Should participatory democracy become the normative model for eu governance? Prof. Stijn Smismans Jean Monnet Chair in eu law and Governance Cardiff University

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Should participatory democracy become the normative model for EU governance?
Prof. Stijn Smismans

Jean Monnet Chair in EU Law and Governance

Cardiff University

Background text for speech at the ‘Civil Society Day 2012: Democracy in Europe: where do we stand? A civil society perspective.’ (8 May 2012, European Economic and Social Committee, Brussels)

The paper has been published in Re-Public (Re-imagining democracy), available online at
The speech will place this paper in the context of the current economic crisis.

The failed Constitutional Treaty included in its first part a title on ‘the democratic life of the Union’ which contained both an article on representative democracy and an article on ‘participatory democracy’(Smismans 2004). After the French said ‘non’ and the Dutch ‘nee’ to the Constitutional Treaty, the Member States embarked on a ‘reflection period’ and finally drafted and signed the Lisbon Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty retained much of the substance of the Constitutional Treaty but downplayed part of its constitutional and symbolic language. The Lisbon Treaty does, though, retain a title on ‘provisions on democratic principles’. One of the striking differences between the Constitutional Treaty’s title on ‘the democratic life of the Union’ and the Lisbon title on ‘provisions on democratic principles’ is that the latter does no longer mention the concept of ‘participatory democracy’. However, it does include exactly the same article that described ‘participatory democracy’ in the Constitutional Treaty, but without a title describing it. That the concept itself has disappeared from the text may illustrate the sensitivity around the question whether ‘participatory democracy’ should be a normative model for European governance.

