The economic crisis is not the only reason protests have spread around Europe – there is also a deeper cynicism about politics and its ability to solve problems that has to be addressed
The grassroots activism that has been rocking European Union member states for the past years is often seen as a by-product of the ongoing global financial and economic crunch and, in particular, the sovereign debt crisis. However, this reading of the European protests is only half of the story. Demonstrations are as much fuelled by opposition to austerity, banking bail-outs and the untamed global financial system as they are driven by frustration with the way democracy and traditional politics are put into practice.
The more the EU's socio-economic and political woes hang around, the less likely that citizens' indignation will fade away – with potentially significant, negative implications for representative democracy and European integration. Popular disenchantment with the apparent inability and unwillingness of political leaders to solve the economic crisis or address citizens' demands for alternative strategies to austerity risks spilling into cynicism about democratic practices and institutions, such as elections and traditional political parties. It can also undermine support for the widely-perceived elitist EU integration project, right at a time when European leaders contemplate or advocate federal-type of solutions to the eurozone's problems.
Any steps forward in terms of reform must therefore bear in mind the need to win back people's trust in democratic politics and politicians. Getting the current economic tempest under control will not in itself do the trick. Reducing budget deficits, restoring growth, creating jobs, regulating the financial sector, stabilising the euro or any of the other priorities presently on the minds of European policy-makers are indeed an integral part of the crisis recipe. But if strong economic performance and the problem-solving capacity of national governments and the EU were sufficient to win over the people, then cynicism towards domestic politics and negative outcomes in successive referenda on EU treaties would not have been seen before the crisis. Yet these have been enduring issues, and it is therefore unlikely that they will disappear even if the on-going economic liabilities were to end.
At least two other reform ingredients are crucial. First, the social dimension of the economic strategy must be taken to heart by politicians. For instance, citizens' concerns in areas like income distribution and access to public services must be factored into austerity plans. The role of investment in social capital for achieving sustainable growth and maintaining a competitive edge vis-à-vis the rest of the world needs to be revisited, and the social responsibility of states has to be redefined.
Second, people must redeem their fundamental democratic right to have their voice count in collective matters. More should be done to boost public input and interest in national and European political affairs. For example, new participatory mechanisms should be designed and accompanied by institutional frameworks that enable governments to be more responsive to citizens. Information and communication technologies should then be used to enhance transparency and inclusiveness of decision-making processes. Moreover, politicians, media and other opinion shapers must actively engage into more frank communication campaigns about the EU.
Can these socio-economic and political hurdles be tackled effectively at national level given the Europeanisation and internationalisation of policy parameters that oblige governments nowadays to respect an increasing number of principles outside the realm of domestic politics? And in traditional terms, is party mediation still necessary and political representation still possible in view of the transformation of public spaces by globalisation and communication technologies?
But if member states are indeed humbled by the job at hand, will they come clean to their electorates about what they can and cannot do any longer, and about why the EU matters? Will they try to compensate for their limitations in the national arena by strengthening the EU's capacity to provide joint, adequate policy solutions to the major internal and external challenges overburdening individual member states? And, in that case, keeping with the times, will the EU become a forerunner in the quest for a narrative of post-national democracy and 'capitalism with a human face'?
These are not easy questions but one of the protests' greatest merits is that they have raised them publicly and explicitly. There is a debate to be had, which means listening and communicating as much as legislating. The outcry of these social movements should not fall on deaf ears among policy-makers: democratic and social liabilities are integral to Europe's economic problems. Marginal reforms that do not simultaneously address all these issues as part of a new, common vision for the EU will prove inadequate and will see public unrest return with a vengeance in the future.
Corina Stratulat and Claire Dhéret are policy analysts at the European Policy Centre and authors of A tale of modern-day democracy and capitalism: in view of the European protests, which can be read here