Privileging the citizens’ voice: Nobel Prize money should go to citizenry

November 10, 2012 News

In the midst of Europe’s worst economic and democratic crisis in recent memory, the EU has been honoured with one of the world’s most prestigious awards. The announcement ignited spirited debates about global problems and the scale of the solutions needed in the near future.

The award might be thought of as an appeal to Europeans to direct our attention to the core values of freedom, solidarity and democratic peace. This is particularly fitting when market constraints appear to dismiss the notion of democratic sovereignty. If we fail now, the European project is at risk not only from an economic point of view; democratic achievements in Europe as such would also be threatened.

The clearest point to emerge from the confused deliberations about whether Mr. Barroso, Mr. Van Rampuy or Mr. Schulz should be the one to formally accept the award in Oslo on December 10th is that the one million euro prize must be given to the named recipient of the award: the Union’s citizens. What has been confirmed so far is that the money will go to an “as yet unidentified charity”. Who will qualify as the beneficiary?

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Maastricht and the establishment of Union citizenship, the Commission’s political agenda for 2013 will be shining a spotlight on the citizen; likewise, the European Economic and Social Committee plans to promote year-long activities to encourage debate about democratic participation and citizens’ rights. In light of this it would be incumbent on the EU to also fulfill its pledge to create a robust online signature collection platform for the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Adequate investment in e-technology will be essential to ensure that the platform is consumer-friendly and, as a result, operative.

Political leaders sensitive to the indignation in the European street might consider allocating the prize money to a campaign that will offer Europeans the chance to have their grievances heard. A functioning infrastructure for the ECI would enable a million citizens to invite the Commission to make legal proposals. One of the many prescriptive solutions for preventing ‘non-transparent and post-democratic domination’—and indeed, the escalating threats to freedom—is the ECI, a newly adopted instrument of participatory democracy. It was designed specifically to boost community involvement in European legislative procedures.

While EU institutions have hailed the project as one of the most important novelties of the Lisbon Treaty, they have yet to make this “revolutionary innovation” available in practice. The instrument formally requires a working electronic signature collection system and the absence of this infrastructure remains an effective obstacle to democratic participation.

As Jürgen Habermas emphasizes in his recurring indictments of European political trends, citizens have gradually been reduced to passive spectators. To counteract a widely perceived lack of responsiveness to democratic processes, he says, “we need a new politics of self-empowerment”. The EU project will only succeed if leaders are attentive to democratic and economic recovery strategies that are supported by the population.

The idea that ‘Europe must become more democratic or it will cease to exist’ is a leitmotif that has survived in political speeches and discourse since Maastricht, but today the urgency of Jacques Delors’ warning is conspicuous. The ECI offers an effective framework for publicly debating EU decisions and addressing citizens’ concerns. Struggling to retain credibility, the EU must also demonstrate in conspicuous ways its determination to build a stronger and more democratic Europe.

Christiana Maria Mauro and Carsten Berg