To be or not to be in the EU: Is that the question?

By Matt Ryan, Teaching Fellow in Politics & International Relations

Earlier this week I chaired a table discussion on bottom-up democracy at a world café event organised by European Alternatives at Europe House in London entitled ‘To be or not to be in the EU: Is that the question?’. The event brought researchers and civil society activists together with members of the general public to generate ideas for a more democratic Europe. The summary of ideas will be discussed at a transnational meeting of citizens in Venice and the ideas will be incorporated into a citizen’s manifesto to try and influence those running for the EP in 2014.

The focus of discussion at my table was on designing institutions for collective decision-making across Europe in a way that allows meaningful participation of ordinary citizens. Participants were very much of the view that the EU is a de facto elitist organisation. Opportunities for voice of ordinary citizens are in reality minimal. Participants consistently expressed the view that those in the greatest need are rarely those who are consulted in EU decision-making. There is very little media presence for innovations in democracy despite its prevalence at a local level. They are rarely mentioned by politicians at the European level. There is no reason why local innovation cannot co-exist with and buttress institutions that actively create deep participation at a transnational level. Finally, but relatedly, it was felt that the EU is very centralised. It rarely dips its toes into its rural or urban backwaters – even these consultations always take place in London, and never in places that are not tourist destinations.

Proposals from participants for citizen’s manifesto:

  1. When the EU considers public participation it needs to actively seeks out and provide the foundations for less established minorities to participate and voice their stories and fresh ideas on an equal footing. The EU should clearly show an interest in incentivising these groups using everything from asking them to paying them. It is felt that this would give them the respect, compensation and autonomy necessary to participate in politics.
  2. When groups participate in decision-making it is imperative that they are given information and allowed the experience of deliberating with fellow EU citizens from different walks of life. The EU should more actively create these spaces throughout the public sphere.
  3. Relatedly, the EU should mirror the ERASMUS programme but expand it to fund European mobility for exchanges of persons in all types of employment. It was felt that ERASMUS has been the single most successful policy in fostering a pan-European transnational identity. Citizens often end up living happily and becoming connected to cities they would otherwise never have heard of. However it is restricted to those in Higher Education (a group already politically engaged). Perhaps the EU could start by funding an exchange programme for government workers (not one that sends them all to Brussels but all over Europe).
  4. The European Union should legislate such that multinational corporations who employ workers across European borders must have a democratic structure in order to enjoy the economic benefits of European markets. This means that workers across countries must have power over significant decisions made by these companies, engendering transnational workplace democracy.
  5. MEPs should be a lot more vocal and active in promoting and giving voice to ideas like electoral reform, decisions made by citizen’s assemblies of stratified random samples of the European population, citizen’s initiatives and opportunities for citizen’s to have a say on capital infrastructure projects built with EU money. If they claim they are already doing some of the things we are asking for then could they show us and promote them please!
  6. The EU needs to be active in building civil society as a countervailing power particularly in newer member states where corruption is still a barrier to effective democracy. They could do this by funding an exchange programme for community organisers.

Are these the kinds of discussions we should be having about Europe? I certainly think they provide a for a more fruitful and creative discourse on alternatives to politics in Europe!

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