Real democracy: economic empowerment, understanding and effective participation
In order to believe in an institution, you need to understand what its purpose and mission are. The European Union bears a challenge there, and it is the complexity of the project. I’ve been studying EU affairs at the College of Europe since September 2017, and there are still a lot of initiatives that escape me. One cannot but guess what transcends to ordinary citizens about the EU: austerity measures, the migration crisis, revolving doors issues… Yes, media focuses on the negative. So the first thing that needs to be done in order to bring attention to the EU project is to bring it closer to the citizens of Europe. Small tip there: make Council discussions transparent, especially from the COREPER. That way national governments will not be able to manipulate the public, blaming the EU for all the negative outcomes and taking credit for all the positive ones.
Secondly, once you believe in something, you need to feel ownership of it. My experience as a grassroots organizer tells me that people invest in what they can change. Therefore, we need to open up decision making to citizens. One of the reasons why even active citizens don’t engage with the EU is because Brussels is seen as being too far away, too technocratic, too difficult to influence. Article 11 of the Treaty allows the EU to foster citizens participation in decision making processes. We need to engage in a profound discussion on how to meaningfully engage cities and regions so that we bring the EU closer to people. The subsidiarity principle, or the mandate to handle matters as close as possible to the citizens, ought to be redefined: instead of leaving all interactions with citizens to the Member States, let the EU also engage at the local level in application of the subsidiarity principle.
Finally, real freedom requires material resources. In the Ancient Greece, the people that engaged in the democratic process were the owners, those that had enough material resources to spend the necessary time for reflection and deliberation. In today’s world, a great amount of the population is worried about their family’s wellbeing. Precarious jobs, long hours, working poor, multiple jobs, unemployment… these are situations that prevent citizens from informing themselves and contributing to building democracy. We need to set the population free, we need a complete revamping of our social security schemes across Europe. We need to engage in a fruitful discussion on how to deliver empowering reforms that will increase citizens’ trust in the EU. Some potential reforms could be a shorter working week (although some Member States already have one) and an unconditional basic income.
People need to have enough material resources to be able to dedicate time to democratic participation, they need to understand what the institution they are engaging with does, and they need to perceive that their participation serves a purpose.