The UK referendum, which was sold to the public as a victory for democracy over Brussels’ costly and inefficient bureaucracy, is a catastrophe for democratic politics. The 48.1% of the British electorate who voted to remain, together with the rest of Europe will have to come to terms with the consequences. Political actors on the right have already seized on the result. Geert Wilders, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Marine Le Pen in France are all looking to play the plebiscite card, which is a hallmark of illiberal democracy and the antithesis of participation. It is worth remembering that the British people did not vote on the far-reaching consequences of this exit, the impact of which will become clear over the coming weeks and which may give them cause for regret. Scotland may leave the UK. The Irish question is back on the table. The vision of a resurgent Britain will turn out to have been an illusion.
The referendum has already divided Britain into pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics, between North and South, and between young and old.
The distinction drawn by influential economist Albert Hirschman between “Voice” and “Exit” is useful in understanding what occurred in Britain on 23 June. If a person is dissatisfied with the circumstances in which they live, they can stay and try to change them by speaking out (Voice) – or they can leave (Exit). Dissatisfaction with the ruling elites is not generally overcome by choosing the latter.
Yet it is the Brexiteers who claim to have successfully lent Britons a voice against the “illegitimate” meddling of the EU in the affairs of Great Britain. The Leave voters made it clear that they do not want their fates to be decided in Brussels, but that is all that they have said. The Remainers, on the other hand, did not even try to tie the debate to the question of an (alternative) political vision for Europe that could appeal to the British people. Cameron’s deal with the EU would in any case have robbed the United Kingdom of its ability to contribute meaningfully to European policy. In this situation, as Anthony Barnett has pointed out, the distinction between “Voice” and “Exit” has been turned on its head: a vote to leave the EU held the promise of an alternative to the current situation that Remain did not offer.
For those of us who support the European project, it is a bitter irony that this vote of no confidence is aimed at a Europe that we never wanted: a Europe of business tycoons, of bureaucratic busybodies and over-regulation, of elites and the punishing austerity of the troika. The failure of this Europe is now being used as a means to crush any enthusiasm for the federalist ideal. It may well be, however, that there has been too much “business as usual” in our camp and that we made our case for Europe in a language devoid of passion.
The Brexit vote makes it all too clear that supporters of greater European integration must bring more to the debate than open borders and Europe’s success as a project for peace. And nor should they rely solely on the rational calculations of consumers. Instead, they must seek to generate the same emotional momentum achieved by the Leave campaign, and bend it towards the vision of a renewed European project. Simply disproving the arguments advanced by Eurosceptics, many of whom are authoritarian nationalists, will not suffice. Such ingrained resentment towards “the powers that be” is immune to – and will only be spurred on by – reasoned argument. Instead, we must take the grains of truth that can be found in the arguments of the Leave camp and incorporate this critique in a new and alternative European narrative.
What might this narrative contain? Supported by a realistic and detailed roadmap, complete with financial plans and institutional innovations, this narrative would outline in very practical terms how, by the year 2030, we could revitalise the European Union to create a political community that is socially equitable, ecologically sustainable, culturally inclusive, and equipped for international cooperation.
It would set out a plan for how the European Union intends to overcome the scandal of youth unemployment and make the commitments of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals the cornerstones of a future-proof economic policy; how it would direct the trillions of euros cycling through the world’s financial markets into programmes to fund projects that serve the common good; and how it would tackle issues that have proved resistant to solutions at the level of the nation state such as the fight against terrorism, the refugee crisis, and the protection of our borders.
In addressing its democratic deficit, Europe will have little choice but to embrace the direct referendum as an instrument for the formulation of the political will of society, supplemented by substantial public consultation. Unlike the Brexit referendum, the development of a European roadmap will not be a simple question of “Yes” or “No”. It is a programme whose details will need to be elaborated and defined through numerous referendums – at the national and supranational level – and that will require considerable consultation from both experts and a representative sample of the population appointed to Future Councils.
The countries of Europe provide opportunities for the implementation of this kind of participatory democracy. Blueprints already exist for the creation of a consultative body as a fourth estate. The EU, moreover, can draw on its successful experiments with forms of transnational citizen participation in the wake of the referendums in France and the Netherlands on the adoption of the European Constitution in 2005. Europe must build on the success of these democratic innovations, and link them to the decision-making processes of the European Parliament, Commission and Council.
With this aim, a Future Council should be permanently convened, a sample of European citizens should be appointed to sit on it and develop a vision for European society for 15–20 years into the future and to consider the implications for European economic, social, security, energy, and environmental policy. The electorate could then vote in a referendum on the adoption of a roadmap developed by EU institutions and the recommendations of these European citizens.
A version of this article was published on The Guardian on July the 9th, 2016
Patrizia Nanz is a German political scientist. She is Scientific Director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V. (IASS) in Potsdam and a professor of transformative sustainability studies at the University of Potsdam.
Claus Leggewie is a German political scientist and Director of the Institute for Cultural Studies in Essen.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit is a French –German politician. He was co-president of the group European Greens–European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.
Patrizia Nanz and Claus Leggewie – have published a book in Germany by the title “Die Konsultative. Mehr Demokratie durch Bürgerbeteiligung” (“The consultative. More Democracy through citizen participation”, Klaus Wagenbach Verlag, Berlin, 2016), where they describe the concept of Future Councils. Perhaps you could make a reference to the book?