In 2014, well over half of the European Union’s citizens found the European Parliament (EP) elections so boring and irrelevant that they didn’t even bother to vote. Of those who did vote, one in four chose populist, anti-EU parties. The perceived insignificance even informed the EP’s self-deprecating election slogan: “This time it’s different.”
To citizens, however, it felt like more of the same. Individuals across the European Union experience frustrations about democracy, no matter their socioeconomic status. The EU professes its ability to help the average citizen, but in practice it seems faraway, top-down, technocratic, obscure, unfair, and unaccountable. The euro crisis has made the democratic disconnect more than a theoretical issue for millions of citizens who have experienced the negative economic impact of EU-level decisions in their daily lives.
Imagine you’re a German-born entrepreneur named Helmut. You run your own catering company in the Netherlands and travel all around northern Europe for work. You angrily read stories about your taxes being used to subsidize Greeks who apparently retired when they were 50 years old. You get a notice in the mail that you could vote in the Netherlands as a German citizen, but it seems too complicated to bother.
Or imagine you’re Alekos, a pensioner in Athens. The Greek government has cut your pension to below the poverty line as part of the EU’s bailout austerity package. You used to trust the EU more than your government, but since the euro crisis, it seems like an anonymous, distant, and out-of-control power that can ruin your life without any possibility of recourse.
The critical component—how people experience democracy at the EU level—is not considered often enough in debates about the EU’s democratic future. In a new essay, Stefan Lehne, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, and I argue that the EU needs to restore its dwindling democratic legitimacy by offering solutions that feel relevant to its citizens. It needs to respond to public apathy and anger with emotional intelligence. Much has been written about the EU’s democratic legitimacy in terms of law, political theory, and public policy. This paper considers how it feels to the individual citizen.
Proposals for reforming the EU should be judged by whether they affect the experience of democracy as felt by the people. Politicians and institutions should become more emotionally intelligent about how they engage the public—not just by showing that they sympathize, but by making incremental changes, however small, that enhance the benefits of European integration as experienced by ordinary citizens.
Individual Europeans today expect better quality of service, tangible personal gains, and more responsiveness to their needs from the private and public sectors. They also expect more direct involvement in the European project than their grandparents had when it began in the 1950s, and are less deferential than older generations. These sophisticated consumers want a more user-friendly experience of politics. But EU politicians and institutions have not caught up with them.
The EU has delivered extraordinary benefits to Europeans, such as passport-free borders, more consumer rights, medical assistance when abroad, and the possibility of working in another EU country, as well as the huge economic gains from the single market of 28 economies. But in the past five years, what they have heard about the European project is mostly bad news: cuts in public services and social protections as a result of Eurozone economic policies, and regulation that businesses complain about.
To the ordinary person, it feels like the EU is responsible for the economic pain, and exposes their country to the harsh winds of globalization, whereas all the protections of pensions and employment insurance seem to come from the nation-state. If the EU became associated with safety nets for citizens—not just austerity and fiscal discipline—it would enjoy much greater popular support.
The dominance of the economic crisis has also meant that citizens are much less aware of how the EU reinforces their rights and freedoms. A great advantage of living in Europe is that individuals enjoy protections that are guaranteed at the EU level, so they have more opportunities to seek redress from injustice, and enjoy the same rights—to a fair trial and data protection, for example—wherever they travel or work across 28 countries.
But the public is largely unaware of these benefits, or sees them as mainly applying to minorities. The EU should widen access to justice and guarantee more consistent protection of fundamental rights—and ensure that citizens better understand how it can provide justice for individuals and empowerment for citizens.
The EU adds value in many ways for individuals and compensates for the shortcomings of national governments. Now it needs to improve its democratic engagement in ways that are emotionally intelligent to be felt positively by ordinary citizens—like Helmut and Alekos—in their daily lives.