A European Demos – Believe it or Not?

Posted on 13. June 2013

by James Kilcourse

james-kilcourse-2012-2015-modifiedAn ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ is one of the stated aims of the founding treaty of the European Union. It implies the eventual coming together of the peoples of Europe into a single political entity, or demos. For some Member States and European citizens this is an article of faith underlying the European integration project. Others, however, remain sceptical not only about the desirability of this goal, but also – and more crucially – about its very feasibility.

The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave an important speech in Berlin on 24 May on what Germany and the UK can do to build a more democratically accountable European Union. In it, he made a remark that reveals a lot about his approach to European integration:

The EU is facing a crisis of legitimacy. I do not believe that we are going to solve this through more powers for the European Parliament, or attempts to build a European demos that are bound to fail.’

Much has been written over the past forty years about the “semi-detached” or “awkward” attitude of the UK to the EU. At the heart of the matter, however, is the fact that the British political establishment (and, it would seem from opinion polls, a majority of the population) simply does not believe in the concept of “ever closer union”, which, as Hague sees it, is ‘bound to fail’.

Just two weeks after Hague’s speech in Berlin, the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, discussed the future of the European project in the same city with a group of young Europeans, including some members of FutureLab Europe. It was quite clear from some of Schäuble’s comments that, unlike Hague, he genuinely does believe in the possibility of a European demos. And, unlike Hague, he emphasised the importance of the European Parliament when he said: ‘More Europe starts with going to the polls in the 2014 European Parliament elections’.

Minister Schäuble has in the past expressed the view that the European Parliament should be strengthened by being given the power to enact bills. He has also been instrumental in obtaining the support of his party (the CDU) for the idea of voters across the EU directly electing the European Commission President. Schäuble believes that ‘the direct election would be preceded by a large-scale mobilisation, and it would electrify all citizens from Portugal to Finland’.

The difference between these two politicians is not one of policy or strategy; it is a fundamental difference in beliefs. One believes in the possibility of a European demos, the other does not. We don’t know which of the two is correct. It is hard to disagree with Hague when he says ‘if the European Parliament were the answer to the question of democratic legitimacy we wouldn’t still be asking it’. Transnational democracy has so far failed to enthuse the EU’s citizens.

On the other hand, Schäuble could point to the oft-quoted phrase of Massimo d’Azeglio (which applies as much to nineteenth-century Germany as to Italy):‘We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians’. Only time will tell if the nation-building process of nineteenth-century European states can be repeated at the broader European level.

In the meantime, as the majority of EU members move towards deeper integration, it is important to understand that some actors are not just opposed to a closer union because they do not want it, but also because they simply do not believe it possible.