This evening I went to the Centre, a Brussels-based ‘think-do tank’, to listen to Margot Wallström deliver the annual John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture. John was a half-English, half-Danish civil servant who worked for some thirty years in the Secretariat General of the European Commission, dealing with relations with the European Parliament. I went to do a traineeship with him in 1985 because he had written two books and a number of incisive articles about the Parliament (at the time I was writing a PhD thesis about the Parliament). He rapidly became my friend and mentor and our friendship lasted until he was cruelly felled by a heart attack in 2003. Margot Wallström didn’t know him personally, but I have no doubt he would have thoroughly approved of the tone and content of her analysis of ‘Europe on the Eve of the Parliament elections.’ Margot pointed to the danger that, if the Lisbon Treaty has not yet been ratified, the elections risk being opportunistically turned into ‘the referendum you never had’. In that context I see another danger lurking behind the recent Eurobarometer findings: turnout risks being low, perilously low, in a number of member states. When turnout is that low (and we’re talking about under 20 per cent here) mavericks and extremists tend to do disproportionately well. In my humble opinion, therefore, all friends of the European Parliament and of parliamentary democracy more generally should do their utmost to encourage Europe’s citizens to turn out and vote. Margot touched on another issue dear to my heart. As an old ‘DG X’ hand, I got quite intimately involved in the first attempts to develop some sort of genuine EU communication policy. We always foundered on the same two rocks: namely, no Treaty article on which to base such a policy; and the fact that some Member States are extremely sensitive about direct communication activities by the European institutions in the Member States. About two years ago, for a few heady moments, it seemed as though, Treaty article or not, the three big institutions were about to agree on the bare bones of a communication policy. Alas, the probability rapidly receded and next week they will instead sign an interinstitutional agreement rather than something more ambitious. It’s a good start and will surely be built on, but there is a great irony in this ebb and flow, for the very circumstances that illustrated the necessity for some sort of EU-wide communication policy (the Dutch, French and Irish referendums) simultaneously made such a policy impossible (because of the sensitivity of domestic opinion in some key Member States).
In the ensuing debate my pal, Centre co-founder and E!Sharp publisher, Paul Adamson, cogently argued that the rise of what might be termed structured Euro-scepticism was a good thing because it obliged pro-Europeans to take a more pro-active stance and argue their case – something they had singularly failed to do in the past. Paul has consistently criticised what he calls the ‘Euro wimps’ who moan about the slings and arrows of outrageous Euro-scepticism (to paraphrase) but are loathe to get out there and fight the good fight. Paul, to his immense credit, has certainly put his money where his mouth is.
Another friend, Mike Shackleton, was among the guests. More than any other official, Mike made the European Parliament’s internet-based TV channel, EuroparlTV; a reality. It was a hideously complex and mammoth undertaking. Like any innovation, it will be improved and adapted over time, but it is there and it works. Mike has played a number of key roles in the EP’s secretariat – Budgets Committee, Temporary Committee of Inquiry, Co-decision and Conciliation Committees; he has also taught about the Parliament at Bruges and, of course, co-authored the text book about the European Parliament, but when it comes to looking back at the legacy, EuroparlTV is the biggie, an extraordinary achievement.
In other words, Margot’s John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture had brought together a group of kindred spirits who, from MEPs to candidates to officials to activists could certainly not be described as being Euro-wimps.
To read Margot’s speech click on ‘read the rest of this entry’.
Draft Speech: John Fitzmaurice Lecture
Europe on the eve of the 2009 elections
Approx. 2800 words (28 minutes)
Let me start by thanking Brussels Labour for inviting me to give this lecture. I didn’t know John Fitzmaurice personally, but he was clearly an example for many in this town, combining a passion for European politics with great professional commitment as an academic and a European civil servant.
This speech will start and end with a curse. I’m sure you’re familiar with the allegedly ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”. It has certainly come true for us today! John Fitzmaurice would surely have been fascinated by the present tumultuous state of the world, with its deep implications for the European Union and for social democratic and labour politics in our continent.
I am not here to offer a solution to the financial crisis. But I will argue that the policies required to deal with it play to our core values as social democrats, putting an end to the idea that the markets always know best. I am among those who think that the market is a good servant but a lousy master. This crisis could provide us with a golden opportunity to make the case for a fairer and less market-centred Europe.
But I am getting ahead of myself! This evening, I want to offer a few brief reflections on the current political situation in Europe, in the run-up to the 2009 elections. First, in terms of public attitudes to the elections, secondly in terms of communicating European politics and thirdly in terms of the vision and policies we need for Europe’s future.
After that, I hope we will have time for some questions and debate.
First, then, public attitudes. To those of us who work in the EU institutions, it feels as though the 2009 elections are already upon us. In the Parliament, the political groups are showing that they are less willing to compromise, and are starting every month to raise the banner of their public positions. Manifestos are in preparation, and across the continent candidates and lists are being chosen.
But beyond the Brussels beltway and those immediately concerned, the elections next June are, to say the least, not a pressing concern for most Europeans. A Eurobarometer poll taken in May showed that only 16% of Europeans are aware of the elections, and in the UK, that figure is just 3%. A year ahead of the vote, less than half of Europe’s voters were even interested.