In this paper I argue why participatory democracy should be part of our normative framework when conceptualising democracy in the EU.
Back in 1957 when the European Economic Community was created the question of democratic accountability of the new organisation was not explicitly on the agenda. The European Community could long be considered a ‘special purpose association’, to which a limited amount of well-defined functions were delegated. The ‘democratic nature’ of the European construction was thus not a matter of serious concern and could be assumed to be ‘absorbed’ by the democratic credentials of the delegating member states. The initial European Communities were then said to be based on a ‘permissive consensus’ (Lindberg and Scheingold 1970: 41). Little popular interest in an elite-driven and technocratic project coincided with a diffuse support for the idea of European integration (De Búrca 1996: 350).
However, as the European Court of Justice defined more clearly the features of the European legal order, based on principles such as supremacy and direct effect, and with the Community acting increasingly in more policy areas, the daily impact of the European integration process became ever more evident and the merely functionalist approach appeared unsatisfying for addressing the legitimacy of the European construction. Therefore, both the political and the legal discourse gradually made reference to the normative framework that has also dominated our thinking about legitimacy and democracy at the nation-state level, namely the idea of representative democracy.
Thus the initial concern about the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EC focused on the need for popular involvement via the European Parliament. Direct elections of the European Parliament were introduced in 1979, and subsequent changes increased its powers – budgetary and legislative powers (from consultation to co-operation and co-decision procedure), and control over the Commission. Such direct parliamentary representation of European citizens at the European level has always been combined with indirect territorial representation of citizens via governmental representatives in the Council of Ministers, and (more recently) the European Council, assumed to be accountable to their national parliaments. Yet, the latter cannot be taken for granted. While the European institutional set-up ensures a central position for the member states via the (European) Council, at national level European integration has strengthened the executive to the detriment of the parliament (Moravscik 1994). Thus, the idea of giving national parliaments a direct stake in the European institutional set-up emerged. Yet, as this would lead to ever more complex European decision-making – co-decision today already takes at average two years – and risk of deadlock, the solution has mainly been sought in member states’ internal regulations increasing parliamentary control over their ministers in the Council. Only if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, would national parliaments be given a more direct role, as they can block European legislative initiatives for non respecting subsidiarity, although the threshold for them to be able to do so is high since one third of all national parliaments need to vote in this sense within a short time limit of eight weeks.
Representative democracy has also framed the debate on the role of regional and local authorities in European decision-making. With increasing devolution at the national level, it was thought regional and local actors also needed a place in European decision-making. Hence a Committee of the Regions with advisory status was created, while Member States can be represented in the Council by a regional minister for those regions with legislative power.
However, all these measures, framed within the representative democracy discourse have appeared insufficient to conceptualise and realise democratic accountability in the European Union. There are two main reasons why participatory democracy, in addition to representative democracy, has found a place in the debate on the democratic nature of the European polity.
Firstly, by focusing on representative democracy the debate addresses only part of the problem and neglects other aspects of democratic accountability in European decision-making. The assumption is that democratic decision-making is guaranteed by parliamentary input while the ‘neutral’ implementation of the parliamentary mandate is guaranteed by ‘government’ and administration. However, this normative ideal has always been a fiction and is increasingly so in modern governance where administration and implementation is not simply a neutral implementation of a clearly detailed parliamentary mandate but the result of a complex interaction between many actors deploying a multitude of policy instruments. If we want to conceptualise democratic accountability in modern governance it is not enough to think in terms of parliamentary mandate rather we must address the question of who is involved in direct interaction with government and administration in both agenda-setting and drafting of new policy measures and at the multiple implementation stages.
Secondly, it is questionable whether the idea of representative democracy that has inspired national systems can be transposed to the European level. The EU is neither a traditional international organisation nor a State. It is a sui generis political system which is best described as a supranational polity. Yet, it has been repeatedly argued that this polity has no demos that would provide the basis for a parliamentary expression of democracy. The parliamentary model is based on the expression of the general will in parliament. The general will is (mostly) expressed by majoritarian decisions. In order to get these majoritarian decisions accepted by the minority, the governed represented in parliament should have a certain level of social unity, a common identity. However, there is no such common identity in the EU, which, as Article 1 of the EU Treaty states, is still based on a process of integration ‘among the peoples of Europe’. Contrary to that, some have argued that there does exist a certain common cultural basis in Europe (Kaelble 1994), that there is general acceptance of the ‘idea of Europe’ and ‘a commitment to the shared values of the Union as expressed in its constituent documents’ (Weiler 1997: 270), and that this process may strengthen the European citizen’s loyalty vis-à-vis the European polity in a similar way as state action has strengthened the loyalty of the national citizen vis-à-vis the State and thus strengthened the national demos. However, the shift in loyalty to the European level and the creation of some common identity seems to emerge very slowly (Risse 2002). There is no European ‘public sphere’ in which citizens are informed on, and take part in, political discussions. There is no European media, communication on European issues is nationally colored and split into different languages. Interest groups may shift their action to the European level as well, but they remain mostly national interest groups, the European ones being very loose federations. European political parties are weak, and turnout in EP elections is uneven and low.
So, how to remedy this European democratic deficit?
One option is to radicalize the parliamentary way by further politicising the European decision-making process. This could be done by creating a more direct relation between the outcome of the European parliamentary elections and the composition of the European Commission reflecting the ideological majority in the EP. Today the EP approves the Commission’s composition but as Commissioners are proposed by the Member States they tend to reflect the majorities in power in the Member States rather than the majority resulting from the European election. Creating a direct link between the European parliamentary elections and composition of the Commission would politicise the Commission and awaken European wide debate on policy choices at the European level. The Commission would reflect the parliamentary majority and be clearly accountable to the Parliament on the basis of a European-wide public debate on policy choices made and to be made at the European level.

However, there are three main problems with that strategy. First, there is no guarantee that such politicisation would really imply the development of a European public sphere. There is an assumption that if European elections are about clear ideological and political choices which would be reflected in the composition of the European Commission, European citizens would engage more with the European debate and identify themselves as active participants in this polity. However, what if the European public debate does not follow? What if European political choices remain still entirely translated into purely national interpretations into the different languages in the national media? The effect may well be the further deligitimization of the EU depicted as imposing ideological choices on what are the political choices of the majority at the national level. As the history of the Constitutional Treaty and the problematic ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty illustrates, the European citizens do not seem to follow when the route to further constitutionalisation and polity building is taken.

