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Europe’s wake-up call

BRUSSELS—There’s a silver lining to the dark clouds of populist Euroskepticism crowding in on the European Union. In Brussels and a number of Europe’s capitals, leaders know that the European Union must respond to mounting discontent, and that—at long last—there is political capital to be gained in doing so.

The catalyst has been the United Kingdom’s often-nonsensical “Brexit” debate. The arguments of “Leave” campaigners are frequently inaccurate, when they are not outright lies; but the furious debate in Britain over whether to remain in Europe has laid bare the European Union’s deep-seated weaknesses—and has forced European leaders to stop ignoring them.

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The rise of Europe’s populist parties is exerting similar pressure across the continent. And yet, though feared, they have scant political credibility; the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers, by contrast, include government ministers who count the European Union’s supposedly undemocratic decision-making among its main shortcomings.

In fact, the European Union’s chief failures have little to do with democracy. The chaos of the refugee and migrant crisis, Europe’s inadequate response to the Arab Spring of 2011, the Ukraine crisis three years later, and Russia’s assertiveness cannot be blamed on how it reaches decisions. But they do underscore its inability to react quickly and decisively. Worse still, they highlight its failure to head off trouble by agreeing on clear economic and security strategies.

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Nonetheless, democracy is key to the European Union’s future. For years, critics have pointed to Europe’s “democratic deficit.” The Council of Ministers—which, together with the European Parliament, makes up the European Union’s legislature—is as impenetrably secretive as that of North Korea; indeed, it operates behind closed doors, without any public record of who said what.

There have been modest moves to increase the European Parliament’s powers, but they have not been recognized sufficiently by the European public to quiet complaints. Mollifying voters’ antipathy to the European Union will require substantial change, and that uncomfortable truth is beginning to dawn on Europe’s mainstream politicians.

EU governments’ main fear has been that a vote for Brexit on June 23 will unleash a stream of copycat referendums elsewhere. It certainly would deal a devastating blow to EU credibility, both in its member-states and abroad.

But a British decision to remain would be almost as bad, if the EU institutions in Brussels simply heaved a sigh of relief and returned to business as usual, leaving dysfunctional structures untouched. In that case, the populists would use the bogeyman of the EU “superstate” to gnaw away at mainstream parties’ grassroots support.

What sort of democratic reform, then, might be envisaged? The last time this question was asked was in 2005, when French and Dutch referendums torpedoed the European Union’s proposed constitutional treaty. The European Union was at its apogee at the time, lifted by the new euro and the ambitious “Big Bang” eastward enlargement of 2004; so the chances of securing change today, when the European Union is at its nadir of popularity, would at first sight seem even more unlikely.

In fact, the opposite could be true. When the “European project” was thriving, only a few visionaries saw the need for centralizing more powers. It may look counterintuitive, but Europe’s falling productivity and shrinking workforce signal even tougher times ahead and strengthen the case for a European Union that is more efficient, as well as more democratically responsive.

And that’s the trickiest question of all. How can the European Union transform ramshackle decision-making mechanisms that have been rejigged and subject to makeshift additions for almost

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40 years into an efficient, working democracy? Standing in the way is the prized sovereignty of 28 countries with very different political cultures and a host of conflicting national and regional interests. There are no obvious models to draw on.

Political scientists have suggested scores of ideas, ranging from the reintroduction of double mandates (giving national MPs a seat in the European Parliament) to the creation of an EU Senate in a bicameral system. But the details of a more democratic European Union, in which the Commission would be made truly accountable to the public, are less important than the political will to move forward.

Most of Europe’s national governments, whatever their political color, have long opposed a more streamlined and democratic European Union. Now, though, they must choose between being outflanked by Euroskeptic parties on both the far Left and far Right, or responding to that threat by creating a supranational democracy that can satisfy voters’ legitimate concerns.

The 2003 European Convention that produced the ill-fated EU Constitution offers no blueprint for the future. Its convoluted business was conducted largely out of sight. To stem mounting criticism of “Europe,” the European Union needs the coup de théâtre of an open debate involving civil society, not just a handful of political representatives. Its premise must be that the European Union is heading toward dissolution, and that only by becoming more responsive to Europe’s citizens can it reverse the trend. Project Syndicate

Giles Merritt is the author of “Slippery Slope: Europe’s Troubled Future,” recently published by Oxford University Press.

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