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EU democratisation – The conditions of succes of a public debate on Europe’s future orientations

Executive summary Seminar EU-Governance 2020 (Paris, April 6, 2001)



A study on the Euro and its consequences concludes that there is a very strong link between the Euro and a political questioning. As soon as the Euro will be there, questions will immediately emerge, and more specifically, political questions such as : who is making the decisions ? how can I as a citizen influence the choices ?

In this sense, the Nice Treaty proposition to launch a public debate on the future of Europe is revealing essential. But the consequences of this logic must be carefully measured: this democratic debate process aimed to convoke 300 million citizens to discuss the future, is in fact a political debate. That is to say that the years to come, for better or for worse, will see the emergence of new political leaderships. There is a democratic void, and thus a political one ; and this void will be filled in because the political nature too, hates emptiness. The post-Nice democratic debate is as much a debate called by the heads of states and governments as a natural consequence of the degree of European integration, reached today.

Unprecedented at such a scale and with such a level of integration, unprecedented equally as a result of the growing worries of the public opinion confronted to a number of consequences of the European integration (Euro, Mad Cow, Foot and Mouth Disease), the set up of this debate constitutes a challenge for both the institutions and for all those who wish it to be a success. Indeed, a European democratic debate that would not be properly designed, conducted and finalised would inevitably result in a serious confidence crisis throughout the EU.

For this reason Europe 2020 wished to contribute to the preparation of this debate and organized this seminar aimed to identify the debate’s conditions of success. The 55 top-level participants and speakers coming from 13 Members-States (Foreign Ministries) and from the European institutions, have freely exchanged their views and experiences in order to define more strictly the possible constraints and methods to turn the debate into a success. For this purpose 4 themes were reviewed during the discussions : the calendar, the content, the instruments and relays, and the structural articulation of the democratic debate. This work is designed to highlight the choices and possibilities available on each of these points.


The challenge: To anticipate the evolutions of the public opinion in the coming months VS to end up disconnected

The problematic: The idea one has of the debate’s nature – A long-term political process or a communication operation ?

. ” This debate is the beginning of a process that will last at least a decade” : Preparing the future

There are two choices : a short version (the communication event designed to correct the bad media impact of Nice) or a long version of the debate’s agenda (the EU has entered a few years ago already in a new phase progressively involving the public opinions, civil society and the citizens in the decision-making processes). Discussions in the seminar converged to confirm that the EU is indeed entering a new phase and that the European democratic debate is in fact a decade-long process, in which the institutions are only one of the acting forces among various others. The agenda should therefore not be short-term based as a six-month communication campaign, or it would result in the contrary of its intention and reinforce the feeling of misunderstanding and frustration prevailing more and more among the public opinions.

. ” The institutions no longer handle the agenda of the European construction ” : channelling the energies

The institutional steps to be found along this decade (2004, Laeken…) are as many mishaps not necessarily very essential. In fact the institutions must learn to admit that they no longer handle the agenda of the European construction, a fact that is a radical change compared to the situation that prevailed in 1950-1998. An example of this lack of control of the agenda by the institutions: the Agricultural Common Policy was designed as un-reformable until 2006 ! Today the Mad Cow and the Foot and Mouth disease have shattered the consensus that surrounded the ACP which is de facto entering a phase of reconstruction. The agenda now depends strongly on hazards and reactions of the European public opinion. To admit this new situation is a prerequisite for any clear-minded discussion on the European democratic debate and its agenda. From now on the institutions can accompany or try to channel the populations’ energies relating to the future of Europe; they can no longer hope to organise and provide a frame for it.

. ” Not mistaking speed for haste ” : Building a method first

It is clear that there is an urgency and a political imperative; but going too fast in trying to initiate the debate before the instruments, the methods and the tools are completely identified, would end up in a complete failure. Today, at the national level as well as at the European level, no institution has the proper operational relays needed to animate the scheduled debate, or a common method, or a previous experience or a vision of the ends of the debate itself. In parallel to this situation, the citizens, taken collectively, are not requiring this debate and are still profoundly ignorant as to the challenges and themes of a European debate: the public is not ready yet. Launching too rapidly this debate is the best way to end up with a total failure in 6 months time. Finally the Euro, which was agreed upon during the seminar as being a factor of radical change for the relations between the public opinions and the European project, is a key-element in this debate; since no one can tell before the beginning of 2002 in what sense it will affect public opinions, initiating a debate on the future of Europe before the Euro introduction would be an aberration. On the other hand, preparing a method and a frame to accompany the public opinions’ reactions as soon as the Euro arrives should right now be an essential objective for the stability of the EU.

