Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law

Mountain or Molehill?
A Critical Appraisal of the Commission White Paper on Governance


The Commission White Paper
Bridging the Gap between the Governed and the Governing?

Marlene Wind *

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This paper is a part of contributions to the Jean Monnet Working Paper
No.6/01, Symposium: Mountain or Molehill? A Critical Appraisal of the Commission White Paper on Governance

In a comment to the Commission White Paper, President Romano Prodi made a very precise statement about the ongoing paradox of European and national governance: "On the one hand, politicians are expected to find solutions to those pressing problems that confront our societies. On the other, there is a growing lack of confidence (or just interest) among ordinary citizens in politics and political institutions." (Prodi 2001)1 The lack of trust in politicians and the lack of interest in what goes on in political decision-making circles which seems to accompany it, has been a general phenomena in all Western societies in recent years and is not a problem that saturates the European Union alone. Whether we look at local/regional, national or supranational levels, we find exactly the same pattern of political malaise and decreased electoral turn out (Listhaug & Wiberg 1995).

There is, nevertheless, little doubt that the publication of the Commission White Paper should be interpreted as a response to the specific problems that have confronted the European Union in recent years. What I am thinking of here is not only the low turn out in the most recent European parliamentary election, but also the fall of the Santer Commission, which had a huge negative impact on the image of European institutions in the broader public eye. In all parts of political life, however, citizens have become increasingly sceptical towards their politicians and increasingly turn to non-institutionalised political activity when they want to pursue their interests (Klingeman & Fuchs 1995; Streeck 1987). There is also a clear indication that voters have become more focused on individual needs than on the collective well-being of society as such. Bell and Huntington have even gone so far as to talk about an increase in `hedonistic value orientations' among citizens in modern societies (Bell 1976). According to Huntington, there has been a growing pre-eminence of `hedonistic self-actualisation'2 where man is loyal to no one but himself. In this reading, the lack of moral or affective attachments makes any electoral choice (and also the choice of not voting at all) a matter of careful calculation of cost and benefits (Klingemann & Fuchs 1995: 15-21).3

Whether there was careful calculation and hedonistic value orientation behind the low turn out at the last European parliamentary election in 1999, where only 49,6% of the eligible voters found it worth participating4 - or at the `"No" vote' to the Nice Treaty in Ireland this summer, is hard to say. There is no doubt, however, that the Irish referendum (like the Danish one in 1992) send shockwaves though out Europe, making the European establishment, in particular, extremely uneasy. What do you do with a population where less than 30% find it worth casting their vote in a referendum on the future of Europe, and where they end up rejecting a treaty in which there is no serious alternative to a yes-vote? If democracy is to be taken seriously, it will be very difficult just to ask the electorate to vote on the same treaty again: "Of course, we respect your first vote - but please put your cross in the right box this time. Thanks". Such a strategy would clearly not work. It might very well result in another legitimacy crisis not just in Ireland but in the Union as such.

There does, however, seem to be great haziness - not just about the Nice Treaty, but more generally about what citizens really want when it comes to European integration. On the one hand, we have politicians (and a well-educated élite) whose engagement in further European integration is undisputed. On the other, we have an electorate that seems more and more in doubt not only about the European future, but also about the most important themes on the European agenda. Just to give a few examples - enlargement and the common currency. A recent Eurobarometer analysis shows that Western Europeans have become increasingly sceptical towards Eastern enlargement. Only 44% supports it, and only 26% regards it as a top priority for the Union. The same reluctance characterises the attitude towards the common currency. Had there been referenda on the this issue in the larger EU countries, all estimates show that the project would have been rejected altogether.

In other words, the huge divide between the political élite and the citizens in EU matters is alarming and should be taken seriously. Consequently, arguing that the disinterest in politics is a general phenomena of today's welfare societies, is not an attempt to get away from the fact that we are facing grave problems of legitimacy and that the European Union sticks out in this respect. There is little doubt that reforms will be absolutely essential if the Community is to regain its strength and even survive in the longer run. But the picture is not simply black and white, with the nation state as the natural home of both democracy and deliberation, and the Union lacking all these features. What the Union lacks and what the nation states have build up over centuries is - habitual trust. It is this habitual trust that the Union must acquire if it wants to have any chance of winning the citizens over on its side. It is in this light that the Commission White Paper should be evaluated in. Is it the right point of departure for the creation of the necessary confidence and does it contribute to the narrowing of the gap between the citizenry and the bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels - between the governing and the governed? The White Paper has been long awaited. Ever since the Santer Commission stepped down and, on his appointment, President Prodi proclaimed the need for fundamental reform of European system of governance. The question, then, is whether the White Paper - despite all its good intentions - is the right medication for the legitimacy problems that Europe faces?

This paper will not go through the White Paper in any detail. Instead, it will try to depict some of the main themes in order to discuss what kind of philosophy lies behind the reform-proposal. I will also try to evaluate whether it contributes to the narrowing (or the widening!) of the gap between the citizenry and the governing élite. Having done this, the paper will briefly address the much more fundamental debate concerning the characterisation of the EU as a polity. Debating institutional reform and the larger engagement of civil society in EU decision-making easily becomes abstract and unfocused if we have no clear vision the polity with which we are dealing.

* Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen, DENMARK

1 Romano Prodi cited from Berlingske Tidende, a Danish daily newspaper. My translation from Danish.

2 Huntington 1974.

3 Klingemann and Fuchs define hedonistically oriented citizens in the following way: "First, they are marked by a lack of political interest and low political participation; or, alternatively, by low political interest along with primarily non-institutionalised participation which happens only occasionally and lacks clear and stable goals"(Klingemann & Fuchs 1995: 21).

4 At the first election to the European Parliament in 1979, the EU average electoral turn out was 63,0%. In 1984, it had dropped to 61,0%, in 1989 it was 58,5% and in 1994 56,8%. Source: European Parliament


© Marlene Wind 2001


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