Participatory Democracy Will Bolster EU Legitimacy

Citizens’ panels show a way forward.

The European Union is the greatest experiment in transnational governance today. At the outset, it was thought that the “back door” of economic integration would organically lead to political unity, as Jacques Delors, a key architect of the project, once put it to me. Over time, national sovereignty was expected to yield inexorably to European-wide governance.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, what we’ve seen since the EU’s founding in 1993 is not only persistent national reticence, but the emergence of a “democratic deficit” between citizens and the ruling institutions in Brussels — the European Council (composed of heads of national governments), the Commission (the executive body, appointed by member states, which initiates legislation) and the European Parliament, (which cannot initiate legislation, but serves to check the executive and passes legislation).

To address this issue of the EU’s weak legitimacy, a Brussels-initiated Conference on the Future of Europe (COFE) was convened over the past year. Among other aims, it sought to shrink that democratic gap through a new experiment: inviting “citizens’ panels” across the continent to participate in charting the path forward.

That conference concluded last month with mixed results and great doubts about whether the concerns expressed by these panels, or assemblies of citizens, would actually be taken into account and acted upon by the powers that be.

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