The European Commission’s White paper on governance is considered to be an important part of the legitimizing strategy favoured by the commission: as a first preparatory step before the constitutional negotiations, it outlines the Commission’s outlook on the normative principles that should guide European governance in the years to come – what is more, a version of that outlook that has not yet been affected by compromise and negotiation, as in the later stages of the constitutional process[1].

The White paper starts out by listing five principles that are taken to represent the basis of good governance: openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence. The first two stand out. Openness is understood as the requirement that “the European institutions should attach more importance to transparency and communication in their decision-making”, while participation means that “citizens must be more systematically involved in the drafting and implementation of policies”[2]. The changes proposed in light of these principles have a strong ring to them. For instance: “Policies should no longer be decided at the top. The legitimacy of the EU now lies with the participation of its citizens.[3]” This reads like an implicit criticism of what we have described as the ‘Saint-Simonian’ aspects of European integration. We saw Lamy describe these same aspects under the heading of ‘Monnet’s approach’, and Myrto Tsakatika likewise describe attempts to secure legitimacy by bringing about peace and prosperity through European integration as “the Monnet plan”[4]. She sees the White paper as wavering between Monnet and Maastricht, where the latter represents the moment at which the societal criticisms facing this mode of legitimacy began to have European repercussions[5]. It seems questionable, however, if such a shift occurs in the White paper. For it conceives of citizen participation along the lines of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society. In other words, increased participation does not concern individual citizens: instead, it entails an invitation to NGOs to ‘think about’ specific problem definitions that have been determined in advance[6]. Said NGOs, and the executives that select them, “mostly account for their status as representing a section of the population by reference to a notion of the common good defined in essentialist terms” – note the Rousseauian overtones – or by reference to a large number of donors and members[7]. The invited groups are “well-equipped” [gut augestatteter] and large organizations[8]. This seems closer to an extension of the self-immunizing trends we have described in previous sections than an alleviation of them. I offer two reasons in support of this claim. First, the notion of the common good that enters into this specific participatory practice is not the result of will-formation by the full relevant community of citizens, so that ‘the participation of European citizens’ is not only not secured, but feigned in a posture of compromise. It is the same old output legitimacy trying on the clothes of its input-oriented brother: “optimizing output through the mediation” of carefully selected networks and expert groups[9]. Once again, the underlying mechanisms are not being put up for discussion. Second, because the problem definitions have been determined in advance, Rancière’s worst fears are confirmed. The mode of consensus, in his sense of the term, can do no more than reduce politics to police, as we have seen, thus accounting for “an effective depoliticization”[10].

In these two ways, European participatory governance constitutes a disappearance of the demos from the political process. Participation in this restricted sense optimizes output and facilitates implementation, since ‘civil society’ is already on board. The chosen representatives will in turn internalize a form of good, uncontroversial behaviour that will allow them to maintain their insider position and the associated competitive advantages[11]. Contingency and agonism are thus forced out of politics: “A suppression [Ausblendung] of conflicting opinions and interests”, the substitution of “administrative modes of operation” and their dialogical embellishments instead of political action[12].

Theda Skocpol describes such depoliticization of civil society, albeit in an American context, as the most important symptom of the transformation of membership society to management society. Institutions along the lines of active government for her is crucial to building the conditions for a public sphere that allows for the construction of collective identities: if we recall, this was the initial problem that confronted European attempts to attain input legitimacy. Skocpol describes the withdrawal of voluntary federations with many members, tightly integrated in their respective communities: they have been superseded by professionally managed NGOs[13]. This professional management and the shift from membership to management more broadly means that activists no longer learn the political handywork involved with trying to gain followers regionally for one’s position: the “organizational skills” and “capacities for representative majoritarian leadership, as well as politically relevant personal political capacities”[14]. The voluntary association is, in Schlessinger’s phrase, a “school for democracy[15]”. As Michelsen and Walter comment, only by involving oneself in this kind of political work does it become apparent that the pragmatic procedures of everyday politics are not the result of a dark conspiracy by a circle of elites: an insight that, according to them, has been forgotten by today’s morally inspired but insipid ‘slacktivists’[16].

This analysis adds another feature to the double bind of Europe’s non-existing European public sphere: in the very attempt to involve citizens, it ‘involves’ them in a way that continues to steer towards output rather than input legitimacy. By so doing, European politics only exacerbates the distance between civil society as a whole and political institutions. It thus represents continually re-emphasizes the replacement of politics by administration, which leaves behind at most a “diminished democracy”[17].

This provides the last puzzle piece in our search for aspects of depoliticization in European politics. The strategy of the European Commission as summarized in the White paper on governance only feigns participation. It puts the demos at a further remove in two ways: first, by forming it in its own image – well-equipped NGOs that claim to defend the public good or simply enjoy great (financial) backing – and second, by restricting its access to pre-defined problem definitions in the mode of what Rancière calls consensus. Because this consensus effects a certain kind of discipline, which is interiorized by the participants, civil society insofar as it is allowed to have a semblance of political activity becomes depoliticized: politics is turned into administration and police. This serves to deepen the disconnect between citizens and political institutions, since there are no channels through which to approach said institutions in a political manner. This in turn means that citizens are left without avenues to acquire crucial political skills and see politics as the ‘distant other’ to which they have no access. Since there is more than a kernel of truth in that description of affairs, the necessity of opting for output-oriented means of acquiring legitimacy continually reinforces itself by actively impeding alternative means.

[1] Tsakatika 2005, 195

[2] European Commission 2001

[3] ibid

[4] Tsakatika 2005, 197

[5] ibid, 200-204

[6] Michelsen & Walter 2013, 79

[7] ibid

[8] ibid, 80; see also Greven 2007, 236

[9] Michelsen & Walter 2013, 80

[10] Rancière 2004, 7-8

[11] Michelsen & Walter 2013, 80

[12] ibid, 80-81

[13] cf. ibid, 89-90

[14] Skocpol 2004, 100; 104

[15] ibid, 106

[16] Michelsen & Walter 2013, 90

[17] Skocpol 2004


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s