On the 24th of April the European Forum for Democracy, Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Karl-Renner-Institut organized a book launch in Brussels. At the office of FEPS the book Problems of Representative Democracy in Europe. A Challenge for Progressives was presented to the Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans.
After a word of welcome by FEPS Secretary General, Ernst Stetter, the book was presented to the commissioner by vice president of the European Forum, Jan Marinus Wiersma. In a packed room, filled with over 100 attendees, Wiersma gave a brief overview of the topics in the book. The book is the result of a two year research project and contains a series of articles written by, mainly, young academics from inside and outside the EU. For two years the group discussed the problems of democracy in their respective countries and the publication is a reflection of that. What all the countries have in common are frustrated electorates, the rise of nationalism, right and left wing populism and the return of authoritarian government in places where democracy has ended up in a grey zone. These trends often go hand in hand with anti- European sentiments and diminished support for the enlargement of the EU. After receiving the book, commissioner Timmermans held his keynote speech.
During this speech Timmermans focused on several of the themes of the book. He started by sharing his thoughts on the state of Europe at the moment. With an interesting personal example, he managed to show the difference the EU has made in the last decades. He mentioned a recent trip with his sons to the Baltic states, and explained how he observed the progress that these countries have made over the last 20 years. According to Timmermans, nowadays we observe and accept the current situation within the EU as a ‘natural state’, without putting it into a historic perspective. He stated that it t is essential to keep comparing the current situation with the past, one can only see progress if it is being put in perspective: ‘You don’t see grass growing, but it still does’.
Timmermans did however not ignore the significant problems that Europe is facing. Apart from looking at the success Europe has produced, he also addressed the issues that European democracy is struggling with. He shed a light on the rise of extremism that is visible throughout the member states of the EU. According to the commissioner this is however not the main problem: ‘The biggest problem we have is not extremism, but it is indifference.’ According to the commissioner it is indifference that creates extremism, and indifference that is the main cause of several European problems. The indifference that can be observed among European citizens turned out to be at the core of Timmerman’s speech: ‘We need to stop people from being indifferent. ’
In the final part of the speech, Timmermans specifically addressed the current problems of representative democracy in the EU-member states. According to Timmermans representative democracy is under clear pressure. In line with the content of the book, Timmermans noted that the problems that the different member states face, have several similarities. While reflecting upon the problems that European democracies have to deal with, Timmermans compared democracy to talent shows on TV in which people get to vote via their cell phone’s. He pointed out that people like the fact that they can immediately observe that their voice is being heard, when it is directly transformed into a result. He believes that our society has gradually transformed from a ‘trust me’-society into a ‘show me’- society. According to the commissioner this is an image of democracy that frustrates reality of European democracy, and moreover it shows that there is a lack of direct democracy nowadays.
During the Q and A that followed the speech of the commissioner, the audience had the opportunity to direct questions at commissioner Timmermans. Several critical questions were posed about the direction of the EU, the solidarity within the Union and its economic policies. A passionate Timmermans managed to answer a series of questions before he was obliged to leave due this busy schedule. Moreover, while addressing a remark on the lack of opportunities for the younger generation, he also encouraged the ‘young generations’ to start organizing themselves: ‘If you want a system to be yours, you first need to adapt and take over the old one. Stop complaining, start organizing yourselves!’.
Right after the inspiring meeting, the participants got the chance to discuss the topics further during the lunch than concluded the successful meeting.