Thursday, October 2, 2014
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Staging Europe’s Great Debate

BERLIN – The European Union has a long track record as a global beacon of peace, prosperity, and success in fields ranging from culture and science to sports. And yet Europe has attracted more global attention in the last two years than it did in the previous six decades, as its debt crisis – exacerbated by a sputtering economy and internal disagreements – makes headlines worldwide. After all, controversy sells. But the public debate that this controversy has fueled has not been entirely constructive.

Nearly six decades after the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, the debates taking place throughout the EU continue to be conducted largely by national actors in national fora – and with a view to national interests. To make genuine progress, clearly defined European interests must replace national interests in determining the EU’s development.

Defining these interests will require a serious, honest, pan-European debate – one that is more than the sum of national debates. The discussion must be public, engaging European citizens, rather than just the small circle of policymakers that comprises the European Council.

The absence of a European public sphere presents an obstacle to such a discussion. The existing common European space – composed of media outlets like the Financial Times and TheEconomist, and Europe-wide conferences, NGO networks, and exchange programs like Erasmus – engages only wealthy, cosmopolitan European elites. While social media could offer an opening for creating a more inclusive European public sphere, at least for English-speaking citizens, this will take some more time.

In the meantime, Europeans should view the run-up to the 2014 European Parliament elections as an opportunity to initiate a genuine public debate about their future. They should start by emulating successful public discourse elsewhere, such as in the United States.

To be sure, the recent US presidential election was messy, populist, and corrupted by corporate interests. But it also exemplified a dynamic debate between competing visions of America’s future: a more egalitarian country that assumes a constructive global role, or an outwardly aggressive America that is of and for its wealthiest citizens. Billions of people worldwide followed the candidates’ engaging – and often theatrical – debates; they did not need a vote to feel invested in the discussion.

In the next 20 months, the most effective features of the US election campaign should be merged with Europe’s electoral tradition. The first step toward an inclusive, compelling debate about Europe’s future is to ensure that the 2014 elections actually determine which political party or coalition fills government positions, including the executive – as should be the case in a parliamentary democracy.

As it stands, only the European Parliament is directly elected. But it is the European Council, which comprises national politicians, that proposes the EU executive – the European Commission President and its commissioners – on which the parliament then votes. Because these positions are filled without regard for the electoral outcome, citizens do not value European Parliament elections, viewing the entire institution as little more than a jobs program for politicians and their coterie.

To improve this structure without treaty changes, Europe’s political-party families, beginning with the largest and most influential, should deliver on their promise to nominate their own candidates for European Commission President. The frontrunners must then conduct real political campaigns, which their parties design, manage, and finance by pooling existing European and national party resources.

Such pan-European election campaigns would force kindred political parties to develop and win support for a common platform. For example, social democrats could promote a European minimum wage; Greens could advocate for a Europe-wide energy policy that does not rely on nuclear power; and conservatives might champion lower taxes across Europe.

In addition, a forum for pan-European debate must be created. This should entail, first and foremost, broadcasting formal debates between the leading candidates across Europe – the model being the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League in football (soccer).

In short, if the EU presents itself as a functioning political system in its own right, with solid democratic structures and processes, it will gain the attention and esteem of its citizens and the rest of the world, leading to increased popular participation at home and greater soft power abroad. Channeling controversy into productive discussion – rather than simply making headlines – is crucial to bolstering democratic processes and addressing urgent problems.

The euro crisis threatens the EU’s very existence. But it also provides an opportunity to broaden the crucial debate about Europe’s future – a debate that will work only in the context of a genuinely European parliamentary democracy.

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  1. CommentedJason Knoll

    As an American, I wonder which "effective features of the US election campaign" Mr. Wilkens is addressing. Problems with voter fraud? No limits on spending? The dull "debates" which are really just forums for sound bytes?

  2. CommentedOle C G Olesen

    Yes ..it is about TIME that the Common Citicens are asked !

    Asked if they agree in the criminal transferal of Tax Money to the BANKS and other Financial Institutions whilst bancrupting the Nations as dictated by big International Capital ... the biggest monetary THEFT in World History .

    Asked is they agree on waging War and Terror at Europes Doorstep in the Middle East violating all Rome Statutes of The Interantional Criminal Court acting as mere Servants of Foreign Powers and Recourse greedy Multinationals

    Asked if they agree that multinational corporations can be allowed to reside inside Nations where they no longer produce but maintain a faked resisdence in order to SELL protected by Customs and Infrastructuiure paid for by Tax-payers. Whilst routinely evading TAX in the most unscrupulous manner in the same countries .

    Asked if they agree to the theft of common human knowledge attempted stolen by unscrupupous and greedy corporations assisted in this process by paid off politicians who keep on promoting shady agreements on Copyright and Trade relations

    Asked if they agree to the hoardes of unnecesary Bureaucrats who acts as servants of the political establishment and mega corporporations and with an endless number of regulations and relentless dictatorial behaviour make life a hell for every normal citicen whilst leaving big corporations and multibilionaires untouched ...

    Asked if they agree to the bunch of vision-poor Politicians sitting in Ivory Towers across Europe lifting hefty salaries or other PERKS whilst dictating Austerity to the Masses and throwing the money which is left in the coffers of multinational financial corporations .. ofc not before the political establishment first has ensured its own financial well-being . Or that of their Dependants ..for example the persons writing on these pages..

