Let’s subsidiarise (Editorial, Polarities/Focus, 18 December 2000)

Editorial by Tapani Lausti

“There will be no genuine EU democracy without real democratic debate geared to conflict resolution and open participation. That is what ‘enhanced cooperation’ should be about : inclusion not exclusion; letting the people see the future and showing how common concerns can, where appropriate, be tackled using common instruments and policies checked by common institutions.”

These laudable words by Juliet Lodge were published on the extremely useful web pages of The European Policy Centre in Brussels. (Lodge is Professor of European Studies at the University of Leeds). My only problem with this kind of statement is this: How can one make a debate really credible among large number of people?

When Finnish politicians declared a debate on Finnish EU membership, citizens showed some interest. By the time of the referendum, however, it cannot be said that the debate had been very far-reaching. Yes, Finland joined the EU, but ever since most people have probably thought, oh well, it all happens somewhere else, nothing to do with me – unless they feel that the EU has trampled on their rights and then they get angry.

The curious thing about public life nowadays is, in fact, that the organisations which are more capable than political parties of involving ordinary citizens are outside the parliamentary system. They tend to be local groups which are interested in environmental issues, questions of local democracy and local economic regeneration, they might be trading skills and products on a non-money basis and on the whole they are into what could be described as an alternative social life. There seems to be a large number of these people although the lack of media interest tends to keep them out of sight.

These people could really breathe life into the concept of subsidiarity. This concept is quite fashionable in EU circles, but it seems to lack credibility among ordinary people. The excellent Polish-born journalist Daniel Singer, who sadly died recently, was contemptuous of the way the term was being used in Brussels. In his last book Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours (published by Monthly Review Press in 1999) he described it as “a gimmick enabling euroskeptics to oppose the transfer of powers to Brussels”. Let me quote at some length Singer’s view on subsidiarity:

“In a society in transition, trying to reshape its institutions and its habits by a vast movement from below and fearing to be overwhelmed by too mighty a state, it could be a most useful principle. With cooperative production being organized to satisfy human needs, quite a lot could be done at the local or regional level, reducing bureaucracy and avoiding the costs of transportation. This is even more so for welfare and other social services, a field in which the national institutions are often perceived as distant and inhuman. In cultural activity, too, there is plenty of scope for regional initiative.” (pp. 247-248)

This is not language used in polite circles these days. Yet, whatever one’s reaction to the details of Singer’s vision, I feel that it goes to the heart of the matter. It is not easy for ordinary citizens to relate to what is going on in European fora, unless it somehow translates back to where people live their everyday lives.

There is a problem of language and politics. The EU has created a politically correct language which does not allow market ideology to be transgressed. An idealised and depoliticised view of market forces is pushing potentially important debate to the margins. This immediately disenfranchises millions of people in Europe who allow other kinds of thoughts to inhabit their minds, who want a more active role to play than that of a wage slave who is required to pay daily homage to other people’s job-creating skills – at least until one’s job is lost.

There is a wide-ranging debate going on in Europe but the mainstream media is closing its ears to it. This cannot continue forever. We must acknowledge the existence of real differences of opinion, not pretend that they have disappeared. Street demonstrations in Nice were one symptom of underlying tensions.

The Finnish Green MEP, Heidi Hautala, recently said: “Right now the EU is afraid that citizens will interfere with decision-making.” At  least some politicians acknowledge the existence of a serious problem. This is the debate we need. How to make it happen, is one of the big questions of our time.

18 December 2000


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