How to reform European democracy?

At the core of democracy lies the simple premise of political equality: One person, one vote. You can be the CEO of a big bank or the person cleaning his office at night. When we decide on the future direction of our societies, both your votes count just the same.

In a world, where social and economic opportunities massively diverge between the top 1 per cent and everyone else, this couldn’t be a more hopeful message. While globalised corporations and oligarchs are willing to put their profits before people and the planet, the mass of ordinary citizens can still set the rules of the game. Indeed, democracy disperses potent power from a small elite to the whole population and thus opens the door to the unknown, the possibility of a fundamental shift of priorities and the chance for audacious debate about new political ideas and policies.

Why we need a New Deal for Democracy.

For a short period after World War II, the direction of Europe’s democracies seemed promising. The democratic majority won a lot of ground. Public healthcare and housing, social security and public education became available to the masses. But just when we thought the fight was won and reason had prevailed, the capitalist elite started to fight back. They developed new ways to manipulate the process behind closed doors, branded themselves as indispensable experts and captivated the most powerful democratic force at the time: social democracy. They knew that if they managed to implode social democracy, the mighty dyke of democracy would be breached.

In 2000, Social Democrats or Socialists were part of government in ten out of the fifteen countries that then made up the European Union. But party leadership at the time had already conceded their democratic mandate to the money, charms and pomp of corporate interest. What they were now most concerned with were profit margins, deregulation, global competition and cross-European austerity. We know what followed from there.

Today, social democratic and conservative parties are hard to distinguish. Both are an intrinsic part of the problem. Both are terrified of democracy. Instead of seeking an open democratic debate, they defer their judgment to financial market pressures and lobbyists disguised as “experts”. Instead of shaping the future, they busy themselves with administration. Their catchphrase for almost any unpopular measure is an echo of Thatcher: “There is no alternative”. Angela Merkel elevated it to the European level when she insisted during the financial crisis that bank rescues were without alternative. There was no public or scientific debate. Banks needed to be saved, and the people had to pay for it. Once discussion ends, and there is no more possible alternative to the ruling of the elite, democracy is doomed to die.

It is not surprising that trust in politics is at an all-time low. Most people don’t believe in the idea that elections can make a difference anymore. A vast majority of all Europeans acknowledge that we are facing a climate crisis, that the rich need to be taxed a lot more and that economic growth is not a sufficient indicator for societal progress. But where in our current democratic process does the majority today still have a say? Some say we can be heard on the streets, and indeed, we have seen spectacular protests around Europe over the last decade. Others turn towards right-wing movements. But even though reactions to the loss of democratic control vary widely, the experience with Brexit shows that ordinary citizens are increasingly ready for significant sacrifice to get any attention at all.

THE WAY FORWARD: A CITIZENS’ TAKEOVER OF EU INSTITUTIONS

If we continue like this, the European Union will disintegrate. If we want to save it, we have to democratise it. Accepting this reality, DiEM25 and its electoral wing – the European Spring, was founded as an alliance of progressive pro-European forces from all over Europe. The European spring will be on the ballot papers at the European elections in nine European countries. We aim to democratise Europe and give the people of Europe their political voice back.

First, European politics needs to be accountable to the will of the people. Politicians need to be accountable for their actions as well as the actions they do not take. Thus, all European bodies, including the European Council, the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank need to introduce radical transparency in their decision-making. The European Parliament must be granted the legislative power to represent the interests of its democratic constituencies – and to check the power of the EU’s unelected bodies. All lobbyists, their background and their activities need to be registered in a compulsory register for lobbyists.

Second, the European Union needs a new legitimacy. This is why we request a Constitutional Assembly, composed of democratically elected representatives from across Europe, who will draft a new democratic constitution.

Technically, our demands can be implemented easily. The only thing missing is political will.

Of course, the political establishment will resist these changes as long as they can. So, change will need to come from us, the citizens. To be honest, progressive change has never been achieved in another way. Every single human right or freedom that we enjoy today was fought for by ordinary people against the establishment of their time.

DiEM25 and the European Spring were born from and are embedded in a pan-European movement, reaching all the way from Greece to France, from Italy to Sweden. Once represented in the European Parliament, we can use inside information to empower people on the outside to hold elected and unelected EU officials accountable. With all our people power we can track and publicize their actions and statements in public and behind the scenes. Do officials and representatives tell an honest story about their work in Brussels back at home? Where do they blame the EU when really it was their national governments who made unpopular choices? Who is willing to register their backdoor lobbyism partners? If the political establishment is unwilling to offer transparency to us, we will empower citizens to get active and take this role over themselves.

Also, we will not wait with our drive for a Citizens’ Assembly. Right after the elections, DiEM25 and the European Spring will launch a series of citizen assemblies, travelling country to country to ask people what they want from a new European constitution. And we will give them the tools they need to lobby with their respective representatives right from the start.

Our movement is founded on the conviction that human collaboration drives the future of democracy.

It could take years and decades to device new and better European institutions. If we want the European Union to succeed, however, we better start to make the existing ones work for the people today.

Democracy will start in Europe or it will not start at all.

Daniela Platsch is running for the European Parliamentary elections 2019 as the second-placed candidate for Germany of Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (“DIEM25”). She is political director of the Austrian left-wing/progressive party Der Wandel. Daniela Trained as an economist, she has worked on topics such as globalisation, structural change, and organisational culture.

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