Democratic Approach to International Life

Step by step Europe has become a global pioneer and testing ground for the first transnational democracy. Within this framework, the new European Citizens’ Initiative instrument plays a key role, in offering revolutionary opportunities for clarifying such basic concepts asidentity and citizenship, writes Gabriel Fragnière.

Few societies are good at identifying the things they take for granted

Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe

In spite of all the changes which have taken place in Europe since the end of the Second World War, and which are leading – slowly but surely – towards a unified continent, people often remain completely unaware of the fundamental revolution that such a movement represents. We continue to ignore the radical nature of the new political thinking which accompanies this (r)evolution, and remain unable to clearly identify what we now take for granted, or what has really changed in our situation. 

For instance, most people are unaware of the fundamental revolution that the creation of a European Citizenship by the Treaty of Maastricht represented in our way of thinking. Indeed, this revolutionary political move took place without even most of the decision-makers themselves understanding what it implied, especially in changing the nature of the relationship of individual citizens with their national states. This is perhaps why, in the Treaty of Amsterdam a few years later, the European Council added a sentence to Article 8 of the Maastricht Treaty to the effect that “European citizenship completed national citizenship, but did not replace it”. But in fact, the situation was already no longer the same. 

In order to understand the implications of these developments, we should consider three related concepts, or ideas, which are commonly used and taken for granted, but the real significance of which is not always understood: Identity, Nationality and Citizenship. 

Identity is related to the way individuals reach certain knowledge of themselves, a kind of self-awareness, in relation to their family, their social or ethnic group, their language, their culture, their religious affiliation, their political commitment, often expressed by the idea of “belonging”. Psychological and social factors play an important role in creating that awareness which helps people to know and say: “who we are”, and “who we are not”. Identity helps us to be aware that “we” exist and, at the same time, that “others” also exist. As identity always implies, on the one hand, a strong interaction between the individual and the group, but also, on the other hand, an affirmation of a group as distinct from other groups, its political implications are fundamental. This is especially the case in the different ways identity can be experienced or exploited: if identity is felt as a sign of weakness, then a group can feel threatened by the others and react accordingly; or it can express a sense of superiority and lead to domineering attitudes and the abuse of power. It is never politically neutral. 

Nationality is a concept based on more objective elements. It expresses how individuals are connected to a particular political entity or State, based on a given and well-defined territory, and to the authority which governs that State. It also expresses the recognition given by a State to the individuals it considers as its own “members”, recognition which can be acquired by birth (natural nationhood), or through a process of “naturalisation” given by that State according to its own “law of nationality”. Nationality is also a kind of belonging, but one that individuals do not really control; they are more “subjects”, “ressortissants” as the Treaty of Rome expressed it: subjected to the jurisdiction of, and dependent on, a particular State. To have a “nationality”, however, gives some rights and guarantees of being protected by the State, related to the possession of those necessary “papers” which indicate the dependence of the individual on the State.

But allowing the State the exclusive right to define “nationality” can lead to discrimination and exclusion, and often to intolerant attitudes. No State feels an obligation towards those individuals who are not defined as “equal” in a legalistic sense. Manipulation of ‘nationality’ can indeed become an instrument for legalising prejudice against certain forms of identity. 

The notion of citizenship is connected to a quite different reality. It refers to an active and responsible participation of individuals in the society in which they live. Without going back to its historical roots in our Western culture, coming from Athens and Rome, we should stress that it is only through the recognition of the status of citizenship that our societies actually became “civil” societies and authentic democracies. There is indeed no democracy without the full, free and active participation of the citizens in the decisions which concern them. Thus, one understands that the possession of the “nationality” of a State does not by itself create a democratic system; this is why one should not confuse the notions of citizenship and nationality. This distinction is essential to an understanding of the political implications of a “Citizens’ Initiative” taken at the European level. It specifically affects the territorial dimension of democracy. 

The slowly developing democratic character of European unification

In fact, in the traditional thinking of the nation-states which have dominated the European political scene for the last two centuries, and because of the ideological identification of the people with the idea of Nation, there existed a kind of intellectual confusion between the three notions of identity, nationality and citizenship. Populations were traditionally defined and identified by the nation-state ruling over them (“Le peuple français”); they were defined as “national” because they belonged to their country (the well-known: “Ein Volk, ein Land, ein Führer”!); and it was through this national status that they acquired their citizen’s rights (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité pour les citoyens nationaux”). 

