Refashioning A Common Spirit In Europe

Pierre Calame

The European Union has shown growing signs of frailty in the last couple of years. Opinion polls all over the continent reveal an increasing dissatisfaction with European policies and a lack of confidence in both national and European political institutions. This infirmity is further underlined by national elections and referendums, which have given opponents of European integration the upper hand. Still, however, the awareness of the important role Europe as an entity plays in its people’s lives has not diminished. If the European people can agree on a common outlook, these ambivalent feelings could open up the possibility of an exciting future for Europe. Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, marking the beginnings of the European Union, the world and Europe, both, have radically changed. It is time to work with the European people to create a new outlook for Europe.

The European Union in its current form is based on market unification. This, however, was not its initial purpose. As global trade now operates under a unified market, the EU has become the weak underbelly of economic globalization. While it has removed internal barriers, allowing the free movement of goods, people and capital, it has failed to ensure a common approach to security, defense and migration at its borders, to build an economic policy, to unify taxation, to ensure social cohesion and to stand united in international affairs.

Creating A Common Spirit

The challenge of getting the twenty-eight members of the European Union to reach an agreement on the way in which to go about strengthening Europe, and on the best way to ensure that the institutions envisaged for the six founding members still operate effectively, is clearly the most visible aspect of the problem. But this is only a manifestation of a much deeper issue: the fact that a single market and a single currency, along with the title of ‘European citizen’, are not enough to create a common spirit and bind a community towards a common purpose. Without this common spirit, any form of sacrifice for the sake of the common good, any new limitation of sovereignty will be met with resistance.

Europeans need to start talking with each other again, without assumptions and pre-conditions.
Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Fostering this common spirit, creating a context where European citizens can talk together about their values, their vision of the world, about what is important to them, about their fears and hopes, is the only way forward and the only way we can breathe new life into Europe. This requires overcoming fears, clearing up misunderstandings, and embarking upon a foundational process.

Overcoming Fears

European institutions are petrified by the rise in populism, and, aware that recent referendums have not been good for Europe. Consequently, they are afraid to let citizens have their say. Communication has become too patronizing and there are too many attempts to explain the rise of euro-skepticism through biased information. This is evident by the fact that national governments are all too happy to take credit for the successes and lump all the failures on Europe. Referendums are the worst way to give people a voice right now. A yes or no answer based on easily-manipulated and limited information is not the way to answer a question as vast and complex as the way in which to go about building our common future. But Europe cannot be built without the input of its citizens. They just need to be given the means to do it.

Clearing up misunderstandings

The priority is not to initiate a citizen-led debate on European institutions, which are inevitably complex and poorly understood. Too much energy has been spent over the last few decades discussing the inner workings of institutions instead of focusing on what really matters. Adequate institutions are of course necessary, but the first and the most important focal point should be to ensure that the European community is a living and breathing community.

Inventing a long-term foundational process

Europeans must turn Bismarck’s statement on its head and prove that there are ways of founding a community other than ‘blood and iron’. If the European people are able to do this, as they have been able to peacefully share sovereignty for the sake of the common good, Europe will once again become a leader on the world stage, because of all things, creating a global community united by a common spirit is primordial.

This foundational process should be based on the principles of deliberative democracy. Democracy involves negotiating differences in social projects and political platforms, but first and foremost it represents an ethical approach and methodology, which enables all citizens in various sectors of society to collectively identify and discuss common challenges in a spirit of transparency. Deliberative democracy is the process by which a random selection of ‘ordinary’ citizens, aptly reflecting society’s diversity, form an opinion on complex subjects and discuss and deliberate in order to identify common beliefs and visions.

Experience has shown that not only is deliberative democracy possible, but that it also works, and that in line with the methodological optimism that underpins democracy, citizens are as much equipped as experts to answer the complex questions of our time. For the methodology to succeed, however, certain conditions need to be respected. These are:

  • Political institutions and leaders must commit to consider the proposals put forward by citizens
  • There must be an accurate cross-section of representatives
  • The questions tackled should be as broad as possible
  • The process is understood to be long-term in order to give citizens time to appropriate questions and establish a common viewpoint
  • Adequate human and financial resources are invested in the process, particularly at the second stage (Europe-wide deliberation) which will require translators
  • Clear and robust methods are followed to develop a synthesis of the discussions

The best approach, in our opinion, is to institute a two-stage process: first at local and regional level, and then at European level.

 Stage 1 – A cross-section of randomly selected citizen panels, organized by those cities and regions that wish to take part: This is a way to break away from the idea of ‘national interests’ as local deliberations are also often significantly more concrete. Moreover, it would also give a new impetus to ‘twin cities’ partnerships across Europe. These panels will work together for six months with access to a solid range of information and whatever expert opinions they deem necessary.

The proposed Citizens’ Panels would look beyond ‘national interests’ as local deliberations are often significantly more concrete. Pic. Ashish Kothari

Stage 2 – European Citizens’ Assembly: This would bring together a thousand citizens delegated by local panels for a period of between ten and thirty days in order to share ideas and proposals. This assembly would following rigorous working procedures that ensure the traceability of each representative’s contribution from the time it is made to the final common and shared conclusions.

Social networks, the internet and the media will also play a key role, enabling everyone to follow panel discussions and access information and expert assessments, fueling more debate and discussion across society. The idea of local panels could also be reproduced in schools and universities. That way, a large part of the society would be contributing to the future of Europe.

Such a foundational process, initiated by European local authorities, requires the clear commitment of European leaders, so as to guarantee the necessary financial and human resources and to ensure the conclusions reached are discussed within each European institution. These conclusions should be ready in time for the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament in 2019.


Pierre Calame is a former senior official at the French Ministry of Public Works and author of several essays on the role and place of the state in contemporary society.

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