How to re-establish Trust in the Union

Liam Fitzgerald argues that in order to regain legitimacy Europe need to find a way to strike a balance between centralism and the empowerment of regions.

Brussels - Belgium - May 7th, 2011 - Committee of the Regions - Open Door Day

Brussels – Belgium – May 7th, 2011 – Committee of the Regions – Open Door Day

It is perhaps the most important issue Europe faces today. Its citizens are losing their trust in its institutions by the minute. A recent surveyi shows that even in traditionally Europhile Poland 42 percent of the population do not trust the European Union anymore, compared to 18 percent in 2007. It is essential to note, however, that these figures indicate distrust in the Union’s institutions, not the idea of a unified Europe itself.

The question arises, what can be done? Though this is by no means an easy cure, it seems that there are two essential issues to address. The one is more democratic involvement, the other is the establishment of strong executive and legislative central institutions and at the same time the strengthening of Europe’s regions.

The lack of democratic involvement is a core issue for any restructuring of Europe’s political landscape. The continent’s citizens will only ever trust the Union and its institutions if it not only adheres to core beliefs of the European ideal but also if they are included from the very beginning in political processes and decision-making. The first step to recovering lost ground is to involve Europe’s citizens in the creation of a new and stronger Union. The most comprehensive way forward is for the citizens of Europe to elect a constitutional convention. The convention will then discuss and deliver a constitution for the creation of a new Europe. Europe’s citizens will then be able to cast their vote on the constitution and whether or not their state should join the Union. This would be a simple yes or no question and the vote would take place in every single state on the same day.

The ideal outcome for any strong Union and for enhanced trust would be one with a number of central institutions for foreign, security, fiscal, and economic policy, a Parliament vested with all the rights of modern-day parliaments in successful Unions such as the United States and United Kingdom, and a directly elected President as head of the executive branch. Citizens would thus be included in the creation of a Democratic Union and in the maintenance and political deliberations.

Failure to act decisively and effectively has also undercut trust in European institutions more than once. The example of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary shows that the Union fails to react even to outright breach of democratic principles within its member states.ii What any reformation of the EU therefore needs is institutions strong enough to deal with both external and internal threats to the values European citizens hold. Legislation must give these institutions at the centre the means to intervene in member states as soon, or better still proactively beforehand, if their governments infringe on citizens’ rights.

Europeans increasingly feel the desire to answer Globalization with stronger ties to the region they live in. Bavarians, Basques, Hollanders, Silesians, and many others feel their regions’ cultural identities are at risk and call for more regionalism. While this in itself can give us all the feeling of comfort and security, there can be no illusion that these regions could defend themselves and actually ensure their independence, prosperity, and security. The answer, again, is a more powerful European ‘umbrella’ protecting each of these regions’ peculiarities and cultural aspects while channelling their surplus wealth through Union taxation into common security and defence projects and giving the regions a loud voice in international diplomacy and politics. Regional comfort and trust in those things people know can thus be linked to European institutions and trust generated through the enforcement of common values.

Democracy, a strong Union protecting prosperous regions – these are two aspects that can regain trust.


Image “Brussels – Belgium – May 7th, 2011 – Committee of the Regions – Open Doors Day – Journée Portes Ouvertes – Opendeurdag” courtesy of Committee of the Regions via Flickr, released under creative commons 2.0 attribution.

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