The first steps towards the construction of European institutions did not alter that political paradigm in any way. The Jean Monnet approach consisted in organising inter-state cooperation by selecting a practical, mainly economic problem, then proposing common solutions, and finally creating a common administration which was to deal with the implementation of those solutions in the name of all. This system worked as long as the key issues were not expressed in purely political terms.For that one did not need the direct involvement of the citizens, i.e. their democratic participation. The problems were indeed mainly technical. To be sure, over the years the policies generated consequences which impinged more and more on the lives of EU citizens, but these citizens were not directly considered as such, but only as a “labour force” (Treaty of Rome), the producers of necessary goods (common agricultural policy), or consumers (monetary union and common market). 

This was possible because, in spite of the changes which have taken place over the last fifty years, we in Europe still live within the framework of a political paradigm which was established in the seventeenth century – the so-called Westphalian system. Five principles rule that system: 1) governments of nation-states (kings in the past, parliament and executives today) are the sole holders and owners of sovereignty; 2) this sovereignty extends to a limited territorial space; 3) governments are the only political actors on the international and world levels, holders of all recognised rights outside of their territory; 4) there is no pre-existing international right, or legal order, outside of treaties signed by sovereign nations (which could explain why many member states of the European Union do not want the idea of a common EU constitution today !); and 5) war between nations is a legitimate instrument for resolving conflicts. 

In other words, a democratic approach to international life i.e. the active participation of citizens, on a democratic basis, in dealing with international problems, was not at all required. The Treaty of Rome stipulated that its main purpose was the creation of a stronger Union among European peoples, but these peoples played no active part in it. The “subjects” of the Treaty, the “members” of the community it created (the European Economic Community), i.e. the legal personalities acting legally according to this Treaty were “the member states” – and only the states – represented by their governments.  Political action by citizens was accepted only within their national boundaries, never outside, because citizens had neither an “identity” nor a “nationality” outside of their dependence on a particular state, and there could be no “citizenship” without the two other notions. This is the origin of what has been rightly called the “democratic deficit” of the Union. 

The Treaty of Maastricht implicitly undermines that perspective. In establishing a “European citizenship”, the Treaty introduces the idea that it is no longer necessary to establish an interdependence of the three concepts of identity, nationality and citizenship as in the past.To be sure, it is specifically stated that the new European citizenship should apply exclusively to those individuals who hold the nationality of one of the member states, but the fact that there is now a “common citizenship” applying to “many nationalities” establishes a fundamental shift in the balance between the two – and thus represents a first step towards ending the necessary interdependence of these two concepts. 

The birth of transnational democracy

But this also means that active citizenship must now develop within a new framework: no longer that of a closed state on a limited territory, but one that opens up beyond national boundaries. Europe is actually involved in fostering the development of “transnational democracy”: a concept completely new in the history of human societies. The scope of what is traditionally called “civil society” will therefore take on a completely new dimension. It is clear that the institutions both of the nation-states and of the European Union have not yet adapted to this new reality. The very idea and the acceptance of a “European citizenship” necessarily challenge and require a transformation of traditional ways of thinking: mental barriers have to be broken down. 

There are similar consequences for the notion of “identity”. If one accepts that the idea of “citizenship” can relate to a multiplicity of “nationalities”, it is also feasible that a multiplicity of “identities” can be envisaged under the traditional notion of “nationality”. Although each nation has inherited from history its own typical “political culture”, this constitutes only part of its national identity. In reality, this is composed of many other diverse elements including languages, traditions, forms of artistic expression, unique regional and local customs etc., which together constitute a larger internal diversity in each of the nations themselves. National unity is not incompatible with the existence of multiple identities.

 The unification of Europe will make a powerful contribution to changing the concept and the mindset of the nation-state system as it has developed over recent centuries. While its role will become less essential in many sectors of economic life through the “supranational” transfer of decision-making powers to common authorities, similar developments are going to affect its role “infra-nationally” as a consequence of the need to adapt to multiple demands of (regional, local) autonomy, the recognition of multiple identities, and decentralisation. In the coming decades it seems obvious − something which is being accentuated by migration and the mobility of workforces within the Union − that the demands for the recognition of particular identities and minority rights (based on languages, cultures, religions, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) will develop even more strongly within national structures, while at the same time requests for greater citizens’ participation at the supranational and transnational levels will become more common – in the name of new European citizens’ rights which the traditional national states will no longer control. 

The constructive role of the European Citizens’ Initiative

Such a fundamental change was actually foreseen in the Constitutional Treaty, signed in 2004 but not yet ratified by all the member states, and currently the object of revision and discussion between the governments of those states. Articles I, 44; 45; 46 did in fact recognise the existence of the democratic dimension of the European enterprise, not only in admitting the equality of all citizens (I, 44) and the representative function of the European Parliament and the role of citizens in that perspective (I, 45), but also in including the right of all citizens to participatory democracy through their representative associations, and ultimately extending to their right of Initiative (I, 46). This article reads:

 “A significant number of citizens, no less than one million, coming from a significant number of Member States, may take the initiative of inviting the Commission within the framework of its power, to submit an appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing this Constitution. A European law shall determine the provisions for the specific procedures and conditions required for such a citizens’ initiative, including the minimum number of Member States from which they must come.” 

