YES! to Europe – NO! to Eurocrats
In today’s political climate, perceptions matter more than anything. It is absolutely critical that once we get a majority of MEPs elected in the European Parliament, most likely at the 2024 EP Elections, we hit the ground running and establish a powerful momentum of change creating its own dynamics and engaging citizens’ support. Only in such a manner will we be able to bring the EU’s twenty-eight member states’ governments to the bargaining table, and to begin rebalancing the European system of governance. The only similar example of a situation of a continent in crisis where a new government took the reins of leadership and began immediately to redress interlocking political, economic, social, and military crises was the United States in 1933, after the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Presidency of the United States after twelve years of Republican misgovernment that included the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the biggest economic depression of the 20thcentury. After delivering an arousing inaugural speech in which he declared that “…when there is no vision the people perish…” and that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”, Roosevelt and his team went to work and revolutionized the nature and practice of US government practice by transforming it into a modern, effective, vision-driven network of institutions that remains to this day the foundation of the socio-political system that governs today’s United States. We in Europe must learn from FDR’s example and develop the same ambitious, goal-driven, visionary agenda over our first One Hundred Days centered around five key commitments.
Keeping the Faith in the Critical First 100 Days
Clearly, there are fundamental differences between the Presidency of United States and winning a majority of MEPs in the European Parliament. The MEPs cannot even be considered as representatives of their various national governments empowered to negotiate a new institutional arrangement for the entire European Union, as happened in the United States with the drafting of its current constitution by the Philadelphia Congress of 1787.
The process is most likely to unfold in seven stages:
the first stage will consist in the Euro-Parliament debating, deciding, and voting on its initial proposal regarding the fundamental principles of rebalancing European governance - of the institutions and of the structure of the New Europe;
in a second stage this proposal will be presented to European member state governments, some or all of which might even refuse to discuss or consider such a proposal;
a third stage will involve a cycle of popular meetings and demonstrations across the European Union, and especially in those states refusing to engage in the process, that will put pressure on their national governments to enter into discussions with the European Parliament on this matter;
the fourth stage will consist of exactly such negotiations with all governments once they are finally ready to sit around the table - but also of opening up the process to input from non-governmental civil society groups and organizations interested to contribute their ideas, suggestions, and proposals;
the fifth stage will require the European Parliament and all national parliaments to approve the New Governance Arrangements;
at the sixth stage these new arrangements will have to be submitted either to a single popular referendum either across the entire EU, or to twenty-eight separate ones within each national member state.
finally, at the seventh stage, a transitional period would commence to facilitate the process of practical implementation of the new arrangements, before they would come into full force across the EU.
Of course these seven stages will not be completed in three months or even three years; they are more likely to stretch out across an entire decade - the first five years being taken up with the first six stages, and the second five years consisting of the transitional period and final implementation of the new arrangements. Ideally the first three stages should occur within the first 100 days in order to emphasize the European Parliament's determination to move ahead with this fundamental restructuring of European governance. Voting on the initial draft proposals and bringing pressure to bear on the national governments to come to the negotiating table is a matter that must happen within the first weeks rather than months of the new Strasburg Parliament, with the actual round-table negotiations set to begin within three months from the 2024 Euro-Parliament elections.
The first 100 days should not be consumed only with such constitutional matters, but should also focus on addressing immediate issues that require solutions at the European and national levels. The specific nature of these issues will depend of course on the situation in Europe and in particular in the European Union in 2024. However problems such as youth unemployment, minimum income standards, innovation and entrepreneurship promotion, immigration and refugee reform, and transition to a green economy are unlikely to go away any time soon. The European Parliament should focus on an integrated set of issues that will re-energize the economy, productivity, and innovative capacity of the European Union and put forward a program of action that could begin to be implemented in cooperation with national legislatures during the first 100 days of the new Euro-Parliament.
Finally from the perspective of the internal institutional dynamics of the European Union the European Parliament should - as we will discuss below - make full use of its existing Treaty-based powers and prerogatives to de facto integrate the European Commission within the European Parliament's new governance plan of action and to ensure that the European Council President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs also become part of this team rather than remain beholden to the Eurocrat heads of state and government’s wishes.
This ‘Citizens’ Agenda 21’ structured along different levels of intervention and with various time frames should be presented from the very beginning in the Strasbourg Parliament by our Party's top leadership team, be publicized throughout the European Union, and be used as the benchmark for the achievements of the new EU government over the coming months and years. This will provide the new majority of the European Parliament with an indispensable tool to achieve trust, credibility, and support among the citizens who entrusted it with their votes and their hopes for the future.
