Here is a presentation I made to the European Network of Political Foundations in Rome in July 2013. I was asked to speak on the issue of “Regaining trust in Europe by fostering political participation: The role of European and national political foundations” and subsequently to debate with the Director of the Centre for European Studies, the main conservative think tank in Brussels, on behalf of FEPS.
I wish to thank ENoP for inviting me to speak at their conference during the European Year of the Citizen. In the interest of simplicity, I will base my intervention on the seminar’s title. As such, I will begin by addressing the issue of trust and how to regain it. I will follow this by examining how this links to political participation and, finally, attempt to see how political foundations fit into the picture.
Crisis of legitimation
It will not come as a groundbreaking statement that the political institutions of the European Union – and its member states – are facing a crisis of legitimation. The gap between the inherently ethical nature of public decision-making and the utilitarian nature of present-day political debate has pushed a wedge between citizen and institution.
In our public sphere, media management has replaced open debate. Spectacle has taken precedence over discourse and alternative political opinions are dismissed without appropriate consideration. Added to this, there is a strong perception that the responsibility for important public decisions has been diverted from elected representatives, who are accountable, to technocrats, who are not; or to a mysterious and abstract marketplace.
Yet trust is not an abstract virtue. It is the very basis of the link between citizen and institution; between people and the economy; between individual and society. It is the human element upon which democracy thrives.
It is important not to limit our discourse or the scope of our civic engagement. Sometimes, it seems that politicians and commentators have difficulty even imagining things differently. There is a tacit acceptance of dysfunction, while citizens become ever more alienated.
Within the member states, governments disguise dysfunction in vocabulary that is misleadingly “ethical”, exemplified by the presentation of austerity measures and welfare cuts as “hard choices”.
At European level, big questions are sidelined to accommodate the many national interests at play. In the Council, member states privilege narrow, short-term advantage over long-term planning. In all the noise we don’t get to ask what kind of European Union we want. Instead, we get institutional navel-gazing, technical treaties and public apathy.
Is it the case that our political system has become overwhelmed? In my lifetime, it seems that the sense of ambition has gone from politics. We are left as mere political consumers and the broad narratives of parties are no longer trusted. Some have directed their energies towards old-style nationalism to vent their anger, thus limiting the scope of active citizenship even further.
Meaningful citizenship is based on dignity, equality and respect at every level. For the individual citizen, this implies a genuine link between legislation and participation in local, national or European politics. In Europe it means that decisions of elected representatives should be transparent and in the common interest.
Fostering political participation
The shifting sands of political engagement
At present, economic insecurity and the humiliation of long term unemployment militate against political participation, at least in its traditional form. In the absence of adequate action on socio-economic issues, people in precarious positions can be drawn to the politics of group identity and the easy answers of populists.
Education and the media
It is in everyone’s interest to increase the awareness and political consciousness of citizens. Any democracy that forgets the value of an educated population is on the road to perdition. But this seems to be lost on many of our decision makers, who subject education to the utilitarianism of our age.
Similarly, the media have a responsibility to keep the public informed about their political choices. The tendency towards sensationalism instead of providing content has a detrimental effect. The emergence of social media, however, offers many opportunities to improve this situation, representing a sort of democratisation of information.
Institutions and responses
Ultimately, citizens need to see their public institutions as symbols of power held in common – as guardians of the public good. There is a responsibility to offer a normative public vision, not an irrational bureaucracy, prone to external domination or unaccountable interference. In Europe, this means adhering to the community method and giving an appropriate role to the European Parliament, which is the people’s assembly.
The role of European and national political foundations
In terms of the role of European and national political foundations, we should face up to our own shortcomings. There are those who criticise think tanks on the basis that they eliminate unconventional thought.
About political foundations like us, some say we are too close to the system to question it. We owe it to good democratic practice to answer such criticisms. Let us offer our organisations as incubators of critical thought: when necessary, critical even of the political families to which we are affiliated.
If nothing else, foundations can help to demystify public policy and open it up to citizens. The modern economist, for example, needlessly complicates economic discourse. The cult of the expert is a function of guarding power. Foundations can open this up again, emboldening citizens to have faith in the strength of their own analyses and realise that power belongs to them
In conclusion, it is evident that trust is the basis of all healthy interactions in political and economic life. Without trust, the difficulties of encouraging political participation are too big to surmount. As political foundations, we have a role to play in building trust through education and challenging political practitioners.
The European Union and its member states require a renewed sense of purpose. The foundations gathered here have a shared interest in working towards this renewal. We are the crossroads between the European project and the pluralist public sphere. We can strengthen active European citizenship, helping others to develop constructive criticism as informed participants. This is a very valuable role in a democracy