. ” With the arrival of the Euro, national elections will no longer be able to avoid Europe ” : Articulating the European democratic calendar with the national citizen agendas

National elections are from now on important European democratic appointments because the arrival of the Euro is pushing the concurrent political parties to strengthen their discourse on Europe. May 13th 2001 in Italy, June 7th 2001 in Great-Britain, Spring 2002 in France and Fall 2002 in Germany… represent as many stages for the emergence of a Euro-citizenship that are worth being anticipated and utilized, calling the European institutions for important information/communication efforts.


The challenge: Generating a dynamic of hearing and contribution of the public opinion VS speaking in the void

The problematic: To arbitrate between either choosing institutional themes or themes of concern for the people, i.e. the difficult themes

. ” You don’t catch flies with vinegar ; in other words, institutional debates will not attract the public “

So that a debate starts, there must be an audience for it. To have an audience means to identify the attractive themes and method. The institutions should carefully analyse what in their own internal debates is likely to find an echo among the public opinion on the one hand, and on the other hand, they should identify what is of interest for the people when it comes to Europe, including (and even above all) everything that is a problem for them in the EU (mad cow, bureaucracy, political consequences of the Euro, transparency, immigration…). And in order to reinforce interactivity and convergence, debates on questions rather than on solutions should be privileged. For instance: Raising the issue of competence delimitation between European, national and regional levels, rather than asking what people think of a European constitution ; because they haven’t got a clue !

. ” This does not mean that these contents cannot be related to the key-institutional themes “

One should start from the themes of interest for the people and build the track that will lead to the key-issues raised in the Summits regarding the European construction: starting from the people, their concerns, introducing Europe as a question or an instrument of solution, and bringing back the debate towards the institutions. This is a pedagogic work which is the role of a democratic debate: to contribute to enlighten the whole social body on the stakes of the future, governants and governed. Institutions should use a pedagogic, rather than professoral, approach.


The challenge: To reach shortly a critical mass of several million of citizens once the debate is launched so that it does not remain a communication gadget

The problematic: Privileging interactivity, speed, massive impact VS opting for information, cautiousness and sprinkling

. ” With close to 80 million internauts in the EU, the Internet reaches the youngest and most dynamic quarter of European society “

We are talking here about a debate targeting more than 300 million citizens. Its success will be relative to its capacity to involve several dozens of millions of them (and not a few thousands as it has been the case since years in the debates on the EU). The instruments that it must use should enable reaching very rapidly millions of people in order to create a dynamic. And this time the debate must be interactive in order not to fail.

Today in Europe (and all the more within a year), out of any technological fascination, the Internet only can offer such a service. The Internet is already a natural tool for a particularly strategic quarter of the European population (the younger generations on the one hand, and the most active sectors of society on the other hand: whether it is in companies, associations, universities, foundations or the media, those in the move are on the Internet). The Internet does not exhaust, far from it, alternative ways of debating. But whether national or European, these alternative debates will need the Internet at one stage or another in order to create an emulation And it is the only tool available to institute a real link between the various national debates. For these two reasons, the Internet is a vital instrument for the debate with a high relaying potential, not only as to the number of people reached, but because those it reaches are opinion producers in their sphere. Another advantage relates to the fact that it does not depend on the classical media which in many countries have decided once and for all that Europe interested no one…and therefore constitute an obstacle rather than a facilitator of the debate.

. ” By 2004 the Internet is all the more inescapable “

What was the Internet 4 years ago ? Nothing. What will it represent in 4 years time : given today’s Internet’s rate of increase and penetration of society, it is clear that within 4 years our society will be entirely energized by this sort of tools and relations… Thinking the debate in time means thinking the rapid developments currently encountered; and today’s Internet is but the embryo of what it will be tomorrow. Thinking today the 2004 IGC, for instance, not considering the Internet as a central tool, would be like imagining in 1960 the national elections to be without the television.


The challenge: Engaging a snow-ball process gradually penetrating the whole society from the inside VS aiming at reaching directly everyone from the outside (the institutions)

The problematic: Learning to use new relays VS Carrying on using the existing relays

. ” It is not a matter of debating with 10,000 people in a room; but a matter of debating with a few dozens of them under the attentionate gaze of 10,000 others…who will rediscuss the issues together later on “

The aim is not to directly involve 300 million people tomorrow in a debate. The aim is to identify the 15, 20 or 30 million people who will relay the debate, each of them energizing, dragging, informing 10, 30 or 100 people; they are the key-elements of the debate. Given that this debate’s priority aims to bridge the gap between citizens and the EU and to restore the confidence, the ” peer to peer ” remains the best method: the opinion conveyed through the relays present within society is more credible that that issued from the ” they ” of the institutions or even the media (who both are entailed by a confidence crisis).