Rebalancing European Governance
Whilst the European supra-national rebalancing process would be ongoing for the next decade, the new majority of the European Parliament must engage in other tasks that can be completed in a short period of time and bring more accountability, openness, and democracy to the European Parliament. One of the European Parliament's most important new EU Treaty-based powers is that it now has a de facto right to veto the appointment of members of the new European Commission including the Commission President, as well as of the European Council President and of the EU’s High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs.The EU Parliament should make it clear to national governments that it will veto every single proposal they initiate without its cooperation and that it will only consider for approval entire EU Commission teams proposed by the European Parliament itself and then approved by the nation-states. What would in fact happen is that the EU Parliament would remain within the letter of the EU Treaties but would in effect totally change around these nomination processes: it is the European Parliament with its new majority of MEPs belonging to our Party that would select the EU Commission as a whole and propose it for approval to the twenty-eight national governments.
Upon receipt of the proposal the national governments would officially nominate them for such positions and send the nominations back for the Euro-Parliament’s approval - which would of course vote in favor. This is an example of how the European Parliament can use its significant existing powers in order to turn tables on national governments and constrain them to play by its rules a new game they would not be prepared for. The approval of such a new EU Commission would in fact represent the first legitimately elected government of the European Union level of governance. Exactly the same selection and confirmation process could also apply to the European Council President and to the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs. Finally the head of the European Central Bank would also have to go through a similar nominating process. This could happen very quickly within the first month of our Party's parliamentary victory, enabling it to use its momentum and the shock of its new majority to obtain concrete institutional changes. Once the European Commission, European Council President and the President of the European Central Bank (the EU Presidents’ Troika’) as well as the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and all European Council Commissioners will have been selected and approved by the new European Parliament majority, we will have in effect for the very first time in Europe a government appointed legitimately by directly elected MEPs members of the first Strasbourg Parliament legislative majority.
The European Commission will continue to have the right of initiative on legislative projects as well as that of preparing agendas and working documents for European Council meetings; the European Council President will be present at European Council meetings of national heads of state and government in order to act as coordinator and enabler of top-level decisions proposed by the European Council; and decisions prepared by the European Commission and approved by the European Council would then revert to the European Parliament for discussion, debate, amendment, and eventually ratification in accordance with the procedures currently laid out by the EU Treaties. Although this process will continue to remain cumbersome in principle and in need of eventual reform, the effective appointment of the EU Presidents’ Troika and second-level political officers listed above by the new European Parliament will enable a much speedier, more coherent and more accountable legislative process that would leave the European Council little choice but to come to terms with the new realities and cooperate to avoid giving voters in national elections the impression that their national governments are deliberately trying to gridlock or set up for failure the EU’s new system of cooperative parliamentary governance and suffer the consequences at the polls.
A more symbolic but equally important gesture would be for the new European Parliament to adopt a ‘European Declaration of Values and Principles of Governance’ that would move away from a strictly legalistic endorsement of human rights and democracy to a more popular and accessible version of what the idea of Europe actually stands for and how we as European citizens plan to achieve such a vision. This Declaration should be the result of an open and democratic pan-European process of deliberation, discussion, and debate, including members and organizations of Europe’s nascent civil society – a process that would assist in the emergence of a truly European public sphere.
A third level of action for the European Parliament in its first 100 days would be to consult the grassroots hubs and networks familiar with the problems and challenges faced by various European communities at the local level and ask them to present a series of proposals that could be taken up by the European Parliament, speeded up and resolved within a matter of months.
In brief, within the first 100 days judicious action at the EU constitutional level, at the EU government personnel appointment level, and at the European grassroots projects level could be initiated, coordinated, and implemented in order to achieve significant results and progress capable of driving forward the new European Parliament’s majority agenda and of increasing its momentum both with respect to national governments and with its own voters across the EU.
This would showcase in the eyes of European voters the dynamism and ability to innovate of the new Strasbourg Parliament majority and consolidate their support and loyalty for it. At the beginning of the Euro-Parliament’s first session our Party's majority caucus will present a check list of objectives arranged according to short, medium, and long-term deadlines - short-term being the first 100 days, medium-term the life of the Parliament, and long-term within the next decade -the “Citizens’ Agenda 21”. At the end of the first 100 days it should check all the short-term objectives it was able to reach as well as the medium and long-term objectives that it did set in motion and made progress in. In this manner the new Euro-parliamentary majority of MEPs belonging to our Party will showcase both its successes and its readiness to be open, transparent, and accountable from the very first to its voters across Europe.
