TCS Daily


Look Back in Agora

By Evgeny Morozov - June 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Go ask your boss if you can take year off with full pay. "To reflect, think about life, priorities, and values; the important stuff, you know?" Then, at the end of that year, ask for another year off at full pay to engage in some more reflection.

Sound familiar? Then you probably are a European politician. If so, you must have taken special delight in the outcome of the recent meeting of EU foreign ministers at the Klosterneuburg monastery in Austria. Rest assured: yet another reflection year will not be wasted. Conferences, symposia, and conventions will be organized to ensure that the ministers have enough upon which to reflect until at least 2020. A few more years of such reflection -- and EU will become the biggest publicly funded think-tank in the world.

The European Parliament has joined the coalition of the reflecting, too, but its case is subtle and involves an unidentified communication disorder. One year after the French and the Dutch rejected the EU constitution, the assembly wants to offer some free psychological counseling to everybody affected by that crisis of confidence. Talking, of course, is the main initiative spearheaded by one of the parliament's many vice presidents, French Green MEP Gerard Onesta. Since a "No" is never a "No" in Europe, before venturing into giving any prescriptions Onests attempted to interpret what the French and the Dutch actually meant with their votes:

"Through the no vote in the Netherlands and France -- I hope -- the citizens did not say no to Europe but they said stop! Now we want to participate. Please help us to participate."

So it is help he is offering -- by creating regular forums for citizens to debate the same draft laws as MEPs. As EU Observer reports, there would be five to six forums per year, uniting 300 participants each. The parliament group leaders are supposed to green-light a one-year pilot project this month.

The idea behind Onesta's proposal is not new and has its roots in the ancient Greek idea of "agora", a town square marketplace, where citizens gathered to debate the most pressing issues of the day. In a similar fashion, Onesta and his colleagues hope to spark a true European debate. Why not, after all? Thus, the merits of the EU constitution can be debated until the national constituencies recognize its merits -- or else.

What the European Parliament fails to understand is that agora per se has never been a debate chamber. It was a marketplace, where people came to trade in goods, services, and - sometimes -- ideas. The EU's version of an agora will not meet these requirements until all national capitals embrace the idea of an ever-growing single market, the only tangible achievement of the European project up-to-date. If the EU wants people to start trading in ideas, it had better not interfere in their trade in goods and services.

The current EU agora, mired in quotas, overregulated labor markets, endless barriers to trade, enslavement by the Common Agricultural Policy, and paranoia against Polish plumbers and Anglo-Saxon locusts, is illustrative of the European debate in general. It is this very debate in which some, to borrow a phrase from Jacques Chirac, "miss a great opportunity to shut up".

The crucial distinction between an effective agora and the EU version lies in the wretched principle of representation inherent in almost all European institutions. The classic agora was open to those who had something to say; the EU's will be composed of citizens nominated by parliamentary committees dealing with the issues on the agenda. Jacki Davis, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, put it best in an interview with the EU Observer: "It may seem like the MEPs preaching to the converted or Brussels talking to Brussels".

But it could be even worse than Brussels talking to Brussels. Onesta did not bother to explain the point of having an independent assembly of people recommended by parliamentarians themselves. Will they have anything new to say? Will the EU's agora secure any representatives from the 56 percent of the French and 61 percent of the Dutch who said "No" to the Constitution?

How many Euroskeptic voices will be heard? Will the new agora reach out to the bloggers (beyond Margaret Wallstrom and Carl Bildt), who are steering the European public debate more effectively than most of official opinion leaders? All these questions linger in the unknown -- and most likely will be answered negatively.

The consequence of having an EU agora, passionately expected by everybody in the European institutions, is that it will legitimize their worst and least democratically accountable excesses. Worry they should not: an unrepresentative and unaccountable body like the carefully pre-selected agora will not add extra legitimacy points to, say, the quasi-representative European Commission.

Ironically enough, the only previous gathering that remotely resembled the EU's version of agora was the Convention on the Future of Europe, composed of intellectuals, artists, and leaders of civil society, all screened to fit the very purposes of the European project. To see what came out of their agorian efforts, look no further than referenda in France and the Netherlands; the gap between the elites and the masses has never been wider. In its current form, the new EU agora looks more like another retirement channel for European politicos, embracing such great leaders of the yesteryear as Schröder, Berlusconi, and soon Blair.

That the European Parliament will dump such a nice-looking proposal is not likely. After all, is there a better way to get rid of that Strasbourg building than to relegate it to 300 squatting debaters? But with five meetings per year, four more cities could be added to the list. So, open your checkbooks, European taxpayers -- your voices finally need to be heard.

The author is a TCS contributing writer. He blogs at www.sharpandsound.com

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