. ” The institutions must now collect the fruits of their investment with the European programmes “

Each year the Commission (and member-states) is in direct relation with dozens of thousands of partners/beneficiaries of the European programmes (academics, students, researchers, local authorities, associations, companies…). These actors constitute the effective relays of a ” European opinion ” among their socio-professional environment: they already are involved in a European dynamic, they relay European contents and they present a good capacity of interaction and content-production, they can contribute to the debate… and all of them are connected to the Internet. It is therefore high time that the institutions capitalize on the European programmes investment and integrate these partners into the debate on the future of Europe. They are relays in fact far more effective than the usual European movements and other European associations based in Brussels which de facto belong to the ” institutional Euro-bubble ” and have no impact whatsoever on public opinion.

. ” It is important to invent the means of measuring the relaying capacity of structure “

The efficiency requirement that surrounds the set up of a democratic European debate implies that citizen-relays whatever they are (local elected representatives, members of Parliament, journalists, NGO operators…) are subject to measures of assessment before being integrated to the debate mechanism.

Two criteria in particular could serve usefully the efficiency measurement of a relay :

- How many people does the relay reach ? Until now Europe was satisfied with relays reaching a few hundreds or a few thousands people. This situation is no longer possible : there are 300 million people to mobilize, therefore the only valid relays on a European scale reach a minimum of tens or hundreds of thousands people.

- What distance is there between the basic citizen and the relay ? Is it for instance a European professional federation or a European liaison office with 3, 4 or 5 intermediary levels until the citizen (in fact disconnected from the final citizen target) ? Or is it a direct relay towards the citizens ? Given that those which have the least interface with the citizens are to be systematically favoured as they can pass on messages directly and rapidly while time is a crucial factor in this debate.


The challenge: To ensure both quality and legitimacy of the debate…and its European convergence

The problematic: To invent the forms of a common debate held in 11 languages

. ” Sectorial debates at both national and European levels “

Valorising everything that is sectorial (based on the activity: students, farmers, researchers, jurists, civil servants…) is a mean to go fast and to bring a natural trans-European dimension while remaining close to the citizen-level. European issues are clearer on a sectoral base and their up-dating will serve the emergence of a collective debate on the ends of the European Union. The previous recommendations apply to the 4 levels of the debate: regional, sectorial, national and European. But in the strategic sequence of the debate, it can be useful to, sector or region base the first stages (and maybe cross them since a region legitimately bears specific sectoral debates). It would enable a better preparation to the national and European dimensions of the debate (sectorial approach is vital in the latter).

. ” Linguistic debates rather than national ones “

Because of the Internet, debates may happen to have linguistic rather than national bases. To ensure a European convergence to the debate (a key-condition of success to avoid ending with increased oppositions between member-states), it is important to plan ” trans-European channels ” that will cross-fertilize the 11 parallel debates. How to organize a public debate in 11 languages and avoid producing 11 simultaneous debates ? Part of the answer probably lies in the distinction between the 3 central languages of the Union (French, English and German) enabling to reach some 70% of the population (mother or learnt language) which must be placed at the heart of a European debate; and the 8 less spoken languages to enable everyone to discuss in his own language. It is urgent to analyse deeper this operational lead.

CONCLUSION – A few months away from the Euro introduction, this debate is a unique opportunity for the EU to stop running after the crises

The debate that was decided in Nice by the heads of state and government is a mere component of the process initiated a decade ago and that marks the irruption of the peoples and citizens in the European decision-making processes. The institutions should not misunderstand this aspect and give way to short-term easy solutions turning the debate into a gadget, a pure communication operation inserted in the institutional agenda. On the opposite, so that this debate succeeds and stops the on-going erosion of public confidence in the European project and institutions, it must be designed as long-term operation enabling to anticipate the turbulences that the Euro introduction will generate in the coming months among the public opinion.

For this purpose, in the short-term, the central objective could be to reach to a common agreement on the ” method and ends ” of the debate at the Laeken Summit, first stage towards the invention of a common democracy, in order to be ready to channel the debate when the Euro will start raising interrogations among the public opinion.

This method requires a complete renewal of the vision of the interactions between institutions and citizens in the field of European construction and then integration of the factors which radically modified communication procedures in the last decade. It also requires an original articulation between regions, sectors, States and European level.

All the answers and solutions are at hand. They simply require some imagination and expertise to be efficiently combined.

However, it was a shared feeling among the participants to the seminar that any strategic mistake in the implementation of this democratic debate will bear very strong and negative consequences of post Euro EU. For about a decade, the EU has been running after events and crises. Today, this debate on the ” debate ” can finally enable the EU to regain some control and to anticipate future events. An opportunity not to be missed.

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