Lessons from Switzerland for the EU

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Public Hearing on Direct Democracy and citizen participation

On Tuesday, 18 September 2012 Members of European Parliament, academics, practitioners and citizens met in the European Parliament in Brussels on the occasion of a public hearing on „Citizen participation – How can the European Union provide better possibilities for the participation of its citizens?”. Gerald Häfner, Chairperson of Democracy International and Member of European Parliament, had organized the event at which participants discussed the importance of direct democracy in the EU and how to establish more direct democracy and citizen participation at transnational level. 

The hearing had a strong input by academics from Switzerland, a non-EU Member State that extensively practices (modern) direct democracy since the 19th century. Swiss citizens Prof. Dr. Kirchgässner, Dr. Andreas Gross, Dr. Nadja-Braun-Binder and Bruno Kaufmann demonstrated how direct democracy could work in the European Union while presenting their specific expertise on the subject matter. Also, Ulrike Liebert, Theo Schiller and Christian Joerges – all professors from Germany - gave presentations.

Swiss direct democracy in the European Union?! 
Prof. Dr. Kichgässner showed how popular votes on financial issues help controlling public spending and creating a financial surplus in the Swiss cantons, the federal states of Switzerland. Doing so, the economist from the Swiss University of St. Gallen rebutted the common view that citizens’ direct decisions on budgetary spending lead to extraordinary debts. Instead, Kirchgässner suggested that EU citizens should have direct influence on spending their taxes through referenda at national level. Once direct democracy was transferred to the transnational level of the EU, the Member States would be the equivalent to the Swiss cantons where decisions on financial issues are taken in Switzerland. Theo Schiller equally referred to Switzerland as a best-practice-example of direct democracy. Also, the German professor from the University of Marburg gave a number of examples how different instruments of direct democracy (mandatory and facultative referenda, citizens’ initiatives, etc.) are used in Europe and the world.

Dr. Nadja Braun-Binder referred to her time of working with the federal chancellery of Switzerland administering initiatives and referenda. Drawing from this experience, Dr. Braun-Binder made four proposals for direct democracy at EU level:

1.    A referendum commission should provide independent information in clear and plain language. The commission must present pro and contra arguments in a fully balanced way. The referendum commission is constituted ad-hoc when initiative and referenda take place. 
2.    There is a permanent body to coordinate initiative and referenda, to advise and to formally control the procedures of direct democracy. This body must be politically independent and act on its own behalf.
3.    Signatures must be controlled and it must be made sure that only people who are entitled to vote can sign initiatives and referenda. 
4.    Legal and organizational rules must be followed in order to avoid manipulation.

Direct democracy and representative democracy in the EU!
At the hearing all experts agreed that direct democracy should complement the representative system of democracy in the EU and that direct democracy should not be there exclusively. Dr. Andreas Gross, member of the Social Democratic party in the Swiss House of Representatives and Swiss delegate to the Council of Europe, emphasized this point in his presentation. Gross made clear that direct democracy promotes issue-based discourses instead of people-based politics. Referring to the case of Switzerland that had developed a common identity despite of different languages and ethnic origins, Gross showed that a common European identity could also evolve with the help of direct democracy.

In a similar vein, Bruno Kaufmann, journalist and Director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, presented the European Citizens’ initiative as an example of transnational democracy that complements the classical EU legislative bodies such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. Bruno Kaufmann, who holds Swedish and Swiss citizenship, urged to improve the European Citizens’ Initiative and to build infrastructures of real information, education and support in order to dissolve the technocratic bias of the EU.

Deliberative democracy to reconcile conflicts 
Professors Ulrike Liebert and Christian Joerges presented a deliberative approach to participatory democracy in the EU, meaning that citizens’ will-formation takes place through discussions and debates. Both, Ulrike Liebert and Christian Joerges, started their remarks with the legal foundations of participatory and deliberative democracy as laid down in the Lisbon Treaty of the EU. In her presentation Ulrike Liebert argued that discussions among citizens serve as a means to reconcile conflicts between input and output legitimacy as well as conflicts between social and economic sides. As examples Ulrike Liebert referred to the European Stability Mechanism and the European Central Bank that had little democratic legitimacy. However, this lack of citizens’ input could be compensated with effective instruments of deliberative democracy. In this regard Liebert referred to Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty (Treaty on European Union) that foresaw an EU convention to guarantee discussions when changes are made to the Treaties of the EU.

European Parliament and/ or direct democracy?
The public hearing took place in the European Parliament – the core of representative democracy in the EU and hence the counterpart of direct democracy. From that perspective it was not surprising that Parliamentarians reassured the role of the European Parliament in the EU’s decision-making process in the debate that followed the presentations. Also, some Members questioned how direct democracy and the European Parliament could exist at the same time.

Theo Schiller and Nadja Braun-Binder had convincing arguments to clear these doubts. Theo Schiller argued that the role of MEPs would be to justify decisions once a facultative referendum did exist at EU-level. In that context Nadja Braun-Binder said that the most successful (facultative) referendum was the one that did not take place at all as the Members of European Parliament made the decisions according to the citizens’ needs.

This point made clear again that direct democracy and representative democracy do not exclude each other but lead to a better quality of democracy in the EU.

Text by Cora Pfafferott, src: http://www.democracy-international.org/hearing-participation.html