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Future Europe: What Citizens Need to Know?

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Brussels, Belgium, 08 November 2017

About ten years ago, the then TD Joe Higgins and the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were having a lengthy back and forth across the Dail chamber. Frustrated at his inability to get what he considered to be a straight answer from Mr Ahern, Higgins remarked “It’s like playing handball against a haystack. You hear a dull thud but nothing comes back.”

I was reminded of that as I prepared for this evening’s talk on what citizens need to or should know, in the middle of yet another challenging time for the EU and during which citizens are also being asked to engage around a debate on the Future of Europe through various white papers, position papers, high profile speeches and the vehicle of Citizens’ Dialogues.

There is no lack of handball hitting – in the form of information – by the EU institutions, agencies and bodies –  from tweets to instagrams, videos, podcasts and copious documentation on websites –  but very often the dull thud that follows the launch of the ball has been the sound of indifference, apathy, incomprehension or boredom.

Brexit has certainly made the haystack more animated in Ireland and other parts of the EU but whether this is sufficient to bring us closer to that other much talked about creature – the shared European demos – that space where we can debate ideas transnationally as opposed to national interests defensively is an open question.

And in a knowledge light zone, bias and propaganda easily fills the vacuum. A high percentages of UK citizens for example –  as evidenced through polling during the referendum –  consistently overestimated perceived EU membership negatives and underestimated the positives.  In one poll, people estimated that 14% of UK child benefit went to children living outside of the UK while the actual figure was 0.3% and the number of non UK EU citizens living in the UK was overestimated by a factor of 3.

Only 57% of British people – again when polled during the referendum campaign – knew that they themselves alone elect their MEPs while 24% still believed that old trope that bananas judged to be too bendy were banned from importation.

Lack of knowledge of the EU does not however imply greater euroscepticism and researchers have not found a correlation between the two.  However, as evidenced in the UK and elsewhere, those who do have an anti EU or eurosceptic political agenda to push can very easily fill in the knowledge blanks with a populist spin which by its very nature carries more emotional and persuasive heft than the worthy and factual information handballs launched by the EU institutions.

It is perhaps telling that between them Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have more Twitter followers than the combined institutions of the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament. Of course individual Commissioners, Council members and MEPs have their own feeds and do reach large numbers of citizens but even Commission President Juncker’s follower numbers are half those of Mr Farage. It’s a crude method of measuring the extent to which particular voices are heard or not heard but no one can deny how Mr Farage’s astute use of social media brought his agenda centre stage.

But news distortion and propaganda peddling isn’t confined to the British media or to British anti EU activists. The media in every EU member state, consciously or not, and reluctantly or not, invariably mediates the news from Brussels through the prism of its own preoccupations, its own biases, its own political psychodrama. All politics is, as they say, local, and for many, many citizens – maybe Belgians excluded – Brussels, along with its puzzling institutions and their puzzling ways, is still very far from ‘local’.

In an essay last month in Der Spiegel, philosopher Jurgen Habermas told a story about how a Brussels based EU correspondent received his latest dispatch back from his German editor with the injunction: “Your writing is too convoluted. Just write how much the Germans will have to pay.” This of course mirrors the story told about Boris Johnson as a journalist here some decades ago, barrelling late into press conferences and asking just two questions, what was decided and how is it bad for Britain.

Habermas comments: “It would be hard to find a more succinct enunciation of the limited interest shown by German politicians, business leaders and journalists when it comes to shaping a politically effective Europe.  A timid and compliant press has spent years abetting our political class in doing everything possible to avoid discomfiting the public at large with the issue of Europe.”

I don’t know enough about the German coverage of the EU to judge the fairness of that attack, but I suspect that every member state has its own particular limitations when it comes to EU coverage. MEP Brian Hayes, at a Citizens’ Dialogue meeting in Dublin lamented the fact that Ireland has only two full time EU Correspondents but I suspect that the small pool reflects not just shrinking media budgets but also an editorial judgement of citizen interest in EU matters and so the problem becomes self-perpetuating. The less coverage, the less knowledge and interest, and the less knowledge and interest the less desire to spend money sending correspondents to Brussels.

