Challenge for Europe

Since its inception, the European Union has been founded on the principle of subsidiarity: it is preferable to give member states the maximum possible autonomy, unless it is strictly necessary to the cohesion of the union to manage an issue on the European scale. This principle has been applied since the pooling of coal and steel production begun. After the failure of the European Defense Community in 1953, the responsibility for organizing the necessary conditions for an expanded and unified market became the sole and exclusive competency of the European Commission.

Many different systems, one common principle

Member states of the Union have political traditions and models of governance that are very different from one another. The German model is founded on subsidiarity according to a federal model in which the Landers jealously ensure that the Federal state does not encroach on their prerogatives. According to the French model, traditionally Jacobin, it is the republic, alone and indivisible, who takes precedence, even if a vast movement of decentralization began there in the 1970s. Regarding the Spanish model, different levels of autonomy exist as a function of history and cultural particularities. Despite these contrasts, we can observe that all these regimes have one principle in common: they consider that each of society’s questions can be treated at a single level. Consequently, they allocate exclusive competencies to different levels of governance and each suspects the others of wanting to encroach upon their jurisdiction.

The functioning of the European Union rests on the same hypotheses even though they correspond less and less to our multilevel reality. Since the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, released the white book on governance in 2000, all the Jean Monnet chairs (academics) emphasized the inappropriateness of this model. Member states were above all else worried about regaining power in the face of growing influence of the European Commission. As they fought to have only weak Commission Presidents and give prominence back to the Council of heads of state over the Commission and the Parliament, they were obliged to reaffirm the idea that the competencies of the commission could only be applied to a limited and self-contained list of subjects.

“All Market” cannot be the historic raison d’être of the European Union; History and European governance carried Europe towards market integration

The inappropriateness of the fit between the common way of thinking about European governance and the reality of our society has a paradoxical consequence: giving way too much credence to economic considerations. This preeminence has a historic explanation: the failure of the European Defense Community in 1953 convinced the founding fathers of Europe that the construction of a European body politic was premature. This is why they decided to build the European Union economically. The choice was pragmatic and reasonable at the time but the historical consequences cannot be underestimated today. The commission is relying systematically on its exclusive area of competence, the economy, to build Europe. And since this presupposes the harmonization of competition conditions, Europe is used to considering the directive on competition as the best way of governing. It is this mechanism, even more so than ideology, that eventually fed the impression that Europe is and can never be anything but a giant market. This feeling contradicts both European history and with the nature of its political regimes, nor it does not correspond to the demands of Europeans, or at least the majority of them. Services of general interest (SGI), which are assumed to be created for fairness and long-term competitiveness, are seen as a legitimate by product of the project of putting everything on the market. This system impacts on the functioning of the European Commission, with its systematic tender procedures which are beginning to negate the importance of acquisition processes. All of this has come to manifest itself in the defiance of European citizens with respect to the European Union which is often suspected of having been sold to big business.

Open Concertation: a system to bring dialogue

Yet the European Union is increasingly something different and much better than a giant market. It proclaims without end and with good reason that it is at the same time a place of diversity and unity. In fact, because of the diversity of its political traditions, it offers a wide palette of experiences that can benefit everyone. From health systems to education systems, from sustainable development to the job market, Brussels is an irreplaceable site for the exchange of ideas, far better, for example than the space that the OECD provides. It is also that the method called open concertation is gradually spreading. Across these “family reunions” which are held over several years, a real human community – as opposed to an institutional one – can slowly be built. This will be a community where we learn by candidly confronting different points of view, with everyone refusing to be the spokesperson for their country in order to recognize what they can learn from others thanks to the confidence created between parties. This method of open concertation reflects how the exchange of experiences brings better resolutions: it allows us to gradually free ourselves from our particular contexts and discover general principles conditioning success or failure rather than recipes applicable to everyone. Only experience allows us to discover these general principles. Curiously enough, even within the European Commission, we seem to underestimate the importance of these approaches, seeing only a pale substitute for the real and only way of exercising power which consists in the proclamation of uniform directives. The future of European governance is inventing itself today.

Today’s social problems can no longer be treated at a single level. The search for the ideal level, the one that some call the “pertinent territory” for each problem, is destined to failure. For example, the management of water needs to be undertaken from communities on up to the largest European watersheds. Management of the fight against social exclusion, of economic development or of health can no longer be thought of at a sole level or in a lone sector of governance. Wanting to attribute exclusive competencies at each level of administration gives the illusion of clarifying everyone’s jurisdiction but in reality it is a battle lost in advance: the secret of governance today is to articulate the competencies of different levels in an ordered way in order to permit them to work in synergy.

Our Proposal:

Making the competencies of different levels work in synergy is so well recognized that we seem to talk about nothing but “multi-level governance” anymore. Founding European governance on the principle of active subsidiarity is the way to overcome the current contradiction and fully assume multi-level governance. Two conceptual breaks with the past are necessary for this to take place.

The first, already well engaged in the facts, concerns the meanings we derive from our political decisions. According to the adage “governing is choosing,” this representation is often polarized from the moment a decision is made. Hence the strange term “decision-makers” to talk about political representatives, like they were machines built to choose between two or three alternatives that were presented and automatically pick the best. It is not enough to pick “off the shelf” policy solutions! In reality, the more a system is complex the more you need to give attention to the processes through which a satisfactory solution emerges, through balancing different points of view and the different interests that are present. This type of process seems less glorious than the great volountary speeches and more fruitful, too, since it seeks to generate win-win situations, and because it builds community. In fact, this process develops collective work habits, accepts that other interests can be equally legitimate and prefers consensus over conflict. Finally it is more successful because in such a collective process, we can learn much better from the lessons that experience has taught us.

The second innovation is to translate the idea of multilevel governance into law and practice. This is what the principle of active subsidiarity expresses: it regulates relations between levels of governance. Like the principle of subsidiarity, it affirms that it is always preferable to find solutions at the lowest possible level, so diversity is a blessing and not a curse. But, differing from subsidiarity, active subsidiarity affirms that in order to ensure cohesion throughout an entire system, solutions invented at the bottom need to take a number of demands expressed at a higher level into account. We call these “results due.” These obligations enunciated at a higher level do not fall out of the sky. They are themselves invented collectively on the basis of conclusions that result from the exchange of experiences and the method of open concertation.

It is by following these two adaptations that Europe will find a vision and the path to innovation in governance, a path necessary for Europe and the rest of the world. Today, the European construction remains the example throughout history which might support the invention of global governance on the scale of the challenges of the 21st century.

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