DiEM25 comes at a crucial moment: euro-fatigue is spreading, nationalist thinking is taking the lead in many countries, and the European Union’s legitimacy is ever more under pressure. Varoufakis’ movement rightly calls for a democratisation of Europe. The core message of his manifesto, “the EU will either be democratised, or it will disintegrate!” shows the dire urgency of his call.
Democracy International could not agree more about the need for a bottom-up pan-European movement to demand a fundamental democratic reform of the EU. For years, the organisation and a plethora of partners across Europe have been calling for a constitutional assembly – a new European Convention – to rediscuss the democratic structure and the future for our European project, and whose results should be voted on by the European citizens themselves.
The launch of DiEM25, which brings together activists, thinkers and political figures from across the continent, is triggering wide attention and interest. Media is reporting about it and the public is fervently debating. Varoufakis seems to have succeeded in making democracy cool again: demands for democracy, transparency, accountability and inclusiveness are no longer jargon of politicians, but are to be discussed on the streets and public squares. And it is precisely this public sphere and civic mobilisation that is the prerequisite for a lively democracy to emerge at the European level.
But some fallacies in Varoufakis’ arguments make us step back from initial fervent support for his grand initiative.
Firstly, the antagonist that is torn to shreds in DiEM’s manifest is the seemingly almighty monstrous European institutional construct and its thousands of influential and less influential employees. Admittedly, the EU is marked by great power imbalances, major democratic deficits and an urgent need for stronger transparency (over lobbying, during debates in the Council, in decision-making during informal trialogues). But this is quite a simplified and yet exaggerated depiction of our antagonist.
Secondly, our central antagonist to a democratisation of the EU are those leaders that remain trapped in a national frame of mind and that fear to move beyond our 18th century model of national sovereignty. The actors that must ultimately be convinced are the heads of states and governments (and their voters) that do not dare to take a step toward a democratic governance of today’s complex crises at transnational level, toward European democratic processes that can lead to collective solutions.
Thirdly, a further fallacy is Varoufakis’ assurance that national and European sovereignty are in no way tradeoffs. Here we can only say: one cannot please everyone, Mr Varoufakis. Strengthening democracy in Europe will in some areas necessarily mean giving up some national sovereignty. Let me give two examples: if some policy areas are to be Europeanised (which is essential for all areas outlined by Varoufakis, including banking, finance, investment, social policy and migration), many aspects will have to be dealt with at the European level – and the national level will not be dealing with them. If the Council were to be democratised and become a second chamber elected by the European Parliament, the heads of states would no longer have a de facto monopoly over EU decision-making.
Instead of power struggles between the different levels, we need a new debate on the distribution of competences and a clarification of what should be dealt with at the European, the national and the local. And over each one of these levels we need true democracy, transparency and participation. The ultimate sovereign in democracy is the citizen, therefore citizens must be empowered to take part in all political processes – as citizens of a city, a country and of the Union. How to do this? On the European level, a constitutional assembly, or in other words an EU Convention, a powerful EU Citizens’ Initiative and a mandatory lobby transparency are just some of the means to democratise Europe without demonising it.
Op-ed by Sophie von Hatzfeldt, European Programme Manager