Nick Clegg: The myth of a European demos

From a speech by the Liberal Democrat MEP at the Centre for Reform Liberal Summer School
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The Independent Online

Can Europe provide a role model for democracy?

It is worth remembering, particularly in a British context, the sheer ambition of the degree of economic and political integration that has taken place across Europe. Recently, European Union membership has been a phenomenal political driver for political and civic liberties in Central and Eastern Europe.

But while the European Union has been extraordinarily successful in acting as a catalyst for economic and political reform within the boundaries of its own member states, I do not believe that a wholly positive assessment can be made of the democratic credentials of its own institutions.

It is beyond debate that the European Parliament has achieved many great things, and has brought enormous benefits in the way that the European Union takes decisions. And yet the institution does still not enjoy commensurate levels of popular legitimacy and democratic credibility.

One reason for this is that European elections often fail to present clear, easily understood options to the electorate. The powers of MEPs have increased greatly in legislative terms over several years without being matched in a corresponding rise in voter turnout.

As presently constituted, the European Parliament is operating on the basis of fictional belief that there exists something called a Pan-European demos: that the European Parliament can somehow directly represent the collectivity of the European peoples in a way that differs from the more partisan, national interests represented in the Council of Ministers.

Yet at present there is clearly no such pan-European democratic culture which brings all European voters together. In Thessalonica, in Dublin, in Lisbon, voters go to the polls for domestic, even local reasons, often as a reaction to national political circumstances.

Many hope that a wider demos will emerge as European integration continues. Over time, they argue, people will understand that these pan-European issues require pan-European responses. Maybe they are right. My concern is that the evidence suggests that, far from converging, the European electorates are in many respects diverging from each other.