The folks at Greenpeace can never be accused of a lack of voluntarism. The Lisbon Treaty, in one of its mostly weak attempts to improve democratic legitimacy, created provisions for a citizens’ petition: if 1 million signatures from around Europe for a given cause, then European Commission must take it into consideration and formally response. Sure enough, Greenpeace got those signatures very quickly for a ban on Genetically-Modified Organisms, mostly grown in the Americas. Such a petition cannot force the Commission to do anything beside “respond,” which could easily be a formal letter to activists telling them to sod off.
The Commission decided that even this would be too great a concession. Though the Lisbon treaty has been in force for over a year, the precise technical provisions for a legitimate petition have not been established (e.g., from how many Member-States the signatures should be from, with what minimum threshold..). As a result, the Commission has deemed the Greenpeace petition void. Our good save-the-Earthers have been told to start again from scratch.
EU politics remains largely impervious to popular participation or even actual partisanship. The Commission maintains the aura of a technocracy (although it is actually too underfunded and understaffed to have real expertise in many areas, relying on national and corporate officials) while the dealings of the Council remain more in the realm of diplomacy than of politics. Only the Parliament is slightly better, but its colorful assortment of radicals (postcommunists, Greens, big-C conservatives and secessionists) are largely overshadowed by the gray consensus politics of the big political groups, composed in large part of nameless hacks and semi-retired politicians.
It is hard to engage the public when having an actual political debate has been made structurally impossible. I think this is not an oversight but a feature of the European political system, the national politicians who created it being just as eager to insulate themselves from popular pressures as were America’s Founding Fathers. These sorts of petitions, while they can be dangerous, represent one of the few outlets for democratic participation.
I am more enthusiastic about the proposal of the Socialists to nominate a candidate for President of the Commission whom they would elect if they win the 2014 parliamentary elections. The leader of our Union, then, would actually have to campaign and be elected with a platform. Oh my, what a strange concept. I’m sure we all preferred waiting for the White Smoke so that European diplomats and politicians could emerge from a caffeine-fueled late-night negotiations to solemnly declare which uncharismatic non-entity they collectively found least disagreeable.
The Socialists’ platform incidentally includes a tax on financial transactions, a commitment not to cooperate with neofascists and the creation of a “Employment and Social Progress Pact” to counter the European Central Bank’s deflationary stability pact. Whether or not they are good ideas, they at least form the basis of a project which, for or against, would legitimately give European citizens a reason to turn out in 2014. In the absence of any discernible projects or actual intelligible politics, the continuous decline in turn for European elections has been an inevitable product of the system.
Don’t get your hopes up though. The Socialists’ potential candidacy so far has attracted little attention, whether from media or even national politicians, and they previously failed to settle on a candidate in 2009. Who could be the candidate? I don’t know enough about the center-left politics in other countries to really say. But someone over-ambitious, a “big politician” of international stature, preferably speaking French, German, English and – why not – Italian, would be nice.