And when European politics is discussed at home, the debate is often not the most constructive one. It is often the sceptics who have the loudest voice. The “No” in the Irish referendum has played into their hands since a debate about rules, institutions and powers is of no interest for most people, and too easily becomes a pro- and anti- EU debate rather than a political debate about what kind of Europe we want to construct.
And for the first time, there is even the possibility that we will face a pan-European sceptic campaign, built on the populist slogan that “your government didn’t let you vote on the Treaty: now here’s your chance”.
A pessimist would look at all of this, and conclude that we will have a low turnout, which will strengthen the sceptics and populists in the next Parliament, making it harder to take the decisions that Europe so desperately needs in the next five years.
But I am not a pessimist, for three reasons.
First, because I still trust in the common sense of Europeans. This comes from my experience in this job. Over the last three years, since the French and Dutch referenda on the Constitution, we have engaged in a range of pilot projects in popular participation in Europe. Deliberative polling exercises and citizen’s consultations on EU affairs. Under the banner of Plan D, these have brought together thousands of people, from all walks of life and from every EU country, face to face and online, to discuss and engage on European issues. Many of these people had no previous interest or involvement in European politics.
The experience has been overwhelmingly positive. When people are provided with the facts about what Europe does, and what it can and can’t do, it is amazing how much interest people will show in having a say, both on what Europe should do, and what demands they would like to make on it.
My second reason for optimism is that most Europeans understand why Europe is necessary. They know that the challenges facing us all today are not solvable by individual national governments. Whether it is the collapse of the financial markets, climate change, the crisis in the Caucasus, or global mass migration, people realize that no Member State can handle these questions alone.
In other words, there is an appetite in Europe for a collective democratic response to today’s political challenges. And I think we have seen this many times. To give a couple of examples, support for the EU reached a 12 year high after the summit last year that launched the climate change package. Or, to take a British example, when Jacques Delors made the case for social Europe to the Trades Union Congress 20 years ago, it transformed the trade union approach to Europe.
My third reason for optimism is that Europe has developed a democratic structure. The Lisbon Treaty would anchor this democratic Europe even more solidly, but even without it there is little justification for talk of a “democratic deficit”. The Parliament has in many ways come of age: just look at how much energy and resources are put into lobbying the Parliament over key pieces of legislation.
Parliament has proved that it can provide answers to difficult political and technical questions, balancing trade union, business and consumer interests in laws such as REACH and the Services Directive.
And whereas in the past, the Commission’s focus was almost exclusively on working with the Member States, today it has become just as important to work with Parliament.
So, I am optimistic that armed with the facts, Europeans know that the EU is needed.
Why, then, is public interest in the elections so low, and why are the sceptics on the rise? The simple answer is that most Europeans are not yet “armed with the facts”. The parties have not yet put forward their platforms, and the media has yet to turn its attention to them. And that brings me to my second topic for today: the way in which European politics is communicated.
The fact is, most news stories about the EU are generated not in Brussels but in national capitals.
Five years ago, just before the last EP election campaign started, the BBC ran a story about the high level of public apathy, and how few people were likely to vote. This, of course, was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
European politics is also by its very nature harder to communicate than national politics. It is relatively easy in a national election campaign for each political party to argue that it has all the answers and will sort out all the problems if elected. It is a much harder sell to say: “vote for us and we will try to agree a policy with our European partners”…
I am hopeful that this kind of thinking is changing. When we look at the financial crisis, no government is even pretending anymore that they alone have all the answers. Even in the national media there is a consensus that co-ordinated action is necessary if this crisis is to be resolved and future crises prevented. Any other position would simply not be credible.
The same applies to climate change. Governments are explaining the issues in global terms, about the challenge of building an international consensus and creating the sort of peer pressure and obligations which can really bring a solution.
In my work, the biggest sign of a change has been that for the first time, Member States are willing to work together with the Commission and Parliament in a planned and systematic way to communicate the EU. Next week in Strasbourg we will sign an agreement committing the institutions and the Member States to identifying common priorities for EU communication and to working together to implement them.
And the first of these priorities for next year will be the European Parliament elections. For the first time, we will see governments and EU institutions working together to explain the significance of these elections and the importance of people using their vote next June.
Of course, this will not change things overnight, and it will work differently in different countries. Fundamental transformation will be longer term, and also require changes in areas like civic education, which would have little impact next June. Nevertheless, for the first time, there is a recognition by all involved that we need to communicate Europe better, and that we need to do it together.
But no amount of communication, however clear or well-coordinated, can compensate for bad policies – or for failure to implement good ones. That brings me to the third and final topic I want to address today: the vision and the policies we need for Europe’s future.
Elections catch the imagination of voters when they are presented with opposing visions of the future and when there are real policy choices at stake that will affect their daily lives.
This, of course, is where political parties come into their own. I have done what I can to encourage the development of the parties at European level. The Commission has, for example, extended the legislation on European political parties in order to promote the creation of political foundations that can stimulate and encourage public debate. These are seeds that I am sure will grow in fertile ground.
