European Citizenship and the EU Democratic Deficit

Interview with Bronislav Geremek

, by Bronislav Geremek

European Citizenship and the EU Democratic Deficit

The Federalist Debate: How can, in your opinion, the EU federal transformation process be re-launched?

Bronislav Geremek: The impulse towards the EU’s transformation in a federal direction, shall come from the commitment of the European citizens, which has to be directed to the Parliament, the Commission and the Court of Justice, the three great EU’s institutions. But my answer is marked by a certain bitterness, because in the last three years we have seen the resurgence of national selfishness, most of all in the big countries, with regard to the economy and in particular the Stability Pact. A new economic patriotism, most of all in France and Germany. But as the progress of European integration took place so far thanks to the determination and political will of the European peoples, I believe that in the future too no progress could come without it. The legitimacy of the EU power must be resumed in the notion of European citizen. And when I say that it is necessary, in the community-building process, to mobilize the nations, I refer myself to the commitment of national Parliaments and Governments. Otherwise, the process will stall, as happened with the referendums on the Constitution in France and the Netherlands.

The Federalist Debate: On what bases do you think that a European identity can be formed?

Bronislav Geremek: I think that the idea of citizenship can originate from the encounter of history and geography, i.e. from the world of values which have been shaped in the course of civilization on European soil, and the common interest, i.e. the answer to the question why we live together, why there is an interest uniting the Finns and the Italians, the Poles and the Greeks. If there is the recognition of an interest furthering such an encounter between history and geography, we have the answer to the question. We know that there is an identity, founded on the notion of human person, and rooted in the Jewish-Christian tradition or in the secular ideas of Humanism, which is something that unites Europe. Secondly, there is the problem of the European interest, which is still not strong enough to unite and overcome national interests. For the task to be accomplished a central role can be played by the European citizens.

The Federalist Debate: What is missing, in your opinion, for bringing that task to an end?

Bronislav Geremek: I think that today’s problem is which part the citizens play in the construction of Europe, what place they have in it. It is necessary that the citizens feel themselves important in the construction of Europe. Today it is not so. Few things depend on the citizens, everything passes through the national level. The moment of the elections of the European Parliament is not a significant moment in the European political life and in participation. In Poland, for example, where voter turnout in national elections is 40-41%, it has been half of that in the European elections. Citizens should be asked questions. I am not a great supporter of referendums, in particular in big countries. I think that only local referendums are meaningful, due to the fact that they do not have political consequences. But what counts is to introduce at the European level the habit of popular consultations. If one day all over Europe, in the same day, the question were posed not whether the Constitution is accepted or not, but about a European army, a basic income, or foreign policy, the involvement of the citizens would be high.

If Eurobarometer would propose such questions to the citizens, they will not feel themselves the objects of a market survey, because it will be a European institution asking the questions, i.e. the institution that will make a decision taking into account the opinions expressed by the citizens. In Europe the right formula has not been found yet, but all the polls confirm that if questions are asked concerning concrete issues like the European army or the EU foreign policy, two thirds of the citizens will respond positively.

The Federalist Debate: You are a member of the European Parliament, the first supra-national Parliament in the history of mankind, which represents a great innovation, but shows also significant limits in realizing democracy and the common good. How can the relations between the EP and the citizens be improved, as well as European democracy?

Bronislav Geremek: First of all, it is necessary to create a European public space. Also Habermas called for it. European communication media of a very high quality standard are necessary. The TV channel Euronews is an example, but there is still much to be done. My colleague and friend Gérard Onesta, MEP elected in France for the Greens, has promoted a big gathering of NGOs and mass media interested in European problems. It is a project called Agorà, which in a few days will meet at the EP building in the presence and with the participation of the MEPs .

Moreover, there is another problem which has not been solved yet in a clear fashion. Every European member of Parliament feels he represents the European constituency, but each of them has been elected in one of the European countries. The question I ask is: “How to establish a connection with those who have elected us? The contacts shall be local, regional, national or European?”. I make an example. There is a habit to invite groups of citizens to visit the European Parliament. I once met a group of young people from Poland who had been sharing for many years an exchange program with a German school. Students and teachers can speak two languages, Polish and German. My impression was that this is indeed the European constituency, the overcoming of that Tower of Babel. This is the route to follow, that of a European Parliament representing the interests of the European citizens, which takes legislative decisions concerning the whole European people. To accomplish this, it is necessary that a MEP has a closer relation with the voters, not only with the national voters but with the European citizens.

The Federalist Debate: The UEF has worked on the project of a European referendum on the Constitutional Treaty, now dropped. That proposal would make easier to overcome the unsolved question of national ratifications, that will come up again with the new Treaty. Since you have expressed your preference for a European referendum, what is your opinion about keeping the national ratifications procedure?

Bronislav Geremek: It is a difficult problem. In the past I proposed a European popular consultation, to be held on the same day in the whole Union on concrete questions which could be answered with a Yes or No, given that no citizen is willing to read a Treaty more than 500 pages long. I was happy to find out that the movement of young federalists gave my proposal a warm reception, and I continue, then, to support their initiatives. But why no decision was taken? In the 2005 elections, 41% of Polish citizens participated, in the recent elections 53%. About 2 million people more, and with a sizeable participation of young people. I think the answer is: partly because the negative French and Dutch referendums cost too much and arose the fear that defeat could happen again.

This article was originally published in the March 2008 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

Image: Bronislav Geremek; source: Wikipedia.

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