Aalt Willem Heringa and Michael Shackleton Aalt Willem Heringa and Michael Shackleton Sacha Ruland

“Citizens should feel the EU is their project”

In Society
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 20 February 2013 15:27
Europe: where is it headed? Professors Aalt Willem Heringa and Michael Shackleton have a critical but also hopeful view of the future. The United States of Europe, they say, is already a reality. “The European Union is much more powerful than the federal government in the US.” But we could do with more transparency and, in particular, more democratic experimentation.

While it’s not quite like gazing into a crystal ball, making predictions about the European Union (EU) is no easy task. The EU is an unprecedented and unique project – “historically unnatural”, according to Heringa, professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law. “In terms of postnationalism, it’s totally new”, agrees Shackleton, endowed chair of European Institutions. “But certain trends can be identified, despite the crisis – we first just have to find our way out of it.”
So how is the EU handling the financial crisis? Pretty well, in Heringa’s opinion: “The criticism is that it’s taking too long, but no-one could have predicted what the market would do. If you look at the treaties signed, we’ve made a lot of progress.” But what now? “We’ll have to find ways to prevent another crisis in the future. I’m in favour of giving more power and oversight to the European Central Bank. I also think a European Ministry of Finance with its own powers would fit well in this context.”

Democratic experiments

“The crisis means that people feel less removed from the EU”, says Shackleton. The biggest challenge for the future will therefore be to increase this engagement among citizens of the member states. “Citizens should feel the EU is their project. Of course, there are many different visions of what the future of Europe should be, so we need to streamline these visions. That’s the only way the EU can survive. We need to develop a political system that enables citizens to see what visions are out there and that allows these visions to compete.”

What this system will actually look like is hard to say. “We’re living in an increasingly postnational world”, says Shackleton. “The EU is something entirely new and no-one knows exactly how it will play out. The key, however, is to ensure that the EU is founded on democracy. This requires experimentation – think political debates between parties on what their candidate for the European Commision presidency aims to achieve, or meetings on the problem of unemployment among today’s youth.” “Raise these issues at the European level”, says Heringa. “Hold EU politicians accountable. You promised to get rid of big bank bonuses, so why haven’t you done it? This is what happens in national parliaments.” Shackleton agrees: “Heated debates like these get citizens involved at a European level.”

Federation of states

The European Parliament will face a particularly crucial task. But this body has ample authority, according to the professors. “European MPs should make bigger debates out of the most important issues”, says Shackleton. “Why don’t they launch a parliamentary inquiry into the banking crisis, for example?” Heringa adds. “Citizens would then think, yes, that’s exactly what MPs are for.” Yet Shackleton knows from experience that other motives prevail. “Instead of just making vague deals with other member states, they should be transparent in giving a voice to people’s concerns.”

Is the EU not well on its way to becoming a federation of states like the US? “The United States of Europe,” says Heringa with a laugh. “In fact it’s already a reality. In terms of competences, the EU is much more powerful than the federal government in the US. The power of national governments and parliaments has already been significantly restricted. Just don’t mention sovereignty or the f-word”, he warns. “That’s a good way to end the discussion.”

Democratic nature

Referring to the EU as a federation will get you nowhere, according to Shackleton. “The US creates American citizens. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where people consider themselves European rather than, say, Dutch or Italian. I also don’t think European citizens would be prepared to die for their new homeland.” He believes the political mindset is too closely aligned with the idea of the nation state and nationalism. “What we’re lacking is a collective consciousness.”
Were it up to the professors, we would see a more transparent and democratic EU. To this end, the Nobel Peace Prize is a step in the right direction: “The virtue of the EU extends beyond the creation of a free market. The prize emphasises the fact that the EU is founded on important values like solidarity and peace”, says Shackleton. “Not long ago,” Heringa adds, “countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal were dictatorships. It’s the EU that safeguards the democratic nature of its member states.”

Aalt Willem Heringa (1955) has been professor of Comparative Constitutional and Administrative Law at Maastricht University since 1995. He co-founded the European Law School programmes at the UM Faculty of Law and the China–EU School of Law in Beijing. During his term as dean (2003-2011), the Faculty of Law has developed into a leading European and international law faculty. Heringa is also vice president of the International Association of Law Schools and director of the Maastricht Montesquieu Institute.

Michael Shackleton (1949) has been extraordinary professor of European Institutions at Maastricht University since 2008 and is former head of the UK Office of the European Parliament (EP). He has worked in several divisions and committees associated with the EP since 1981, and has published widely on various European Community topics.

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