CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: Continentally Challenged (Report No. 5)

CAIN Web Service

Continentally Challenged

Uptight citizens

Whatever measures are taken to improve the governance of the EU, the ultimate test of the viability of the European project is its relevance to the citizens of the union. On Europe Day (May 9th) last year, the commission president, Mr Santer, went on television to make that appeal.

The IGC was paving the way for Europe in the 21st century he said. "It will be a more democratic Europe, closer to its citizens. All of you will have to play your part in shaping a more caring Europe with a commitment to shared prosperity" He spoke of placing "the citizen at the very heart of political and economic action".[1]

One of the origins of the idea of European citizenship was a 1985 report to the European Council inviting it to bring into existence "the citizen as a participant in the political process of the Community".[2] Eventually, this materialised as the Maastricht provisions for 'citizenship of the union'. Yet because this is premised on citizenship of a member state, the measures in the TEU represented a limited top-up. And thus they are also very thin - principally to vote, and stand for office, in local elections in a member state to which a citizen has moved and in elections to the European Parliament, to petition the parliament and to complain to an ombudsman.

As Siofra O'Leary concludes, "The Community's democratic deficit will not be reduced by vague attempts to forge a European identity or by giving Member State nationals limited electoral rights on the basis of residence in another Member State."[3] And she tartly points out that the concept of union citizenship emerged without reference to actually existing citizens[4] - the post-Maastricht referenda gave the citizens their reprise.

One test must be that citizens feel the union acts as a guarantor of their mdividual rights as citizens. No more so than in Northern Ireland where the general absence of operational democratic norms and specific human rights depredations have had a corrosive effect on the region's political culture. These matters are highly germane to the future of the so-called 'third pillar' of the union, that dealing with issues of justice and home affairs.

The third pillar is so called because, like the 'second pillar' group of concerns (common foreign and security policy), it falls outside the primary pillar of the union, the European Community in the narrow sense. In these second and third 'pillars', matters are decided essentially on an intergovernmental basis, without the same exclusive initiative role for the European Commission, the same democratic input from the European Parliament and the same judicial oversight via the European Court of Justice. This general lack of accountability has fostered serious concerns about human rights protections in third-pillar matters, for example the treatment of asylum-seekers or dealing with 'terrorism'. As Patrick Fitzgerald warns,

The emergence of the infrastructure of the new European state has taken place all but unnoticed in this country [Britain]. The 'security deficit, that so worries the British government with the dissolution of internal border controls is overshadowed by a far more significant 'democratic deficit' that grows ever wider as unaccountable bureaucracies assume key security and law enforcement functions.[5]
The three-pillar structure agreed at Maastricht arose from the lack of consensus, especially as regards the UK (though the republic had concerns about the future of neutrality in terms of the second pillar), as to how much integration the treaty would entail. But most member states would like to see moves to integrate the second and third pillars more closely into pre-existing Community structures. The UK, however, does not. A British government official said third-pillar issues "touch directly on matters of constitutional principle". Solutions might not "conform to the neat communitarised mould", he said.

An official of the parliament said that, to date, the third pillar had been "a monument to massive failure". Not only was there a complete lack of parliamentary control, but he also pointed out that the exclusive right of initiative for the commission, in Community affairs, was, as guardian of the general European interest, a key safeguard for the rights of regions.

The irony of all this is that British Conservative hysteria about the union as a 'centralised super-state' misses the point entirely. If, by implication the rights of 'freeborn Englishmen [sic]' are posited as under attack from European integration, the opposite is in fact the case. In reality, it is the absence of integration in third-pillar matters, largely at British behest, which has allowed a secretive, unaccountable apparatus in this area to emerge.

Crucial citizenship concerns are also raised in the arena of the second pillar - common foreign and security policy For many citizens, the pretensions of the EU were punctured in the early 90s by its utter impotence in the face of the biggest crisis in the wider Europe since World War II - the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. As Gerard Delanty gloomily ends his survey of the idea of Europe since antiquity,

Bosnia posed a fundamental question about the identity of Europe. This was the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians, both Orthodox and Roman, can live together in a single multi-ethnic state. Europe's answer was no ... [T]he tragedy of Sarajevo encapsulates the failure of Europe as a multi-cultural civilisation.[6]

He concludes: "The crucial question for the future is whether it is possible to create a post-national kind of citizenship." And the key challenge, he rightly adds, is "the institutionalisation of pluralism".[7] Yet currently EU citizenship is, by definition, merely national citizenship plus. In fleshing out his notion of 'post-nationalist citizenship', Vince Geoghegan has provided a richer alternative, highly germane for Northern Ireland both in terms of fostering internal compromise and encouraging a more outward-looking perspective:

Amongst the rights of citizens there must be recognition of a right to one or more identities of nationality, or to none at all … There are, of course, a whole range of sub- and supra-national identities that are of immense importance, and that must be addressed in a deeper and broader citizenship. In this way one can conceive of a possible plurality of national identities at the individual level, and certainly at the community level, coexisting with a multitude of other identities, guaranteed by a citizenship, located in a state, multi-state, or conceivably non-state, political system.[8]
Post-national citizenship, challenging as it does the monopoly of the nation-state, thus chimes well with the emergence of 'multi-level governance' as the architecture of the evolving union. Citizens must feel that they can meaningfully participate in, or engage with, the institutions of the union if they so choose to do. Here Elizabeth Meehan finds some positive pointers in the dealings of the European Commission with regions, cities and localities, voluntary bodies, sectoral representatives and pressure groups.

The 'peace package' provides an excellent example. Following consultations between the then commission president, Jacques Delors, and the three Northern Ireland MEPs, three representatives were sent to consult widely with opinion on the ground as to the shape of the package. Subsequently, the regional affairs commissioner, Monika Wulf-Mathies, has throughout been concerned to widen participation in the deliberations around, and delivery of, the programme.

As Meehan argues, this commission style opens up

a new framework-a complex, multi-dimensional configuration that is both difficult to cope with and provides opportunities ... While the complexity of this framework is intimidating in the demands it makes in finding our way around the European public space, it can provide many openings for challenging authority, for expressing our various loyalties associated with our various identities, and for exercising our rights and duties in more than one arena.[9]
But transparency is at a premium if the union is to be accessible to all. It was thus that the Comité des Sages concluded: "Inclusion of civic and social rights in the Treaties would help to nurture that citizenship and prevent Europe being perceived as a bureaucracy assembled by technocratic élites far removed from daily concerns.[10]

Which brings us to the future.


1European Commission office in Northern Ireland, press release (EC/02/96)
2 report of the Adonnino committee, cited in Elizabeth Meehan, Citizenship and the European Community, Sage, London, 1993, pp 147-8
3Siofra O'Leary, European Union Citizenship: Options for Reform, Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 1996, p97
4ibid, p100
5Patrick Fitzgerald, 'Repelling borders', New Statesman & Society, February 17th 1995
6 Gerard Delanty, Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Reality, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1995, p158
7ibid, p160-1
8Geoghegan, 'Socialism, national identities and post-nationalist citizenship', Irish Political Studies, vol 9, 1994
9Meehan, op cit, pp 159-60
10 For a Europe of Civic and Social Rights, report by the Comité des Sages, European Commission, Brussels, 1996, p13

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, BT7 1FY Northern Ireland
Phone: -44-28-9022-0050 Fax: -44-28-9022-0051

Back to the top of this page