Δ.N. Χρυσοχόου: Reforming Europe: The Challenge Ahead
A few weeks since the ‘compromised structure’ agreed at the June 2007 European Council in Brussels for a Reform Treaty to replace, but not reignite, Europe’s constitutional ambitions with a moderate reform package, the question what kind of Europe we want (or need) still remains at the top of the political agenda.
Underlying this oft-raised question, whose answer is as nebulous as ever, is the equally puzzling issue of how to transform the present-day European Union (EU) into a political community composed of free and equal citizens, thus establishing a dynamic equilibrium between the parallel demands for ‘unity in diversity’; an ever pertinent motto for the reconciliation of state sovereignty and supranational authority. And that, against the background of a still discernible political crisis following the rejection of the stillborn Constitutional Treaty by the French and Dutch publics some two years ago. Although one could argue that the addition of ‘reform’ to the title of any EU-related study makes the work appear more relevant, and sometimes even respectable, there is evidence to suggest that any attempt at sketching out a comprehensive reform package for the EU as a polity in its own right should strive towards a new category, if not paradigm, of social and political organization based on a viable ‘civic contract’ between EU decision-makers and decision-receivers. This open and participatory conception of Europe as an extended public political space captures the new dialectic between the viability of national public spheres and the making of a mixed sovereignty regime. Yet, absent a European Constitution ‘proper’, and given the inchoateness of a composite European demos, there is urgent need for a substantive restructuring of EU strategies for democratisation based on a democratic concept for Europe.
The EU, after half a century of uninterrupted theorizing about its political properties and institutions, is taken to denote a composite political system that is capable of combining unity and multiplicity, whilst projecting a new form of polity or system of governance based on the notion of institutional power-sharing (even sovereignty-sharing). It is thus possible to capture the endemic complexity of the general system through the lens of new conceptual schemes, which may lead to dynamic understandings of governance that disperses power within European political society and encourages all segments in it to engage themselves in an open and structured dialogue about the future vocation of the common system. The point being made here is that public debate on the future institutional shape of the EU can become the medium through which a composite polity can constitute itself from the lower level upwards. This leads to a transcendence of both hierarchical and territorial forms of power distribution, where different notions of political legitimacy and democratic representation produce a novel view of postnational politics. Thus a democratic concept for Europe should entail a balanced mix of social and political forces that share in the sovereignty of the larger polity. Within the latter, political authority should not be symmetrically vested in an overarching federal center, but rather should be distributed through clusters of partial policy autonomy among different levels of governance and forms of contention that combine territorial with substantive issues.
Recent changes in the workings of the general system following the problematic Treaty of Nice, in terms of the decisional modalities for arriving at viable integrative outcomes, have not affected its character as an essentially state-centric project, thus preserving a dynamic, and at times fragile, balance between sovereignty and integration, by means of producing a system of political co-determination, or what could otherwise be described as a synarchy of distinct historically constituted and politically organized states and demoi. Namely, a densely institutionalized framework of collective shared-rule that produces a flexible interpretation of the classical sovereignty principle and, with it, of the capacity of collectively organized units to share in the emerging sovereignty of the larger association. Today, the EU still remains a treaty-constituted political body, not the unilateral act of a single and undifferentiated demos; it does not derive its political authority from its citizens directly; it has not resulted in a complete institutional fusion among different levels of authority; its component states are free to dissociate themselves from the union if and when they chose to; and its ever-more elusive constitutional identity seems to rely heavily upon domestic legal and constitutional orders, although the EU already projects a profound locking together regarding the joint exercise of fundamental powers. All the above is key to making sense of the changing conventions of sovereignty that can be taken as the right to be involved in the joint exercise of competences.
But what is urgently needed is a new blueprint for reform that would guarantee a sense of process towards a democratic polity. In that regard, EU citizenship carries an undisputed political weight, whose democratic potential is threefold: it sets up a transnational system of rights giving access and voice to the constituent publics; it induces integrative sentiments by motivating greater civic participation; and it strengthens the bonds of belonging to an ‘active polity’ by facilitating the process of positive EU awareness-formation at the grassroots. The question is whether EU citizenship entails a re-arrangement of existing legal and political rights (and duties), or whether it amounts to a shared European civicness and, hence, to a new political subject in the form of a transnational demos. A plausible answer is that, to the extent that the distribution of EU civic entitlements passes through the capacity of citizens to determine the functions of the larger polity, EU citizenship can be said to form the basis of a new democratic order. Practical measures to build on a common civic identity involve:
-the detachment of EU citizenship from the ‘nationality requirement’ and its placing on an independent sphere of civic entitlements;
-the extension of the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at national elections for citizens residing in a member state other than their own;
-the institutionalisation of the citizens’ right to information on all EU issues;
-the setting up of constitutional mechanisms against any infringement of liberties;
-the introduction of the citizens’ right to hold public office within the EU;
-the enrichment of the citizens’ rights to the four freedoms of movement, social welfare and working conditions;
-the recognition of political rights to legally resident third-country nationals, which requires the transcendence of any liberal-statist norms of civic exclusion.
The aim is for the EU political system to allocate authoritatively, not just derivatively, rights and values within European society. Such an outcome would not resemble the creation of a ‘community of fate’ nor should it rest on ethno-cultural bonds of belonging to a new political nation. Rather, Europe’s political constitution, in the wider sense of the term, should reflect the search for a democratic design, whose civic value exists independent of national public spheres, but whose ‘politics’ extends to both European and national civic arenas. This would signal a shift in the basis of legitimation from a functionalist-driven process to a political community of free and equal citizens, whose unity rests on a metanational civic contract. As recent reforms failed to produce a common democratic vision for Europe, it is collective action, rather than political rhetoric, that is urgently needed for the European polity to rediscover a sense of purpose and face up to the democratic challenges of the new era.
Dimitris N. Chryssochoou Associate Professor of International Organization, University of Crete