"Democracy and European values": analysis of a CoFoE Citizens' Panel with Olivier Costa (CNRS)

A few days before the first Citizens’ Panel of the Conference on the Future of Europe, Missions Publiques met Olivier Costa, Director of Research at the CNRS Cevipof, the Political Research Centre of Sciences Po, one of the best experts on the European Union. He discusses the choice of theme for the 3rd Citizens’ Panel, which will focus in part on the common values of the European Union.

Missions Publiques: “Democracy, values, rights, the rule of law and security” will be the main theme of one of the Conference’s Citizens’ Panels. How can these often highly controversial subjects be discussed with citizens? What are the main questions you think they should be asked?

Olivier Costa: I think that this theme was essential since the Conference is in the wake of 30 years of reflection on the democratic deficit at European level and the dissatisfactions that are emerging among citizens. Among these dissatisfactions are those relating to the functioning of the EU, i.e. the recurrent criticisms of elitism, the lack of transparency, the feeling that decisions are taken by a minority of people who meet in Brussels behind closed doors… If the Conference is to respond to these dissatisfactions, the issue of democracy and democratic values must be addressed as a priority.

But before embarking on the choice of questions that will structure the debate of the Citizens’ Panel, I think we need to have a fundamental discussion on what we expect from this Panel and on the nature of these questions. There are different options. We can start with very open questions, at the beginning of the Panel, and ask citizens if they think that the Union is democratic. They can express themselves very freely on this. And then, there could be more structured questions, where participants would be asked to evaluate more precisely what they think of the degree of participation in the EU, whether they have a precise understanding of this or that subject, and then come to more technical questions: “Do you think that the President of the Commission should be elected in the European elections?” or “Do you think that the European Council should give instructions to the Commission?

We know that we will not be able to talk about everything at once, that some choices are undecidable and that we will probably not have enough time to go into the subjects in depth. There are therefore strategic choices to be made about the level, more or less general, at which the debate is situated. “Is it possible to have a democratic functioning on a European scale?” is a big question, which deserves to be asked and which is far from being insignificant. However, I don’t think it is on the agenda, and that’s a pity. On the other hand, we can frame the debate to a greater extent and ask questions like: “Are you satisfied with the way MEPs are elected today?” or “Should there be transnational lists?” It is not clear whether the Citizens’ Panels are intended to launch a broad reflection on the issues or to organise a debate on specific issues. Of course, both approaches have their relevance and virtues, and they can complement each other, but the Conference today suffers from this ambiguity.

In my opinion, there are two kinds of risks associated with the Panels. If we remain on very general questions, the debates risk being trivial, and centered around questions that have already been discussed a hundred times. Indeed, the controversy around the democratic deficit of the EU is not new, and the arguments are well known. Many citizens will say that they feel primarily national, and therefore that the EU is not a relevant level for making policy and developing democratic procedures. The differences between Eurosceptics and Europhiles are also well known. It would be a pity if the Panel’s debates were to remain stuck on such very general cleavages, which do not lead to any synthesis. On the other hand, if we go for something more specific, the risk is to conclude that the debate has been confiscated, that citizens have been asked to give their opinion on very technical issues – the voting system for European elections, the number of MEPs, the mechanisms of the Commission’s political responsibility… This would be frustrating for those who had broader, more philosophical expectations. This is both the beauty and the difficulty of deliberative exercises: you first have to agree on what you are going to talk about and how you are going to do it, and that takes time. Since the Conference has a very tight schedule, I don’t think that time is available, and we will have to make trade-offs beforehand. The best solution, in my opinion, is the funnel approach: it consists of starting with more general questions and then moving on to more specific questions, which flow from the first. This approach will satisfy more participants.

Many citizens will say that they feel primarily national, and therefore that the EU is not a relevant level for making policy and developing democratic procedures. The differences between Eurosceptics and Europhiles are also well known. It would be a pity if the Panel’s debates were to remain stuck on such very general cleavages, which do not lead to any synthesis. On the other hand, if we go for something more specific, the risk is to conclude that the debate has been confiscated, that citizens have been asked to give their opinion on very technical issues – the voting system for European elections, the number of MEPs, the mechanisms of the Commission’s political responsibility…

MP: What about the balance of power between the institutions? What about the tensions between the institutions? The European electoral system?

OC: The balance of power between the institutions is a real issue. There has always been a tension between the institutions – the European Parliament, the Commission, the Council of Ministers, the European Council, etc. – each of which has a form of legitimacy and a conception of the general European interest. However, this is a difficult debate to have and we need to think about the prerequisites. Personally, it took me 20 years to have an informed opinion on the question of the political regime of the Union, and I find it difficult to see how one can usefully debate it without a minimum of knowledge. To go into these matters in depth, it is necessary to have at least some knowledge of the institutions, otherwise the discussion will lead to nowhere. This would be the case with questions such as: “Do you think that the European Council has become too important in the functioning of the EU? or “Should the European Parliament vote on its own resources?”

