In May, the European Commission summarily rejected the largest democratic initiative in European Union history. The decision left many wondering: Is participatory democracy dead in the European Union?
Self-governance is essential to any democratic regime, but that’s merely an inconvenient truth to the bureaucrats in Brussels. The European Union continues to wrestle with criticism of its ever-deepening democracy deficit — the failure of the EU system to involve citizens in the decision-making process.
The only EU body elected by the citizenry is the European Parliament. Yet this body is almost perfunctory. The redoubtable European Commission retains total power of initiating legislation within its vastly weaker parliamentary counterpart.
In 2009, the European Union responded to its critics with the Treaty of Lisbon, which included a program for direct participatory democracy — the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). The European Commission promised to take action on any citizens’ initiative that collected more than 1 million signatures from at least seven different member states.
Although the treaty enshrined democratic participation as a legal principle, even this concession bore the mark of an aristocratic institution: The Commission guaranteed only legislative debate on the initiatives, not that their aims would ever be realized.
Even so, to the ECI, Europe’s pro-life grassroots responded with the One of Us petition, an initiative “to advance the protection of human life from conception in Europe — within the possibilities of the competency of the EU.” It would have acknowledged personhood from the beginning of biological development, requiring the European Union to follow the European Court of Justice in acknowledging the dignity of the human embryo and to ban EU financing of abortion and other forms of embryonic destruction.
Two million Europeans from 20 countries signed the One of Us petition, making it the most supported initiative in EU history and only the second successful effort under the ECI. The first successful effort, a campaign for water rights, garnered fewer signatures in fewer countries. The European Commission gave the water-rights petition its stamp of approval, referring it to the European Parliament. The One of Us petition received a curt veto.
Now it appears that participatory democracy, much lauded in the abstract, has proven to be a sham in reality. The off-handed and ideologically motivated dismissal of the pro-life campaign exposes the ECI process as a farce and lays bare the capriciousness of the European Commission. The veto of One of Us sounded a death knell not only for unborn children but for the future of government by consent in the EU.
Gabriele Abels, a professor of political science at Tübingen University, is an advocate of “ever closer union” who sees that the EU’s democracy deficit as an incurable illness. “If citizens’ participation is the ‘lifeblood’ of democracy,” Abels writes, “then the European Union suffers from anaemia and is in desperate need for a remedy.”
Perhaps the illness is indeed terminal. In Federalist No. 15, Alexander Hamilton expounds on the difficulty of creating a super-government presiding over sovereign states. To maintain “a superintending power, under the direction of a common council,” Hamilton writes, “we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens — the only proper objects of government.”
But the structure of the European Union all but precludes such a step, just as the organization of sovereign states under the Articles of Confederation prohibited it in Hamilton’s day. In both cases, the resulting “political monster of an imperium in imperio” is “subversive of the order and ends of civil polity.”
The European Union’s democracy deficit is its Achilles’ heel. It is inherent in the effort to unite dissimilar peoples. The American Founders were able to unite the states into one federal republican system precisely because, as John Jay notes in Federalist No. 2, the Americans shared common ancestors, language, religion, and customs, forged into a unified whole through war waged for a common aim. Even with all these commonalities, the Founders were acutely aware of the problem of faction.
These unifying features of a stable polity do not exist naturally in Europe. Rather, the attempt at stability must be forced on the population through fear: fear of violence (recalling the bloody history of 20th century) and of economic impotence (failing to reap the benefits of free trade among neighbors). Attempting to straddle the gulf between international alliance and federalist union, the EU is overcome by the corrupting spirit found “in every political association which is formed” — the love of power.
European political philosopher Pierre Manent observes that under EU-style technocracy, self-government gives way to a new enlightened despotism, the “sum of agencies, administrations, courts of justice, and commissions that lay down the law — or, better, rules — for us more and more meticulously.” This bureaucratic governance advocates for a particular vision of human rights that remains thoroughly detached from the collective deliberation of citizens. As European nations slog toward closer union, it is the elites in Brussels who will determine with ever-increasing authority what is just or democratic. The failure of the Treaty of Lisbon to guarantee meaningful participatory democracy exemplifies the European Union’s aspiration for pure democracy without the inconvenience of the popular vote.
— Josh Craddock serves as a liaison for Personhood USA at the United Nations, where he is participating in negotiations for developing the U.N. post-2015 agenda.