EU institutional leaders along with heads of state are more than aware of the gap between the handball and the target that is supposed to engage with it. The angst creeps into many fine speeches and declarations and there are regular initiatives that seek to bring the union closer to the citizen. What underlies this is concern about the democratic deficit, the perceived lack of legitimacy – issues that EU leaders say feeds an anti EU agenda and is fodder for the populists. All of this, they fear, threatens the future of the EU. Brussels, as French President Macron has pointed out, is actually ‘us’ yet the gap of course remains between the intellectual understanding of that and the feeling that it is actually so.

Many people contend that the gap will close, that the feeling will come, if, among other things, the EU institutions become more transparent, open themselves up to greater scrutiny and thus allow citizens to play out their Treaty right to take part in the democratic process as closely as possible. But it’s important nonetheless to dissect those claims and explore why this isn’t happening at least to the extent to which it could.  If the EU institutions are not deemed transparent enough then what has to happen to make them so, but also, is the kind of transparency currently on offer the right kind actually to engage the citizen in a really meaningful way?

In my work, the issue of transparency – including the degree to which an institution opens up its decision making processes for public scrutiny –  looms large, and I have launched several investigations into everything from the transparency of trilogues to the transparency of the 150 or so working groups and committees that form the base layer of Council legislative decision making. I have also attempted to shoehorn my way into Eurogroup transparency, but as the Eurogroup is not an official EU ‘institution’ my involvement has as yet not gone far beyond the polite, cajoling letter phase.

Two things must however be said. The first is that the EU institutions are frequently much more transparent than those in many EU member states in the sense of opening up their processes and deliberations to public view. The second is that they have also become much more transparent in recent years. 

Click on to the Council website for example – although that can be a task, as even omniscient Google struggles with separating the Council, the European Council and the Council of Europe – and you will see links to working groups, to Coreper agendas and minutes, to videos of council public sessions, to summaries of meetings and decisions, and to voting records if a vote has been taken.

There are gaps of course and those gaps are what I am currently exploring in my investigation into the transparency of the council preparatory bodies. Too often governments have come to Brussels and take positions on EU legislation, only to return home and blame Brussels for what they do not like and claim credit for the things they do like.

So how transparent is the Council? While we can see in general the big picture, what remains obscure is what lies beneath the eventual agreements or otherwise – the positions taken by individual MS as the negotiations progress, the compromises made, the rough and tumble of argument that in a national parliament – and indeed in the European Parliament - would generally be out there in public.

The council transparency debate of course hinges on issues such the size of the deliberative space, and the balance between the public interest in transparency and the public interest in creating an environment that will allow the maximum possibility for collaboration.

But is there more to it than this? Is it essentially about the fear of what might happen if clashes between member states become too visible, fear of the political fallout if the public or the media began to talk about winners and losers as between member states? Is this why the European Parliament, Macron and others are pushing for transnational seats in parliament so that the future of Europe can be further encouraged to be debated on a battlefield of ideas as opposed to Member State x versus Member State y?

In 2012, the General Court – in a ruling upheld on an appeal from the Council – said that documents showing the positions of member states in relation to the proposed revision of – ironically - the transparency regulation, Regulation 1049/2001, could be made public. During the hearings the Council had claimed that if that happened, not alone would the proposed new regulation and future others have a harder time getting through but that MS would be reluctant to commit their views to writing and would deliver them orally instead.  And so it came to pass; the transparency regulation has still not been revised and, it would appear from our investigation so far, documents showing MS positions are in some cases simply not being created now. And without a record, there can be no access to information about what positions were taken.

But what is particularly interesting is the rationale put forward by the Council at the hearing and at its appeal, for keeping such documents secret. This was, essentially, that delegations would come under public pressure to change their positions. In the particular case of the transparency revision, the Council said that delegations that wanted to make the existing provisions more restrictive would come under pressure not to do so.  In other words, they’d be found out. Intriguingly, the Council also claimed that the public interest would be damaged if delegations no longer felt confident to put their positions in writing as opposed to orally, something which it would appear, has now often actually happened.

