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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 27-30

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Democratic Citizenship in Today's Europe

Bernard P. Dauenhauer

The complex phenomenon of globalization, with its economic, military, environmental, and cultural implications, has clearly eroded the capacity of individual states to effectively govern their people in a number of important parts of ordinary life. But it also holds promise of improving the quality of life for many people in ways that individual states cannot be expected to do. As a consequence, globalization has motivated a search for alternative forms of political organizations than those that characterize traditional states.

The European Union can rightly be regarded as a kind of live experiment for coping with at least some dimensions of globalization, an experiment conducted by states that are all democratic. But it has become commonplace to say that the EU suffers from a "democratic deficit." It is a transnational political entity that has made significant inroads into the sovereignty of its member states. But it and its agents are said not to be appropriately accountable to its citizenry. The debate about whether the EU's structure can accommodate the changes that would be necessary to eliminate this "deficit" remains vigorous.

In this paper I will address this issue obliquely. I will first sketch the debate about whether the EU is or can be made genuinely democratic. Then, accepting the assumption that globalization does demand some significant constraints on the conduct of individual states, I will propose a normative view of how state citizenship ought to be conceived and practiced if there is to be an effective democratic response to globalization. I do not claim that the implementation of this view of citizenship is sufficient to insure democracy. I only claim that it is more conducive to that goal than any available competitor. Furthermore, this view does not provide an answer to the important question whether the EU or some alternative form of association of states is most conducive to democracy. Rather, it shows the traits that citizens ought to have if they are to answer this question responsibly.

Consider now the debate about whether the EU does or can be reformed to eliminate any democratic deficit. David Weinstock argues that the kinds and strengths of obstacles that large modern states have to overcome to be genuinely democratic are no less substantial than those facing transnational polities such as the EU. Like the EU, these states must (1) deal with self-seeking by some citizens who have no regard for others, (2) conduct debates and make decisions about distributive justice despite the lack of generally agreed upon convictions about the goods to be allotted, and (3) cope with the linguistic and cultural diversity as well as the geographical expanses over which their citizens are spread. 1 He concludes: "The planners of transnational democracy can learn from the institutional mechanisms through which their predecessors at the national level succeeded in overcoming these obstacles in significant measure." 2

Weinstock himself acknowledges that his argument is primarily negative and largely formal. Its aim is simply to show that there are no insuperable obstacles to a transnational polity such as the EU being genuinely democratic. David Held, though, defends a stronger thesis. Without focusing specifically on the EU, Held contends that the individual state is no longer able to protect the full set of rights that democratic citizens ought to have. Therefore, there ought to be transnational polities and institutions to provide and protect these rights.

The very idea of democracy, Held says, demands autonomous citizens, citizens who freely choose the conditions of their own association. These choices "should constitute the ultimate legitimation of the form and direction of their polity." 3 He would guarantee citizen autonomy through "democratic public law," a body of rights and obligations that belong to every citizen of every democratic state. Creating this public law is the task for democratic polities everywhere. And because individual states, as a consequence of globalization, are no longer able fully to enforce this law, its enforcement ought to be entrusted to supranational institutions. This law ought to be inscribed...


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