I’ll never forget my first visit to the European parliament, in 1986. I was a student from the Netherlands. MEPs from 12 member states were discussing a report on broadcasting policy – thick as a brick, full of jargon and endless footnotes – including proposals to break up national television channels, many of which enjoyed monopolies back then. For me, this was boring. All I cared about was funnelling it all into my thesis and graduating. For millions of people who spent hours in front of their TV it was potentially a huge issue – if only they’d known about it.
Nowadays such a topic could prompt great public debate, maybe even street protests. Who would have thought then that citizens would one day march against a free-trade agreement with Canada? That was before climate school strikes, and before anybody knew what data protection was.
In the 1980s the European parliament had little power. It could debate all it wanted, produce reports and pass resolutions. Yet it had little impact: national governments took all the decisions in Brussels virtually unchecked.
Last week’s EU election results prove that since my first brush with European democracy, we’ve come a long way. In three decades, Europeans have gone from boredom and neglect to something that has started to resemble a real political drama.
Back then we didn’t care much about this lack of accountability. Brussels looked remote. That didn’t mean we weren’t political. We would go to anti-nuke festivals, even in the pouring rain. We demonstrated against Pinochet and apartheid. My friends and I voted in every election. “Europe”, however, was not on our radar.
I moved to Brussels in 1999 to report on asylum and migration. This was already a hot topic, due to refugees from the former Yugoslavia and people crossing the Mediterranean in boats. I spent most of my time at the commission, which produced proposals on border protection and common asylum rules, and at the council of ministers, where member states later shot these proposals to pieces in relative secrecy. But I hardly ever went to parliament. It produced excellent reports on migration but only had advisory powers. MEPs felt useless and frustrated. Their voters were left in the dark.
This has completely changed: since the 2009 Lisbon treaty, MEPs co-decide with governments on asylum and migration. Today, not only does the European parliament have more legislative powers but there is also much more awareness of the big issues. Everybody understands that countries cannot tackle climate breakdown or Google on their own. Because of the euro we have a common monetary policy; because of Schengen we share an immigration policy; because banks trade across borders, we have European banking rules and supervision. In Brussels, ministers and prime ministers take decisions on sensitive issues that citizens care about, such as security and defence. Just as national parliaments control governments in The Hague, Lisbon or Bratislava, the European parliament controls them when they take decisions in Brussels.
This is how it should be: when our governments act in Brussels, there must be democratic control. That’s how democracy works – we have it at every level of governance, whether it’s municipal, regional, national or European. We just have to make sure that those levels are well-equipped with the tools that a mature and legitimate democracy needs: courts, governments, parliaments and oversight.
Before I arrived in Brussels, I had no clue how European laws were made. The Netherlands was one of the six founding members of the European Union, but these things were never taught at school. Our curriculum focused exclusively on national institutions, as if “Europe” wasn’t there.
That’s still largely the case. I recently read a book about the Netherlands that newcomers study when they want to become Dutch. This 237-page text, Welcome to the Netherlands, contains just two short paragraphs on “international cooperation”: one about the EU, the other about transatlantic relations.
That sort of ignorance is now being challenged by young people. Ask any teenager what their main concern is and they will tell you it’s the climate. Not buying a house within 10 years, but life on Earth, no less. They want to tackle these issues and they want to tackle them together. They understand there can only be cooperative solutions. It’s one of the reasons the elections were so lively this time around.
There were European talk shows, debates and podcasts everywhere. For the first time ever there was even a pan-European party, running in eight countries. Citizens have begun to realise that by acting together, they may lose power in national parliaments, but they gain power in the European parliament. Many have become aware that they are at once national and European citizens, and that those two things can coexist.
I regularly give lectures about European issues. Young audiences are suddenly extremely interested. They want to know how Brussels works, and how Europe can navigate in a turbulent geopolitical landscape with superpowers such as the US, Russia and China circling around it. They understand that they have something to preserve, and they don’t want their children to be forced to choose between an American and a Chinese model.
People will now speculate about who will become president of the commission or the council. That’s good news. If we all finally step on to the European podium, ready to engage – even Eurosceptic parties who were previously only interested in “exits” – surely that’s good for democracy. It increases democratic checks and balances in Europe, and the legitimacy of what’s decided in Brussels. Frankly, if someone had told me this back in 1986, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second.
Caroline de Gruyter a Dutch author, Europe correspondent and columnist for NRC Handelsblad.