But there are other elements to this debate some of which were recently discussed in an academic paper by Daniel Naurin of the University of Oslo called The Puzzle of Transparency Reforms of the Council in the EU. The paper discussed the distinction between transparency and publicity, and the difference between ‘transparency of process’ and ‘transparency of rationale’.

In relation to the first point, Naurin says that it’s one thing to produce information, it’s another to publicise it, to make the content meaningfully known among citizens. His argument is that true transparency cannot be limited to the simple production of information but that ways have to be found to get that information out there and in ways that people can understand.

He further argues that what the citizen gets from the Council is the transparency of process, but not the transparency of rationale. We know eventually what happened, but we’re not quite sure of how or why it happened because a real debate, a public exchange of ideas between the members isn’t made visible or often doesn’t even happen at the top Ministerial level because everything has been pretty much agreed by the time it arrives at that top level or else it has simply disappeared from the table.

And if you look at the Council website you can see the truth of much of this.  It does indeed contain a lot of information but much of it is impenetrable to most people outside of the institutions apart from those whose job it is to monitor what’s going on. And the extent to which what is there is meaningfully publicised is unclear.  Let me give you a few examples. 

So we do appear to have a mismatch of aspiration and practice. We crave citizen engagement yet often fear that very engagement if sensitive decision making risks being compromised by it. Emmanuel Macron has said that the EU needs to get beyond this, that it has to learn not to fear open debate and that a series of democratic conventions across the EU on the future of Europe should be held in the run up to the 2019 elections.

“It’s this robust debate“ he says, “That will also enable us to rediscover the thread and the stringency of many of our common policies! Let’s not be afraid of that debate. But above all, let’s not be afraid of having a European debate for the 2019 elections! And I can already hear all those faint-hearted people who have got used to the idea that European elections are merely an aggregate of national debates, little routines where we place our pawns, where we never talk about Europe but instead about all our attitudes. Let’s give the European elections a project to feed on and see who is for and who is against! And let’s have a democratic debate about it.”

He acknowledges that it will be no easy task, but argues that it is nonetheless a necessary one:

“Our political debates are always more complicated in Europe than in the rest of the world.  Because, in some ways, the European Sisyphus always has his untranslatable burden to roll up the hill.  But this untranslatable burden is in fact an opportunity.  It is the mysterious part inside each of us, and it is the part of us that trusts in the European project.  It is the fact that at a given moment, despite not speaking the same language and having these unfamiliar and complex differences, we decide to move forward together.”

And reflecting on that, and on the refusal by Member States as he sees it to acknowledge their shared DNA with Brussels, Jurgen Habermas says, “There has long been an unspoken assumption in the political classes that the concept of a Europe for Citizens is much too complex – and the final goal of European unity is vastly too complicated – to allow the citizens themselves to become involved. And that the day-to-day business of Brussels politics is only for experts and for the rather well-informed lobbyists, while the heads of state resolve the rather more serious conflicts that arise out of conflicting national interests’ among themselves, usually through deferral or preclusion. More than anything though, political parties agree that European issues are to be carefully avoided in national elections unless, of course, domestic problems can be blamed on Brussels bureaucrats. ”

It’s hard to argue with those general sentiments and the 2019 parliamentary elections and the upcoming Commission President nomination process by the various European political parties, will certainly be the testing point of the EU’s and the member states’ capacities to mobilise their citizens in that direction if they so choose, leading perhaps over time, again as Habermas says, to a Europe where ‘societal interests, reaching across national borders, are collectively identified and addressed’ if that is the choice of European future that the citizens wish.

But debate is one thing and informed debate quite another. Will the narrative of the bent banana continue to prevail or will more of the EU institutions take some risks, as the Juncker Commission has done to a certain extent since 2014, and start to grapple with the difficult challenges of more transparency?

Just maybe, when framed in a context that sees transparency as the way across and through the defensive national boundaries that prevent the creation of a true European public sphere, the EU institutions and most of all the Council, will begin to rethink those 2012 arguments where the citizens’ interests were deemed to be best served by keeping the citizens as far out of the picture as possible.

Perhaps transparency, particularly when it comes to the Council and the Eurogroup, has in fact become a code that, once deciphered, reveals positions not just on single issues but on the future direction of the Union itself.