon the ombudsman’s insistence and the College of Commissioners has bowed to demands to tighten the rules on the declaration of interests.
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Enhancing equality within the EU is probably more difficult than enhancing democracy. This is because creditor states do not want debtor states to ‘grab’ what they deem ‘their’ money. This is also because economic distribution is chiefly in the hands of ‘the markets’, with their peculiar ascribed views on inequality. Moreover, redistribution is difficult to enhance in a period of economic stagnation.
It is also true, however, that inequalities have grown in an ideological climate which has given priority to the private sector over the public. Neoliberal ideology was chiefly about individual liberty, not social justice. Challenging this ideology is therefore the first step in combating inequality.
This should be followed by a few specific and largely experimental measures. We should aim to make the EU a genuine transnational institution with a meaningful redistributive capacity. It should chase firms failing to pay taxes as heartily as it is chasing indebted states. It should also be given a budget which would allow it to pursue meaningful redistributive policies—the current EU budget is tiny and each member state wants to get ‘its’ money back from Brussels under various pretexts. EU laws and regulations should also start defending those in the most dire social and economic positions.
The concrete measures to pursue these goals include a tax on financial transactions, a Europe-wide minimum wage and regulations benefitting workers from the poorest parts of the continent, mainly living in suburbs of large cities or agricultural plantations where modern slavery and social deprivation are notorious.
Policies should be legitimate as well as effective. The EU has been concerned principally with the latter, while neglecting the former. Enhancing democracy and equality can put Europe back on the right track.
Jan Zielonka is professor of politics and international relations at the University of Venice, Cá Foscari, and at the University of Oxford. His latest book is The Lost Future and How to Reclaim It (Yale University Press, 2023).