June 19, 2002

International Conference of IRI Europe at the Embassy of Switzerland in Germany at Berlin

Statement by AG, Vice-president of the Council
of Europe and IRI Europe Research Director

What Direct Democracy has to offer to the European integration process

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at the Swiss Embassy on the potentials of Direct Democracy for European integration.

My lecture consists of several thesis:

1. Europe needs democracy, but democracy also needs Europe. If democracy remains limited to the national states, then democracy will erode just as fast as the autonomy of the national states have eroded already. Democracy must be installed at all political levels, where decisions which affect the life of people are made.

2. A democracy is never 'finished'. We have to keep on building on our democracy to keep it democratic.

3. A Direct Democracy is somewhat less unfinished than a only representative democracy. Representative democracy is a condition for and a part of Direct Democracy, but Direct Democracy is a little step further.

4. Direct Democracy is the antithesis to the banalisation of politics. Direct Democracy opens up potentials of society which would remain unrealised in a representative system.

5. Direct Democracy on the municipal, provincial and national level can provide citizens with the democratic self-confidence and consciousness which they need to believe that a Direct Democracy at the European level is possible.

6. The question of what Direct Democracy can offer to the European integration process is very pertinent. Citizens see the European Union as a technocratic elite project. The European Union plays no role in the political discussion of citizens. Direct Democracy can produce the debate needed to get citizens involved in the project of European integration.


If the European Union remains undemocratic, the result can be a dangerous re-nationalisation of the Europe policies and politics. Because if people should choose between democracy and the European Union, they will choose the former. They choose democracy, but fall in the trap, that where they think democracy is - on the national level - the real power is not anymore, and where the real power is, democracy is not yet. Thus the trans-national space needs to be democratised.

The position of the Convention on the Future of Europe is ambivalent. The European governments can do with the outcome of the Convention what they want. The vice chairman of the Convention, Amato, spoke in the Council of Europe on the need for a European constitution as well as a two chamber system, such as the United States and Switzerland. For the majority of the Convention members, this is still a bridge too far. The Convention offers a major opportunity, however, to renew the European Union and install instruments of Direct Democracy there.


Direct Democracy is an ensemble, consisting of several instruments which support and enhance each other. Which instruments out of this ensemble should be integrated on the EU level in a trans-national, federal constitution?

1. The obligatorial constitutional referendum, which means that every constitutional topic - such as the introduction and the change of an EU constitution - should always be approved by the voters in a referendum.

2. The so called double majority, which means that not only a majority of the European citizens should vote in favour but also a normal or qualified majority of the member states.

3. The popular initiative, which gives citizens the right to present a proposal for a constitutional amendment or revision to their fellow citizens through a referendum.

The popular initiative is clearly the most important of all, as it is the central instrument of Direct Democracy. Because by an initiative citizens may not only vote on propositions made by governments and parliaments but also on ideas, projects and revisions born in their one communities; they come out of the people and are voted by the people. Through the initiative, citizens may propose changes to the constitution of the EU and alter and expand their direct-democratic rights. The popular initiative is the main constituent of the sovereignty of the citizenship.


Direct Democracy is not simply a matter of being for or against something. Direct Democracy is a process which can provide many different benefits. The design of the process is crucial for achieving these potential benefits. Direct Democracy can produce 5 main benefits:

1. Closeness to the citizens. In a Direct Democracy, politicians have to leave their ivory tower and reach out to the citizens. The political sphere is opening up for the citizens.

2. Legitimacy. As citizens can decide directly on political issues, a Direct Democracy is more legitimate than a system in which they can only choose between their rulers, who are nevertheless all entitled to take decisions which are not approved by the citizens.

3. Transparency. A Direct Democracy leads to openness and more information, so that citizens know better what is going on.

4. Identification. If citizens have real possibilities to participate, then the political sphere becomes their sphere too and they are able to a higher identification with it.

5. A reflexive public sphere. In a Direct Democracy, their is more debate, more exchange, and more learning processes. The political elite does not have the privilege not to have to learn now and then.


If I should work this out, then I come to 11 main products which Direct Democracy may bring to the European integration:

1. More attention of the political elite for the ideas and aspirations of citizens.

2. Better perception of the citizens by the politicians.

3. Less distance between citizens and politics. The political sphere is opened up for the citizens, and politicians have to leave their ivory tower and reach out to the public.

4. More communication between citizens and politicians. If I know that citizens can reject my proposal, then I better involve them in the draft proposal so that the risk of a rejection becomes smaller.

5. More competent citizens. More instruments of participation means more learning processes for citizens. They will become 'better citizens' through this.

6. A higher motivation for citizens to participate in politics. Being able to take the final decisions ensures that their involvement can lead to real results.

7. More communication, more debates. This leads to more new insights, both for politicians and for citizens.

8. If citizens are more informed and all actors know more of each others needs, hopes, deficits and problems the society is more able to learn, we approach more a learning society which is perhaps the thing we need most today.

9. If Europe gets more legitimacy, it may also get more power to civilise the markets in a way that the become more compatible with the social needs of the people and the conditions for a sustainable envirement and may respect also more the needs of all Non-Europeans.

10. A democratic Europe may also show to the world how the globalisation of democracy and the democratisation of the globalisation is possible without producing a centralistic power nobody may control.

11. The biggest and most valuable result of a well designed Direct Democracy on the European level is that it creates a real integration force for the people who will realise this integration in the less enforced way.


If a direct democratic polity is able to produce these contributions is dependent totally from the design of the constitution in general and direct-democratic part of it. May I refer to a better understanding of this hypothesis to the first report the IRIE just produced. But if the design of the direct-democratic polity on the European level is made as the one we have in France, Italy or on the sub-national level in Germany we will never get any benefit for the European Integration out of it and the whole effort would not be useful


Many people oppose a European Constitution because they believe that this is forcing a uniform regime upon all and will wipe out diversity. This would be a fundamental misconception of federal politics, democracy and also of the market-forces. But in an authentic federalist state, this is not the case: the cantons in Switzerland remain themselves but nevertheless take part in something bigger. One can even go further and come to the insight that a Constitution is protecting this diversity instead of suppressing it.


I come to my conclusions. We need the right speed when we want to democratise the European Union. The right speed and the right moment are crucial things in a Direct Democracy.

We have to go only slowly: so slow, that everybody can come along. The largeness of Europe is not the main problem. This morning I spoke to Joschka Fischer, German Minister of the Exterior. He said: a Direct Democracy with 500 million people is not possible. But size and geography are not the problem: For egoistic, non-communicative, uninformed and not educated people even the smallest village is to big for democracy. If you think about the quality of our schools, media, newspapers and the development of our civil societies today it is easier to think about the constitution of a Direct Democracy on the European Level of 25 nations today then 1793, when Condorcet proposed Direct Democracy to France or 1848 when Switzerland organised its first constitutional referendum.

The second major argument against a European Direct Democracy is the lack of a European-wide public sphere and the non existing European community which develops solidarity to each other. But a European Direct Democracy is typically qualified to fill these deficits which are the consequence of the lack of a trans-national democracy and the lack of a European federal constitution. The lack of Direct Democracy is the reason and the cause of the problem; if you make out of these reasons a condition you will never get a European democracy: Because a public sphere and a community feeling are the consequences of the a well designed and lived democracy. If you want them you cant avoid trying democracy; if you try direct Democracy the chance that you get them is higher.

Andreas Gross


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