Stanley's blog

Who governs?

Paradoxically, European integration appears to be seriously faltering at the very time that it is badly needed – faltering on the fundamentals of integration, not on whether there should be more or less policy-making or legislating at EU level.The European Union consists of two groups of Member States: those which realise and accept that they are small and those which still do not. We continue to be concerned that our citizens do not understanding the importance of the Union. Why should they when it lacks legitimacy (not democracy), when ‘Brussels’ is regularly criticised for what goes wrong, and when neither national governments nor parliaments have made any serious effort to explain to their citizens the relevance or importance of the Union to their daily lives?

With opinion polls consistently showing a lack of public trust in national political leaders, it is unsurprising that what unpopular Member State ministers do ‘in Brussels’ is unpopular back home.

The paradox is that no major problem facing society today can be solved solely at national level: climate change, energy security, international terrorism, crime… Globalisation is an unavoidable phenomenon which needs management. Solutions can only be found, first through joint action at European level.

Europe – not just the EU – is in crisis and the institutional blockage is only one manifestation of this crisis. Facets of the Irish ratification problem are common, to a greater or lesser extent, across the Union. A lasting solution can only be achieved long-term but a short-term solution is required if we are to avoid an excessively disparate and Eurosceptic European Parliament being elected next year, which may even prevent the effective operation of co-decision.

This brings us to the question of governance. Today’s society is fragmented at all levels as well as politically, socially, economically and culturally. Special interest groups abound; single issue civil society organisations multiply; and all of them fight for influence, often at the expense of the general or public interest. 24/7 news, internet and the blogosphere are phenomena with which the traditional forces in society are struggling to cope.

The interaction between this fragmentation in society and the today’s world of instant news gives rise to fundamental problems of governance. Short-termism is a growing factor in all walks of life, but it can be particularly corrosive in politics. Not only does there have to be daily compromise between different interests, but long-term solutions are hard to propose and maintain because ‘pain now, gain later’ is not an attractive formula in domestic politics.

The amount of time that ministers and their staffs must spend on answering the media, tracking their reports and analysis and trying to ensure what they consider to be fair reporting of policies is unjustifiable by any reasonable standards, and will only get worse. If that were not sufficient, politicians have microphones thrust at them at all hours of the day and night, often with the principal aim of enticing them into an indiscretion. This puts them almost permanently on the defensive, restricts their willingness to speak freely and turns politics into a game of verbal jousting.

These developments suggest a trend away from traditional political governance of democratic European societies and a concern that such governance has not been sufficiently adapted to the 21st century. Opinion polls suggest that European citizens feel this and it appears to contribute to the loss of credibility of the political classes and the higher regard for other sectors of society, and in particular, NGOs.

But is this higher regard well-placed? Or are we increasingly embracing a political system based on an accumulation of narrowing special interests with decreasing concern shown for the general or public interest?

All 27 Member States are representative parliamentary democracies, with obligatory referendums very much the exception. The referendum is an inappropriate – and arguably undemocratic – mechanism to elicit a reply to a complex issue. No EU-wide conclusion can be drawn from past Danish, Irish, French or Dutch ‘Noes’.

Eurosceptics pronounce the Lisbon Treaty dead – by some 50 000 Irish votes. No-one appears to heed successive opinion polls showing strong support for a common European foreign policy, made even more necessary because of the growing interaction between internal and external policies.

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  1. “[…] a concern that [traditional political governance of democratic European societies] has not been sufficiently adapted to the 21st century […]”: most probably true… but as the saying in French goes (which you probably know already 🙂 ) “criticism is easy, art is difficult”…

    The communication problem you are pointing out to in this article is important, but what do you think should be done to solve it, or at least what could be first ideas and steps towards such a solution?

    Maybe part of the problem is just the lack of a gobal social and political project for each country, for Europe (and for each other continent as well) and for the world… Who campaigns on the “type of society” he/she would like to promote through their policies should they be elected one day? Not a lot of politicians actually… and unfortunately… and expert technical questions are no matters that will raise passions within the crowds, except among those most closely concerned – most people being in fact unable to take a stand on them, so why shouldn’t they think that politics have been taken away from them in some way?

    Let’s not forget that #1 argument for saying “no” to the Lisbon Treaty – or to the Constitutional Treaty before it – is that as they currently stand they are unreadable for the average citizen, which even their supporters (like me) acknowledge! Talk about political issues being somehow taken away from the citizens who are ultimately supposed to take a stand on… what after all?

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