|by Steven Attard,
||Apr 29, 2004
FACED WITH A YAWNING DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT, THE POLITICIANS OF EUROPE HAVE OFFERED CITIZENS THE RIGHT TO PETITION
“I have reached the peak of desperation!” In March 2000, 300 unemployed Romanian miners, passed through the mining valley of Lupeni to the town to support their 12 colleagues, who were about to set fire to themselves. Something had gone wrong.
“I have 8 children and I have nothing to feed them with. I’d rather die than see them die.” Outside the town’s cultural centre, the group of twelve, including three women, burnt themselves in protest. The government had once again ignored their petition for jobs, for social protection, or even just a simple reply to their concerns.
Such an “effective” means of democratic expression had been ignored, and the tragic consequence was a tragic act of desperation. Some days later, after presenting another petition that went unnoticed, four other miners followed the example.
These incidents show the extremes to which citizens may be forced to go to make their opinion felt. The right to petition in this case was pure diversion, an attempt to deflect from the lack of democratic accountability and open governance.
EUROPEAN CONSTITUTION 2003
The authors of the European Union’s proposed constitution have been accused of failing to set the popular debate alight. Democracy in Europe today is challenged by the effects of the “war on terror” on civil rights and the far right, but also the apathy of European citizens. Most do not take the opportunity to vote- the last European Parliament elections mark a nadir of participation- a far extreme from self-immolation. There is particular disinterest with the project of European Union and politics in Brussels. Those that do care, look upon the unworthy compromises between national ministers with added scepticism.
In the Convention on the future Europe, a compromise has been reached which maintains the superiority of national politicians. The system has been oiled and stabilised, not overhauled. The European Parliament is still not strong enough to motivate emotional debate during elections. MEPs cannot fruitfully declare their position on the situations that mobilise activism, like lately globalisation and the war in Iraq. To compensate, and “to bring Europe closer to the people”, Article II-44 offers citizens the right to propose legislation or policy by gathering 1 million signatures across five member states.
This has to potential to change our society at a local level, our friends and family, local organisations, schools and businesses. Whatever field one is active in, for that which is important to us, the right to petition gives us the important right to communicate directly to the European Parliament, the body responsible for many of such legislation that will be affecting us in the future.
Generally uninterested by political issues, most Europeans might ask whether this new Constitutional proposal from Brussels is something that should arouse their interest or not. After all, many feel that foreign policy and large institutions barely touch the day-to-day problems our society is facing.
YOUR NAME IN EUROPE
The European Convention is proposing a much deeper and further integrated European Union that will, in the future, be affecting almost every part of our lives. From impoverished miners dissatisfied with social conditions, to the local community parish priest and our children’s education, one will soon find every way to link these situations we face, to the policies written by our representatives in Brussels.
The European Convention is not asking us to become more politically minded. Artists, entrepreneurs, teenagers and parents alike are being given a fresh opportunity to participate in the decision-making process of the European Parliament. Decisions taken at that level affect us directly, impact our local society and cover a range of issues that directly and personally affects our lives.
“The new constitution recognises for the first time the importance of regional and local government in Europe,” says Andrew Duff, Member of the European Parliament. “Government at European level will have greater direct impact on local affairs than ever before, and it is vital that EU policy makers [push] decision-making as close to the citizen as possible.”
Many cannot see the connection between Brussels and their local community. After the convention on the Future of Europe, the EU is no longer a large unidentified political object, but something that all the residents of our local communities will have the possibility to be responsible for. The right to petition the European Parliament gives local associations, children’s schools, your place of work, your family, your church and gives us as individuals a direct stake in European decision-making.
Indeed, over the past 3 years, the European Parliament, through its current system, has received over four thousand petitions from citizens and organisations across the European Union. Sixteen Romanian miners might have found hope in this European system. Hundreds of others could still find ways to think otherwise.
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