But what about the immediate future? What about next year’s elections? I think they offer enormous potential for a political clash of visions over the future of Europe. And, speaking as a social democrat, I think that if our parties are able to seize this opportunity, we can present a genuinely distinct vision and policy agenda that will appeal to a sizeable part of our electorate.
I believe that we could even reach out to those who in recent times have lost faith in our policies, many of whom have turned to more populist politicians, listening to the nostalgic certainties of an age of purely national politics which is gone forever.
We can see, across the Atlantic, the appetite for a politics of hope, and how, even at a time of the greatest economic and political uncertainty, the arguments of fear have been losing ground.
But, two weeks ago, my experience in the US was that the idea of the State as the saviour of the system is not one that people feel naturally. It is only reluctantly that the administration came in with the bailout package. Ironically, the only way to pass this was as reform to the mental health act! It is only now that the US is looking to solutions which would involve a deeper role for the State in solving the crisis.
And those solutions are coming from Europe. It is too early to tell, but we could be living through the psychological moment when we in Europe stop assuming that the US approach is always the superior one. The credibility of laissez faire and trickle-down economics has suffered an enormous blow in the last few months. But for all the size of the US bailout, what seems to have calmed the markets was the message at the weekend of the 15 Euro zone leaders agreeing to work together. The details are not there yet, but it was a crucial piece of political communication.
Surely we in the social-democratic family are best placed to make the case for re-balancing the relationship between the state and the markets. Isn’t it a basic value of social democracy that markets must serve people – not the other way around?
All political parties will make the case for intervention to solve the current crisis. But it is our parties who should develop the new ideas for policies that will prevent the return of an unregulated market. We are the ones who can prevent such crises in the future.
Similarly on the social agenda. One of the issues that most influenced people to vote “No” in the Irish referendum was the question of workers’ rights. In the face of Court judgements such as Laval, Ruffert and Viking, which appear to put the rules of the single market over those basic rights, surely our political family is best placed to make the case that people’s rights have to come first. Surely it is our parties who should be pro-active in making the case for social protection, and advocating flexicurity, not flexibility.
And on climate change, it is our political family which has made the case for a balanced approach between generating jobs and growth, maintaining social rights, and ensuring that growth is environmentally sustainable. Are we not then best placed to make the case for an approach to climate change that will also spur the economy and generate new jobs in times of economic hardship? We are in a position to resist those who argue that in the current climate, a solution to climate change must wait.
As I also said to friends in the US who asked if we had a choice: we have two choices; decide to act now and pay the price, or act later and pay a bigger one!
So I think our political parties could have a good case to present to the electorate next June.
And let’s be clear about what is at stake: if the right win the EP elections, for the next five years they will have a monopoly of power in all three institutions. That would mean a reluctant approach to tackling climate change, to consumer protection, to social Europe. And, once the immediate crisis is over, it would mean a return to the mantras of economic and financial deregulation. We simply cannot afford 5 years of this.
So there is a real challenge ahead for our national parties: to talk, perhaps for the first time, about the real choices for the future that the European elections will provide us with. If we fail to do this, our voters will conclude that the elections don’t matter, and they won’t turn out. But we have a golden opportunity in these interesting times to present a distinctive vision of the kind of Europe we want – a socially just and environmentally sustainable Europe where markets serve people and economic growth respects the planet.
There is one more issue we must attend to – and I will close with this. At present, women are seriously under-represented in the EU’s decision-making institutions. Less than one in three MEPs is a woman.
I am one of just nine women in the present European Commission – though a tenth is on her way to join us. This is the best proportion ever but it is still only just over a third.
Only twice in more than half a century has the European Parliament had a woman President: and the Commission has never had one!
How can the European decision-making system be expected to deliver policies that truly reflect the concerns and interests of all citizens if half the population is under-represented?.
As some of you know, I am actively involved in a campaign by the European Women’s Lobby to promote equality in European political structures. It is called “50-50 democracy”, because we are aiming at 50% women and 50% men in the number of voters, the number of candidates, and in senior EU appointments.
This is not just a women’s issue. It seems to me that it is a fundamental issue of democracy. And it is not a party political issue since the campaign has supporters from across the political spectrum. But I will say that in national politics, our parties have been the pioneers of promoting women candidates, and using the techniques of women-only shortlists, and zipped lists. Why? Because equality has been another central value of our movement. I hope all of us here, and our political parties, will renew our efforts in this direction as we prepare, and nominate candidates, for the 2009 elections.
So, to conclude, we certainly live in interesting – and difficult – times. Democracy in Europe will itself be in great difficulty unless the EU institutions hear and heed the voices of citizens and take on board their concerns for our common future.
I promised to begin and end with a curse. There is another alleged Chinese curse which says “May you come to the attention of those in authority”. Yet that is precisely what I wish for the citizens of Europe – that better communication will bring their concerns and aspirations to the attention of Europe’s politicians and policy-makers. And who better to do that than the social democratic parties of Europe, whose history has always been based on taking the demands of the protests in the street and turning them into workable policies.
I hope I have been able to provide some causes for hope and optimism as we prepare for those elections. And I hope that John Fitzmaurice would have approved!