The EU has long neglected the building
up of a European demos, mainly on the grounds that it was not necessary, that
the EU could be based on the sharing of interests, could be merely an
"administrative state." To the extent that it paid mind to fostering a demos, it
was carried out by drawing on such inane measures as planting EU flags all over
the place and changing the license plates of cars. Student and scholar exchanges
were a bit more meaningful, but hardly did the trick. Most Europeans, these days
even the young ones, see themselves first of all as citizens of their nation,
not as "Europeans." Hence when the demands of the EU significantly clash with
the interests of their nation, they are willing to lend only rather limited
support to actions that would either rein in deviant behavior of member nations
or bail them out.
The contrast with true communities is stark. West Germans contributed the equivalent of one trillion dollars to the eastern parts, amidst some growling, but without much delay. "After all, they are Germans." Once every few years some journalist will point out that some American states, especially in the South, pay less federal taxes but collect a higher share of federal expenditures than other states. In response, most Americans shrug their shoulders: "We are all Americans."
If the EU is to survive the current multi-faceted deficit challenge and others sure to follow, it needs much more than a bunch of economic corrections and institution-building. It must build up the European demos to a point where members will not act in ways that threaten the community nor seek, in effect, to raid the treasuries of the more responsible members in favor of the irresponsible ones.
A good place to start is to conduct EU-wide referendums on the same day in all the member states on issues of great importance. For these referendums to get people involved, the results must be binding for the entire EU and cannot be second-guessed by the Commission or the EU Parliament. Good subjects are EU-wide policies concerning the ways to deal with illegal as well as legal immigrants, the membership of Turkey, the military involvement in Afghanistan, and ways to control nations that show early signs of irresponsible economic behavior, rather than looking the other way when they comply with limits on deficits by fudging the figures. Such engagement in significant collective issues will make citizens of the continent more European and less nation-bound.
Replacing the low-profile, low-key, low-demos-building president and foreign affairs chief with those who can speak effectively for Europe would also help. However, this puts the cart in front of the horse. First, Europeans must engage in consensus-building about their shared positions on key international issues.
If no meaningful demos-building takes place, the EU-and even the Euro-may well survive the current crisis, although it surely will emerge from it wounded, with citizens even more inclined to attend to their nation rather than to the larger community. In the longer run, though, the severe demos deficit will force a considerable scaling back of many EU endeavors.
The EU is now trying to stand between two stairs, that of a mainly economic and administrative union and that of a true, demos-based community. It is a rather precarious position.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and author of Political Unification Revisited (Lexington Books, 2001).