Bringing Civil Society Back In
The entire European legislative process should be opened up in the way European law Professor and President of the European University Institute (Florence) J.H.H. Weiler suggested with his ‘Lexcalibur’ initiative: all EU legislative proposals should be put online so that civil society organizations and even individuals may be able to access all relevant information and even make contributions - both online and where warranted in real life - and ensure that civil society itself plays an active and informed role in the shaping of these policies. Rather than limiting the legislative process to elected representatives the direct implication of civil society organizations and of citizens themselves will bring a fundamental change to the traditional liberal representative democratic process of legislation – from a ‘closed-source’ secretive model restricted to parliamentarians to an ‘open-source’ accountable model based on principles of absolute inclusion, deep diversity, and the power of the best argument. This would limit the ability of national governments to gridlock the system or even veto critically important bills that would endanger their ability to control the levers of power. This is the kind of both substantive and procedural agenda that should drive forward the strategic planning of the European Parliament's new majority for the first 100 days of its new administration.
But bringing civil society back into the process of governance of the European Union must mean much more than enabling citizens and organizations to access legislative proposals online. It must mean a profound rethinking of the role of direct participative democracy in our lives, at all levels of governance: local, regional, national, and European. Obviously the wider the geographical scope the more difficult direct and continuous citizen involvement becomes and the more important the role of elected representatives. This also applies to the degree of urgency of decisions to be taken. This does not mean that direct participative democracy should not be incorporated to the fullest extent possible in our system of multi-level governance. We need to find flexible balances between the ability of governments to function efficiently, effectively and within required time constraints - especially when crises are involved - and civil society and citizens’ involvement by means of direct participation or through popular consultations and referenda.
This is not the time nor the place to paint even with large brushstrokes the outlines of what such a system might look like; it is enough that we have laid down the principles of such an ‘open source’, accountable, participative, innovative, and dynamic system of governance so that when the time comes, real citizens and institutions across Europe can take this vision further, develop specifics, and put it into practice in accordance with the desires and wishes of citizens at the time. In this way we will move well beyond what US political philosopher John Rawls called ‘the veil of ignorance’ ensuring the ‘fairness’ of an initial social contract which then defines, enframes, and ‘brackets’ permanently a society's institutional arrangements, and hopefully arrive at a new recursive and reflective vision of ‘agonistic’ and participactive governance implying that even on the fundamentals, active citizen input and participation on a continuing basis must be not only tolerated but promoted, encouraged, and celebrated.
Setting Rules and Standards
The new European Parliament must address two more issues as soon as it is elected in order to ensure that it keeps faith with its promise to be open, accountable, in the service of its own citizens. The first has to do with the benefits and privileges of MEPs themselves and the second with who can get elected to become an MEP in the first place. Current standards governing the terms of service and the remuneration and the behavior of MEPs must be rethought from the ground up and must become clear and unambiguous:
first, the European Parliament must pass a strict ‘term limits’ and ‘cooling down’ legislation that will not allow MEPs to sit for more than two consecutive terms and would require them then to take a minimum five-year break before they can stand for election at any territorial level of governance within the EU. Such a cooling down period would also applies to any private sector jobs directly related to specific legislative work they were engaged during their time in office;
second, a strict ‘conflict of interests’ legislation must also be adopted along the same lines, requiring full and total disclosure of MEPs assets, earnings, and personal connections within various institutions of governance, be they at the legislative, executive, or judicial levels but also in private organizations and in the private sector;
third, MEPs salaries and disbursements must also be significantly limited in order to bring them in line with average incomes of professionals throughout the European Union; their pensions and benefits should also be reduced for only for the period they serve in the Strasbourg Parliament, as opposed to being granted ‘for life’. No one should benefit from full pensions during their entire retirement after serving only two terms as MEP. Disbursements also play a very important role in ensuring that MEPs are seen as true representatives of the citizens who elected them and not as careerist opportunists seeking to take advantage of yet another government cash cow;
fourth, the European Parliament must put at MEPs disposal institutionally-owned lodging facilities with all the facilities and amenities required including restaurants, that should be considered as part of an MEPs salary. In exchange no compensation should be paid to MEPs for owning or renting a second house or apartment in Strasbourg or in Brussels. MEPs main residence must remain in the constituency they represent and they must remain fully responsible for all its direct and indirect costs payable out of their own salaries - just like average citizens are responsible for their living arrangements;
fifth, regular transportation between the seats of European institutions in Strasbourg and Brussels and MEPs’ constituencies must be carefully regulated. Europe has a highly efficient and affordable rail network that should be used to the fullest extent possible. Any necessary flights must be booked at economy-class level for those requiring air transportation to reach far-away constituencies. No MEP should ever be permitted to travel in business class at citizens’ expense;
finally, food, entertainment, and office expenses must also be carefully regulated with strict limits imposed not only on total monthly amounts but on individual items such as lunches, office equipment, and incidental election spending costs.The two principles that emerge out of this brief discussion are the urgent need for deprofessionalization of the European Parliament political system combined with greater openness, accountability, and professionalism of MEPs themselves.