    Asked if they agree to the continuous assault on Human Liberty expressed in a never ending slate of Laws and Regulations enabling Surveilance of and Control over the individual citicen

    Asked about what they really want : a unified Europe independant of big foreign Powers and with a unified Currency ( and Military ) , honouring the noble Principles stated upon the Creation of The European Union ... and pay the Price for such an endevour ... or they prefer to be the individual historical Nations states of the Europe of old

    Asked if they would not like a system similar to the system of Switzerland where the electorate still has a REAL SAY in the decisions made by the Nation and not as in the remaining Europe - be it on national or on european level ..by a powerhungry arrogant political establishment are DICTATED what to be allowed to decide upon ... and where Elections have become a FARCE ...

    Yes ..indeed it is high time that the populations are ASKED ..
    if it is not more rational and in the interest of Citicens , Nations and Europe ..to send the REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY to the the Garbage Heap ...where .. it ..and the REPRESENTATIVES .. the POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT by their LIES- by their FRAUD ...by their GREED ... by their INCOMPETENCY ... by their LACK of HONEST VISION ... also belong .

    Let us have DIRECT DEMOCRACY back on the Table ..

    Nothing less will clean the POLITICAL AUGEAS BARN or enable TRUE DEMOCRACY ... !

    And it works ... take a look at Switzerland !

  3. CommentedJoanna Kostka

    In his recent commentary Andre Wilkens calls for a serious pan-European debate about Europe’s future, stating that at a time of heightened EU-skepticism, there is an urgent need to stretch European discussion beyond a small circle of policymakers and engage a wider range of European citizens. He convincingly asserts that a constructive dialogue about common goals and interests requires a greater and more visible involvement of Europe’s major political-party families. Such an involvement could best be achieved through strengthening a pan-European election campaign. Bringing ideological affinities to the supranational level could in fact serve as an antidote to the technocratic management still troubled by the ‘democratic deficit’. Perhaps more importantly, it would create a space for exchanging competing views, constructing alliances or oppositions, and developing common platforms.

    Such an optimistic vision may sound rather far-fetched, especially given the dramatic fall in party membership and electoral turnouts. However, without genuine European parliamentary democracy, the EU institutions might further remove themselves from their citizens, threatening the very stability of the pact. Technocratic elites are no longer able to contain the growing discontent with promises of ‘better jobs and greater social cohesion’. The EU’s agenda detached from political ideologies might have looked appealing in times of economic growth and stability, but now such detachment seems highly troublesome and disconnected from everyday realities. Nowhere is this more visible than in the area of Roma inclusion.

    Over the years the EU has played an important role in highlighting widespread socio-economic exclusion of Roma minorities living across Europe. Despite a striking lack of progress on the ground, the EU has continued to praise the usefulness of its tools and resources in tackling exclusion and discrimination. The adoption of the European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies was supposed to intensify the EU’s role in facilitating peer learning and advancement of concrete Roma-inclusion policies. Sadly, it seems limited to the hyper-production of reports and communications documents that offer little more than ambitious recommendations largely disconnected from national reform plans and oblivious to the reality that no political party has taken time to incorporate National Roma Integration Strategies in their manifestos.

    European discussion about the socio-economic exclusion of the Roma has thoroughly neglected the role of politics and ideology in formulating social policies and assistance programs. This is surprising considering that social cohesion constitutes the cornerstone of the fractious debate between the advocates of neoliberalism and proponents of a Keynesian welfare state. The fact that in national contexts, Roma minorities are often used as scapegoats by populists and conservative fractions alike seems to escape the attention of supranational institutions. Instances of vivid anti-Gypsysim are often blamed on far-right extremists, in a desperate and rather ineffective attempt to conceal the outflow of discriminatory rhetoric from liberal and centrist factions.

    EU’s de-politicization of Roma exclusion has prompted many political parties to offload the unpopular issue onto European technocrats and the increasingly underfunded civil society. The quest for securing austerity measures has overshadowed the need for improvements in education, health care and social protection. Yet without serious nationwide reforms an increase in exclusion and ethnic discrimination is sure to continue. The European determination to address Roma exclusion with an array of hermetic projects designed by bureaucratic experts has exhausted itself. What is needed now is an honest political dialogue about inclusive Europe, a dialogue that brings together major political parties and forces them to articulate their views, ideas and proposed solution. Although such a discussion would not be free of controversies it would at least place the Roma issue at the center of political agendas instead of pushing it into the realm of experts, and their often overly ambitious action schemes.

  4. Commentedantony douglas

    The Project is dead,as defined by the founding fathers of the original Euro Ideal it has no future anybody in their right mind would wish on their children .
    As an Irishman ,I have seen our nation wrecked by idiot banking and "taking a hit for the Team" Europhile political parties . Enough of this "genuine progress,clearly defined European interests...yadda yadda !. This Eutopian non sense is bankrupting the future of all nations by it's cul de sac communitaire view .
    It's over,time to invent a loose mutual benefit organisation that does not threaten the nation state as the model of choice for most western peoples .

  5. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    The contribution is an amateurish view of Europe. The designated Commission is heavily scrutinised by Parliament. We don't need new treaties, new parties, new candidates: inter-institutional agreements and decentralisation could rebalance the situation a lot, as well as kicking out lobbyists who are not on the payroll of European players.

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