TCS Daily


Less Is More

By Joshua Livestro - June 8, 2004 12:00 AM

The Founding Fathers of the European project -- men like Churchill, Adenauer, Schuman and De Gasperi -- built a network of institutions that has proven to be spectacularly effective in guaranteeing peace and prosperity in Europe. They realized that only economic integration could ever help the Old Continent to overcome its centuries old divisions. They also realized, however, that too much ambition in the design of this cooperative effort could endanger the whole project.

The founding treaties are based on the sensible thought that the member states should always try to avoid doing too much -- and certainly avoid trying too much all at once. In Eurospeak this is called "engrenage" (French for 'spill-over'): one practical proposal for European cooperation might lead to a next practical proposal. A series of practical achievements could over time lead to the growth of a sense of "real solidarity" between the free nations of Europe. Any attempt to rush this development, however, would only be counterproductive.

Nowhere was this more obviously true than in the case of the European Parliament. Democratic supervision of any political process is of course of the greatest possible importance. But according to the Founding Fathers, the introduction of a European democracy would have to be preceded by the development of a European demos. Without a European population -- which even the optimists among them were forced to admit, would take many decades, possibly even centuries, to develop -- any attempt at introducing democracy at the European level would be bound to fail. What the Founding Fathers feared most, then, was not a democratic deficit but a democratic surplus, which is why they decided to limit the powers of the original Parliament by not having its members democratically elected. In the original design, the important democratic checks were provided for by the national parliaments.

Over time, however, this wisdom of the Founding Fathers has been ignored. A new generation of Europeans took the helm, convinced of its own ability to create ex nihilo the preconditions for the successful introduction of European democracy. The logic of this new way of thinking is best summarized in the statement by the German philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas that the presence of a European demos is not a precondition of a federal European state, since a federal state will, as if by magic, "create new ties of loyalty between the European citizen and the European institutions." Habermas calls this a "potentially self-fulfilling prophecy".

Unfortunately for Habermas, however, his hypothesis has already been tested to destruction. For the past 25 years, many powers, some of them quite significant, have been transferred from the member states to the centre, without any indication that this has led to an increased attachment on the part of the citizens to the European Union or its institutions. On the contrary, it seems that the more powers are transferred, the greater the skepticism on the part of the citizens becomes.

The European Parliament is a case in point. For years, federal enthusiasts claimed that its legitimacy and popularity among voters were bound to grow, if only its powers were further increased. Well, since the introduction of direct elections in 1979, its powers have been increased quite dramatically - it now has powers of co-decision in many, often highly significant policy areas. And what is the result of all this? The Parliament's legitimacy has steadily been eroded over the past 25 years, with ever lower turnouts across Europe. At the last elections, less than half of all voters went to the polls. In Britain, turnout was a miserable 23 percent, in The Netherlands a mere 30 percent. For this year's elections, researchers are predicting turnout might be even worse. Those voters that do bother to go to the polls are expected to back euro-skeptic parties in unprecedented numbers. People are voting with their feet, and they are voting the Parliament down, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) all its newly won powers. Members of the European Parliament shouldn't take this personally, by the way. After all, how can they inspire a sense of loyalty among a demos that doesn't exist?

The main question is now how to deal with this problem. The Habermas strategy -- simply continue bestowing ever more powers and privileges upon the European Parliament until we finally reach a point where a European demos will spontaneously come into being -- has proven to be a failure. Instead of creating a feeling of "real solidarity" between the peoples of Europe, it has led to ever increasing disillusionment with the whole project of European integration among Europe's voters.

A more productive strategy would be to do the opposite of what Habermas suggests. If voters don't feel the same sense of attachment to the European Parliament that they do feel to their national parliaments, it seems only sensible to give national parliaments a greater role in the European policy making process -- if necessary at the expense of the European Parliament. It is interesting to note that representatives of the governments of various member states have used the never-ending discussions about a new constitutional treaty for Europe to promote exactly such a move. An "early warning system" would allow national parliaments to scrutinize proposed European legislation for any violations of the subsidiarity principle (Europe's version of the tenth amendment to the American constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.") Such a system would limit the powers of the European Parliament, if not de jure, than at least de facto by guaranteeing that certain proposals would never reach its table.

Let's hope this new sense of realism can help to restore the credibility of the project of European cooperation. It's still not too late to return to the sensible old ways of the Founding Fathers.


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