Before looking forward 50 years, modesty demands that we first look back. Not because the previous half-century is any indication of the next, but, on the contrary, because it shows how wrong our guesses can be. Our predictions are likely to seem as absurd to our offspring as 1960s’ forecasts of the moon-dwelling, rocket-driving societies of the millennium do to us. And they are even more likely to be off-beam because the pace of technological advance is breath-taking. Ten years ago, almost no one had ever heard the words ‘broadband’, ‘Skype’, or ‘MP3’. Today, they are common parlance for our children, who, as they go through life, will doubt-less discard them just as we have jettisoned the cassette recorder, LP and wireless.
As Commissioner for Communication, I have a professional as well as a personal interest in the fact that many of the greatest developments of the past decade have been in the way human beings talk to each other.
And although I don’t know quite how communication will move ahead between now and 2057, I feel certain it will have huge implications for governance and society. Politicians ignore this at their peril.
There is a consensus – one I subscribe to – that the ‘technocratic bargain’ between government and governed is breaking down, both nationally and supranationally, or is at least being reforged. It worked well enough in a post-war period of high growth and low unemployment for much of Europe, but it has struggled for legitimacy where economies have slowed and dole queues have lengthened. Public willingness to put faith in leaders’ abilities to deliver has often been replaced by indifference, scepticism or outright cynicism.
Moreover, in our post-modern world, the narratives of politics, class and religion that were capable of mass mobilisation in the 20th century are giving way to a more fluid and volatile matrix of allegiance and identity. The upshot is a more individualised and perhaps fragmented world, mirrored in an astonishing array of TV stations and websites, which cater to ever-rising demands for choice.
For the EU, the issue is complicated further. Its founding rationale stemmed from the momentous horror at the internecine strife and industrialised mass murder that Europe inflicted on itself and the world. Memories of that were enough to fuel the Union’s productive early days. Now, almost 50 years on, the benefits of that dynamic are everywhere in evidence: the right to work, study, or retire in any member state, the free movement of capital, goods and most services. In short, the biggest single market anywhere in the world.
But these benefits have been so internalised among younger generations (for whom a European war seems quite implausible) that they are taken for granted. In fact, many Europeans, while availing themselves of the many advantages that the EU’s fathers set in train, are oblivious to their origin, and instead label Brussels with many of the negatives describing the worst kind of government.
Connecting to the citizen
So Europe has to reinvent itself – first by better explaining its continuing relevance to bemused or sometimes hostile electorates, and second by responding better to their visions for the future.
The key point is how we can contribute to the creation of a real European public sphere and increase the awareness and the involvement of the citizens in what is decided at European level. There are many ways of doing so, from joining in the public consultations on key initiatives before they are agreed and launched, to taking part in the elections to the European Parliament, to signing a petition, to becoming a member of a European political party or NGO. I wish all citizens would commit themselves more to this democratic process. This is what I am trying to promote with my Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate. It is a start and Europe will need more of the same over its next 50 years.
Wanted: more democracy and transparency
A next step would be to improve the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions in the public eye. Any future Treaty (whether it is the treaty establishing the Constitution for Europe or one with a different name) must take on board the views of the people who have to live with it. If we treat it as purely an élite project, we risk getting the same answer we did last time in two member states. That said, let us not forget that the text signed by all governments in October 2004 contained many substantial nods in the right direction. A citizens’ right to petition the Commission to draw up proposed laws was one – a fundamental breakthrough in participatory democracy. Putting all Council deliberations on European laws on the record was another. And increasing the possibilities for national parliament scrutiny of bills went a long way towards allaying concerns that sovereign parliaments are bypassed in EU decision-making.
Furthermore, that text, which has been ratified already by 18 member states, also contained some very good solutions on how to increase efficiency and democratic legitimacy in key policy areas, such as immigration, asylum and the fight against terrorism, or the role of the Union as a global player.
These issues won’t go away, because they concern challenges that Europe is facing and that have become even starker since 2004. Nor will other challenges, such as energy security, climate change, unemployment and human trafficking disappear. These are issues that demonstrate the need for a sustainable Europe in a globalised world.
Our governments now accept the absolute need for joint action on issues like energy security and climate change. Here the EU is more necessary than ever. It has to ensure it is fit for purpose and can deliver effective multilateral solutions that carry the endorsement of the people as well as their representatives.
If we manage things well by fine-tuning our institutional machinery and ensuring communications technology reduces the metaphorical and the practical – if not the geographical – distance between Brussels and the voter, then the Union of 2057 can become a more sure-footed entity than perhaps it looks now and a commonplace in the lives of Europeans who really know how they can benefit from it – and engage with it.
Margot Wallström: ”Speak to the people!”, in ”European Union: The Next Fifty Years”. © Financial Times Business and Agora Projects Ltd, London, March 2007. (Article courtesy of Financial Times Business. The European Community does not have the right to authorize third parties to reproduce this article or its translations. Authorization for reproduction should be directly addressed to FT business).