This brings us to the second problem of this strategy: its effect on the European integration process is rather unpredictable. It would fundamentally change the role of the European Commission from driving motor of European integration, representing ‘the European interest’ on the basis of the mandate provided to it by the Treaty, to a political body. If a European public sphere does not emerge, such a supranational political body would be criticised on the basis of nationally defined interests and debates, and thus loose its current capacity to be the driving force of European integration.
Third, even if politicisation would lead to the Europeanization of the public sphere, strengthening the parliamentary model at the European level by creating a direct link between election outcome and composition of the Commission would only be a partial answer to the question of democratic accountability of modern governance. It would not provide an answer to the complexity of governance mechanisms and interactions between public and private actors at the level of agenda-setting and drafting and implementation of policies.
For these reasons the debate on participatory democracy in the EU is unavoidable. However, there are different dimensions to the idea of participatory democracy. Originally, the concept was developed in political theory to argue in favour of participatory processes through which citizens would participate directly in decentralised governance settings, which included both local public decision-making, as well as participatory processes in the private sector such as in the workplace (Pateman 1970). Such processes of direct participation would add up to the traditional instrument of direct democracy that is the referendum. More recently, the concept of participatory democracy has also been used in two additional ways. Firstly, the so-called e-democracy and the use of electronic consultation processes allow for a new form of direct citizen involvement. Secondly, the concept of participatory democracy has been broadened to refer to a democratic process in which those concerned by an issue should be involved in the drafting of the decision on it. This implies, though, a shift away from the original concept of participatory democracy which required the direct participation of the citizen towards the idea of participatory processes in which functional representatives, such as civil society organisations, act as an intermediary between the citizen and the political authority. Not surprisingly, it is this second interpretation of the concept of participatory democracy that has been most used in the European debate. Given the supranational character of the EU, it is unrealistic to involve citizens on a face-to-face basis in the huge amount of European regulatory initiatives. The European institutions, and in particular the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee, have therefore focused on the interaction with representatives from civil society organisations (Smismans 2003).
Given the limits in framing EU democracy merely in terms of the parliamentary model, participatory democracy can contribute to EU democracy for the following reasons.
First, although instances of direct citizen participation will be limited in impact, they are desirable as contributing to a European public sphere. E-democracy, or deliberative fora organised by the EU institutions, can involve citizens directly but the number of citizens engaged in these processes will always be limited. The European citizens’ initiative, as proposed by the Lisbon Treaty, by which one million EU citizens can ask to the Commission to initiate policy, can create broader public debate if used in a strategic way on questions of major concern. While desirable, it will not create, though, regular citizen involvement in the daily functioning of European governance.
Second, for this reason participatory democracy through functional intermediaries is required. Parliamentary representation provides a rough representation of the citizen. The citizen is reduced to an abstract ‘equal’, detached from their personal characteristics and aspects of belonging other than being part of the territory of the polity. A territorially elected parliament cannot represent the whole of its electorate’s personalities and interests, given that individuals are potentially infinite in their purpose and wills (G.D.H. Cole analysed by Hirst 1989: 31). Therefore, participatory mechanisms through which citizens are represented as belonging to several functional associations can provide a complement to the traditional parliamentary representation. This is particularly suitable to a European level where representation through parliament faces substantial problems in terms of identifying with a single European demos, and given the particular possibilities to create more direct citizen participation due to levels of scale. Such participatory democracy through functional intermediaries allows for participatory processes in the complex administrative multi-level governance of the EU, and can contribute to Europeanizing the public sphere, which in turn can strengthen the democratic debate around parliamentary representation.

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