The European Union (EU) is in crisis. It is a crisis of democratic legitimacy precipitated by a loss of public trust and confidence in many member states. The grand project of an ever-closer union has stalled. Some fear it is going into reverse. Anti-EU sentiments and parties are experiencing unprecedented support. Calls for withdrawal are more widespread than ever before. Revived nationalism is gaining ground at the expense of retreating Europeanism.
This is hardly surprising, given that mainstream parties across Europe offer no real vision for the future of Europe — just more of the same. There is not much to distinguish the European policies of the governing and opposition parties in most EU countries. Their manifestos for the European elections share a collective imagination deficit. They are stale and uninspiring. No wonder many voters are turning off. They see no prospect of serious reform and no captivating future agenda.
What is to be done? A common criticism of the EU is that it is remote and distant. The EU has to be brought closer to the people. One way to achieve this, and to simultaneously undercut the xenophobic nationalism of the far right, will be to transform the EU into a decentralised federation of regions. It will mean giving direct representation, negotiation and power to the hundreds of regions across the EU member countries. May not this localisation of the EU give people a greater sense of involvement and value? In the case of United Kingdom, the regions could be based on existing EU parliamentary constituencies: The North West, London, East Midlands, Wales and so on. This same direct representation can be given to regions all across the EU, including Brittany, Catalonia, Bavaria and Sicily. As well as diminishing toxic nationalism, this decentralisation will empower often marginalised places.
Tiny Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus have populations of under one million. If they can be members of the EU, why not the regions of the UK and other countries? Instead of EU relations being mediated via national governments, the regions could have a direct voice, cutting bureaucracy and remoteness. This regionalisation would bring the EU closer to the people, making the benefits of membership more obvious. This might help restore some degree of public faith in the union.
Under this new dispensation, nation states would retain representation in the EU’s council of ministers but share more power with the regions represented via the European Parliament. And why not? The current European nations emerged at a particular geopolitical juncture in history. They are not sacrosanct and not the only legitimate basis for the functioning of the EU. The nation state may not be redundant, but within the EU framework it can be less significant and dominant. Yet, for the EU to recapture public conviction, it will take more than structural devolution — important though this may be. Millions of people across Europe suffered as a result of the financial meltdown in 2007-09. The EU failed to prevent it. What are needed are serious attempts by the EU to safeguard against future financial crises by, among other measures, making corporate recklessness and negligence an explicit criminal offence in all member states. This will help tame big business sharks, prevent ethical companies being undermined by rogue rivals and encourage good corporate governance, thereby strengthening economic stability and security.
The EU should also take steps to remedy the democratic deficit in the economy. We expect political democracy; why not economic democracy too? Building on the German works council model and existing EU directives, private and public institutions with more than 50 employees could be required by law to have one-third of their management board representing employees and consumers. Giving people a genuine stake in their workplaces is likely to result in better EU industrial relations and improved productivity, as well as empowering the consumer and employee board members to blow the whistle on irresponsible corporate decisions that risk damaging the enterprise and the economy.
Greater minds that mine can no doubt refine and improve these proposals and come up with even better ones. But for the EU to regain public confidence, political parties need to offer a new vision of what it could be. Apart from the Greens and some other fringe parties, this is not happening. The EU may survive, but without a vision to inspire people it will be shorn of the popular enthusiasm it deserves.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Peter Tatchell is the director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a human rights organisation.