On the other hand, the idea of debating the European electoral system is interesting: the details are very complex, but the general principles are simple. Citizens have a certain familiarity with the European elections as they have been practiced for 40 years now. This discussion refers to subjective perceptions, desires and points of view, and I think it will be an interesting and constructive debate. Participants will be led to think about whether or not they agree to give a more European character to the European elections: this is a political choice that each citizen can make. Similarly, the issue of transnational lists may seem complex at first, but it is not so complex. In the space of ten minutes, one can identify the main issues and let the Panel participants express their views.

These debates are captivating because they bridge fundamental questions (“Do citizens feel European? Do they recognise the EU as a space for democratic debate?”) and more specific, technical questions (“How should MEPs be elected?”). This is the way to move the debate forward.

MP: A true democracy is one that guarantees respect for the rights of marginalized communities rather than following the will of the majority. Do you think this Panel should focus on communities in Europe whose rights are being violated (LGBTQI+, women, Roma communities etc….)?

OC: Before this question can be answered, three others need to be asked: does a “we” exist at the European level? What is the scope of this “us”? What is it made of? We must question the existence and nature of the group which, in a democracy, legitimises the very existence of this democracy. Collective decisions can only be taken in a group that makes sense to its members: a family, a residence, a city, a country. And only certain decisions can be taken at the level of this group. So, we need to think about what “we” means, what its values and objectives are, what kind of decisions we agree to take together, and how we want to do it.

In this respect, the question of European identity is very complex, but it is less so if we reflect on what makes the EU unique in relation to other large groups. It is not easy to say how one is European, but as soon as one compares the EU to Russia, China, the United States, Latin America or Southern Africa, finding what one has in common comes more easily to mind.

In this respect, the question of minorities and the way they are treated becomes a central issue, a marker of what makes up the European identity – as does its relationship to sustainable development or social cohesion. This is what makes the rights of LGBTQI+ groups, women or the Roma community so important. Because there are deep divisions in the European Union in this area, particularly between East and West. What is at stake is not the acceptance or rejection of ‘European values’, but a conflict between different conceptions of them. Viktor Orban does not say that he is not European or that he rejects European values: he says that he is European in his own way and that he defends a conception of European values that is not that of Brussels. He defends a Europe based on great principles such as the family, the nation, tradition, religion, order, etc. And the two discourses diverge radically when it comes to the rights of certain communities.

What is at stake is not the acceptance or rejection of ‘European values’, but a conflict between different conceptions of them. Viktor Orban does not say that he is not European or that he rejects European values: he says that he is European in his own way and that he defends a conception of European values that is not that of Brussels. He defends a Europe based on great principles such as the family, the nation, tradition, religion, order, etc. And the two discourses diverge radically when it comes to the rights of certain communities.

The Conference must therefore address these issues: what is the right of women to dispose of their bodies as they wish? What are the rights of ethnic minorities in Europe? What are the rights of LGBTQI+ citizens? On these questions, there is a growing divorce between Brussels on the one hand, which has a progressive and advanced discourse, based on values that could be described as post-modern, and on the other hand, people who are radically opposed to this and who instrumentalise the phenomenon for political purposes.

These polemical themes will be one of the nodes of this Panel. We must not ignore them: we must talk about what is being debated, between those who think that the Union should promote progressive values, which contribute to making societies freer and more inclusive, and those who think that they are an outrage to their way of thinking and living.

 

MP: Do you think that this Panel, by focusing on the essence of European values, will increase the sense of belonging of Europeans to the EU?

OC: Citizens will only accept the decisions taken by a political system, even a democratic one, if they have a sense of belonging to the community it governs. The community in which we live must make sense in order to accept collective decisions. I think that today the EU is relevant for many citizens, but only for a limited number of policies. Because the EU is clearly not a federation. This political project is indeed surrounded by too many unknowns.

First of all, there are deep ambivalences about the EU’s own objectives: is it an economic, political, social or military project? Secondly, the decision-making process is virtually unknown to the general public: who decides what and how? What are the principles that guide the functioning of the EU? The third unknown is the community that the EU forms: its perimeter is constantly changing, with enlargements and with the Brexit, and its limits are somewhat arbitrary. A Romanian may feel closer to a Moldavian than to an Irishman or a Portuguese, just as a Frenchman may feel closer to a Quebecer or a French-speaking Swiss than to a Latvian or a Croat. For the time being, there is no European people because there is not a strong enough sense of belonging to accept the violence of majority rule on the most political issues. The Conference has the great merit of opening up the debate on all these points, and of involving the citizens. In short, it is simply a matter of discussing openly what Europeans can and want to do together.

 
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