21 February 2018

A missed opportunity to rebuild Europe on new foundations through a citizen foundational process

“Our societies, while deploring the crisis in representative democracy, are still finding it difficult to devise true citizen debating processes and even more difficult to admit that the revival of democracy requires new methods, which require time and money”.

My blog has remained silent since last May. Some were even worried that I might have lost their address…

The main reason for my silence is that I was waiting for initiatives to give the European Union new foundations to play out. After Brexit, Trump’s attacks and the rise, pretty much everywhere, of far-left and far-right anti-European stances, the election of Emmanuel Macron last May, his professed intention to rebuild the European project with its citizens and to hold ‘democratic conventions’ all over Europe were welcome surprises and allowed us to hope for a true citizen foundational process that would be spearheaded by regional and local authorities.

In his proposals, Luc van den Brande (see Attachment 1, an excerpt of his report), special adviser to President Juncker on outreach towards citizens, confirmed the importance of relying on these authorities and of mobilising resources for deliberative democracy. Everybody knows that a ‘dialogue with citizens’ limited to giving the floor to pro-Europeans or to speaking from the top as the Commission is wont to do will not enable the renewal of the Union’s foundations so many people are calling for.

Those of us who are older remember the failure of the communication policy launched by the Commission in 2006 as a response – already then – to the result of the French and British referendums rejecting the European Constitutional Treaty; by relying on its Member States to conduct said policy, the Commission, as I observed at the time (Attachment 2), thought it could ‘cut the handle of the knife with its own blade’, as humorously put by a Chinese proverb. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. And memory is not the strong suit of politicians. Our new leaders, unaware of this precedent, are still hoping that all Member States will enthusiastically engage in a citizen process that might, if properly conducted, put them at risk.

Last year, in the aftermath of the British poll, the Commission seemed willing to call its intellectual algorithm into question. It has since recovered its self-assurance; seeing that the difficulties of our friends across the Channel have tempered the eagerness of those who might have wished to follow suit, it has reverted to its traditional self-satisfaction. Juncker just barely conceded, in his State of the Union address in September, that ‘Macron-style’ democratic conventions would be a useful supplement to the Commission’s longstanding efforts to dialogue with its citizens. Any form of break is now off the table. There will be just an extra bit of soul.

As head of state and wishing to reaffirm his authority, Emmanuel Macron, wearing the halo of the triumph of his movement, ‘En Marche’, which grew out of Internet-based consultations, is probably hoping that the same method will take him to successful European heights. I wish him luck, but I’m afraid he’s in for severe disappointment.

I have argued that a citizen foundational process should be considered a priority human investment for Europe and as such, should be part and parcel of the major investment plan being promoted by Juncker. But the same people who are disposed to spend billions of euros on major technological projects (with uncertain outcomes) cannot imagine spending millions of euros to organize a citizen dialogue on the future of Europe! Our societies, while deploring the crisis in representative democracy, are still finding it difficult to devise true citizen debating processes and even more difficult to admit that the revival of democracy requires new methods, which in turn will require time and money.

We also thought that organising a citizen foundational process bringing Länder and régions together would be a great opportunity to rekindle the French-German ‘couple’, this time including both countries’ local actors. This outlook has been stymied by the current political uncertainty in Germany.

There is one last obstacle. Territorial authorities, though they may be major actors of the future, are still marked by two centuries of political minority. The very organisation of the European Union, a union of states, has deepened their inferiority complex. As a result, neither the Committee of the Regions nor the network of major European cities has been in a position to design and conduct, on its own initiative, an ambitious citizen-based process to rebuild the foundations of Europe.

My friend Patrick Lusson – with whom we launched the proposal for a European foundational process (see the specifications of the process, presented in my note of June 2016, Attachment 3) – and I had set the end of 2017 as the deadline for us to have furthered the idea sufficiently, considering that beyond that date it would no longer be possible to engage a serious deliberative democracy process before the 2019 European elections, because in this area, nothing is worse than wool-gathering. Although our passion for the outlook of setting new foundations for Europe has not dwindled, we find as we enter 2018 that this historic opportunity has been lost. The institution of a ‘European people’ will have to wait. My wish is that these democratic conventions will materialise and feed into the European project; but I fear that cursory debates leaving out all those citizens having doubts about Europe will simply make Euroscepticism grow stronger.

So here I am, free to discuss things with you again. There are plenty of subjects on the table: the urgency of foundational processes at various levels, from the global to the regional, as illustrated by the resurgence of nationalist attitudes as well as by the current separatist movements; the necessary evolution of international law; the societal responsibility of actors, universities and researchers in particular; the invention of a new development paradigm in the context of schizophrenic debates on climate change; multi-level governance; and managing complexity. These are the subjects I intend to write about this year.


Pierre Calame

Former President of the Board, Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le progrès de l’Homme