What does that really mean? For the first time in history citizens will get the right to be involved in setting the political agenda beyond their own national borders. This represents an attempt to overcome the limitations of indirect democracy, in which governments are the exclusive decision-makers when policies extend beyond national borders, and to open a perspective of “primary” and “direct” democracy at the European level. It introduces a kind of mechanism which focuses on specific policy issues and allows citizens to act as “agenda-setters” and even – if this right was ever extended to cover constitutional referendums – as “decision-makers”. The historic novelty is that the proposed Constitutional Treaty is trying to combine trans-national with direct democracy. This approach represents a fundamental breakthrough in comparison with the still dominant internationalist perspective, under which sovereign states are the exclusive, legal and even moral foundations of world order. In underlining the normative role of citizens in the trans-national approach, the idea of trans-national democracy can become a new political reality which will not only change the way European states master the democratic dimensions of their societies, but which could potentially extend far beyond Europe and be applied to the political problems of contemporary globalization. 

One understands, therefore, that the European integration process has become the world’s first and major testing ground for the development of a modern democracy beyond national borders. Its new approach offers the evidence that modern democracy has not only taken a “trans-national turn”, but also a “direct turn”. The very idea of an issue-centred, trans-national, agenda-setting instrument “from below” has already inspired many actors within European civil society to study the possibility of launching an initiative. Some groups and networks have gone one step further and have in fact already launched different European Citizens’ Initiatives based on the proposal in the draft Constitutional Treaty. Some aim at particular problems – such as the “One Seat Initiative” for the European Parliament – or at a range of different social and political issues, but I would like to highlight here especially the initiative aimed at introducing this “right of initiative” itself and a more democratic life in Europe, regardless of whether the Constitutional Treaty is fully implemented or not. 

An opportunity for practitioners

One can clearly see in its purpose that the aim is not so much to propose a particular policy related to a certain ideology or certain partisan interests, but to work towards the extension of democracy itself, and thus contribute to the creation of a possible “transnational democracy in Europe”. This is the reason why it should not only be supported – in the name of democracy – but also because it represents, not only for academics and intellectuals, but also for political practitioners, an opportunity to assess and test the first implementation of trans-national, active political processes: how and from which perspective should a kind of European electoral management organisation be established to assist, develop and follow up European transnational Initiatives? How can an adequate voter education program be developed to cover this new democratic space? 

If they are developed under well-designed and citizen-friendly conditions, such tools will be able to contribute to the development of that trans-national polity that the European Union obviously lacks today, due mainly to the exclusive role governments have retained for themselves. We very much need a new and intense dialogue between institutions and citizens, giving them a feeling of ownership of European policies and giving the voters a new legitimacy for the decisions made at European level. The development of the Citizens’ Initiative will contribute more to that end than what has been achieved over the years by the different elections to the European Parliament, which continues to be dominated by the interests of national political parties. European democracy needs to develop beyond the traditional perspective, and this is what the “European Citizens’ Initiative for the Citizens’ Initiative” is practically proposing. 

The “ECI for the ECI” has been launched for the purpose of obtaining that right for all, and in order to establish a better democracy beyond national borders. It is purely an instrument for trans-national democracy, and has no message related to any ideology or partisan agenda. Indeed, it would be illegitimate to design an institution of political democracy as an instrument for attaining a particular policy goal or position of power. 

Its effect, however, will certainly be surprising in the long term, as it is going to change what we described above as the basic concepts of our political paradigm: our identity, the feeling of our nationality and our right of citizenship. The fact of working together for a European campaign in favour of a new democratic life will influence the way European citizens work together, thus fostering an awareness of a new identity. Discovering, in working together trans-nationally, the limitations of their own national identity, they will progressively gain a new awareness of their common destiny at the European level. A right of initiative is not only an instrument for developing a better democratic system; it is also an efficient instrument for building Europe itself. A new polity needs the active participation of its citizens more actively than policies exclusively related to the establishment of an economic market. There is indeed a new Europe which will arise out of the democratisation of the present institutions. Beyond securing the “right of initiative”, it is Europe itself which will gain the most from the action of its citizens. 

Gabriel Fragnière is a former Rector of the College of Europe and former President of the Europe of Cultures Forum. Taken out of “Initiative for Europe Handbook 2008 – The Guide to Transnational Democracy” edited by Carsten Berg, Paul Carline, Bruno Kaufmann, Jo Leinen and Diana Wallis.