The future of Europe: Towards an open collaborative EU

21 November 2011 – Presseurop Notebook

Despite fears of technocratic rule, new models of collaboration could lead to a more pluralist Europe.

The idea that Europe is experiencing a democracy deficit is becoming commonplace. 'Technocratic' rule, implemented due to emergency conditions in Greece and Italy is a hard to ignore symbol of what British Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage have been claiming as the inevitable outcome of European domination. First sovereignty is ceded, then democracy itself, they cry.

A history of bridging difference

Between the revisions of the Treaty of Rome in the single European Act of 1987 and the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, there has been a concerted effort to shift policymaking in Europe from simple community ‘harmonisation’ in law to representative, pluralistic governance, respectful of difference.

Community harmonisation lawmaking seeks uniformity in law across the union in order to ameliorate trade and national-cultural differences, particularly in cases where national identity or culture cause (or are seen to cause) inequalities. Governance, in contrast, seeks to account for difference by taking into account plurality and seeking authentic, representative dialogues on a ‘thick’ basis.

No one denies the inevitable problems and challenges that will face any attempt to coordinate independent nations. Supranational authority will always jar with national authority. The European Union has the strong mechanism of subsidiarity, meaning national laws are required to interpret supranational directives. Supranational directives are written in self-consciously formal ways precisely to permit latitude in interpretation. The idea is to have a loose community of shared values, with the recognition of local variance. National identity and culture are important here in terms of policy as the principle of subsidiarity means that national self-determination must be respected, not dominated. While supra-national authority can make recommendations and even requirements for nations, it cannot actually enforce change at the national level, according to protocol 30 of the Treaty of Europe:

Any national Parliament or any chamber of a national Parliament may, within six weeks from the date of transmission of a draft European legislative act, send to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission a reasoned opinion stating why it considers that the draft in question does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. It will be for each national Parliament or each chamber of a national Parliament to consult, where appropriate, regional parliaments with legislative powers.

A political balancing act

While the EU project seeks a loose community of common values, it has two extreme positions to balance. On the one hand, there are the values. These are pretty much embodied in human rights declarations. These are the essential desideratum for being European. However, given subsidiarity and the desire to recognise national difference, the value régime has to be regulated in a laissez faire manner. The values have to be interpreted at the national level in order to become law. This is the balancing act of European governance, then: communitarianism based in shared values, with liberalism in regulation. It is state vs civil society perfectionism.

One mechanism the EU uses to make this balance is the so called Open Method of Coordination (OMC). OMC is intended as a ‘soft’, i.e. non-law-based, governance approach wherein community deliberations inform policy decisions nationally aimed at converging with policy goals set supra-nationally. In terms of Europe, EU ministers first agree on 'framework goals'. Second, member-states translate these guidelines into national and regional policies. Third, the ministers agree on benchmarks and indicators, to measure and compare best practice within the EU and worldwide. Finally, through evaluation and monitoring, member-states' performances are assessed – relative to each other and to their declared goals.

OMC ensures not only that loose coordination of approaches toward given goals is possible, but permits national popular opinion, mediated by national governmental dealings, to directly influence policy among other EU nations and at the superstate level. More than this, however, OMC can be deployed as a mechanism at smaller scales. Based upon some expressed solidarity of interest, a 'framework goal', horse-trading can be undertaken to hammer out the details. Given the basic notion of this give and take is an expressed mutual interest, however, the whole process has common good as its driving force.

The sort of Farage criticism of the EU has identity at its core. Regardless of who you are, you have needs that the state or that civil society can or ought to address. Using OMC as an approach to construct the means to address needs puts people first, and in a way that undercuts berkish nationalism.

Slow Europe, fast—and loose—critics

The main problem with Europe is the speed at which it moves. It has a lot of research and ideas on governance and is certainly aware of the serious problems that attend supranational legitimacy. But the knee-jerk reaction to dissatisfaction with Europe tends to bring nationalism to the fore. That's as unrepresentative as blind, supra national forces. Present-day allegiances and identities are structured in ways that don't stop at borders. People identify with networks and ideas that don't necessarily resolve neatly even in the individual. A representative democratic solution will never be satisfactory if it clings to mythological ideas of nationalism.

OMC is one of the good ideas in European governance as it is deliberative and focusses on solidarities of interests. The consequence of such governance would be more legitimacy, but more variance in implementation. A common Europe by various means. the question is how fast institutions can move to accommodate this, or if the will exists to exploit these Made in Europe governance approaches in the interests of Europeans.

And of course it is the national governments who have the authority to implement OMC. Why wouldn't they do so? Likely outcomes of OMC are the dissipation of centralised executive power and the loss of consistency in policy-implementation. These aren't insubstantial worries, but likely outcomes from enacting the will of the population. It could be that the abnegation of democracy begins not in Brussels, but closer to home.

Image by Rupert Ganzer. CC licenced.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.