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Monday 26 May 2014, David Bowden

Does the EU still stand for democracy and freedom?

Even after the 'Eurosceptic earthquake', politicians still seem reluctant to let The People have a say on the EU's future.

Following the success of UKIP and other nationalist parties in the European parliamentary elections last week, EU leaders have been under pressure to respond to the ‘Eurosceptic earthquake’. UK prime minister David Cameron has said the message of voters was ‘received and understood’ and vowed to stand up for Britain against ‘too big, too bossy, too interfering’ Brussels. French president François Hollande has declared the EU ‘remote and incomprehensible’, and even outgoing European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has called for a ‘truly democratic debate’ on the future of Europe.

Yet Europe’s voters may have to wait a while for any actual democratic debate. Cameron has rejected calls for an immediate referendum on UK membership of the EU, although he has reiterated a pledge for one in 2017. Instead, most of the reaction has centred on the familiar horse-trading over who the European Parliament elects as Commission president: yet the fact that televised presidential debates trialled last month attracted only a few thousand viewers from across Europe hardly suggests it’s a pressing issue for the electorate.

The anti-democratic tendencies of the EU itself, and the reluctance of successive national leaders across Europe to offer referendums on membership, has been the theme of a number of Institute of Ideas events in recent years. At the Battle of Ideas in 2012 we ran a strand of debates on the Battle for Europe looking at everything from the EU’s struggle to inspire popular enthusiasm to the rise of populist anti-EU parties across Europe. You can view a series of edited videos of the debates on our YouTube channel here.

The Institute also organised a special debate in Athens at the start of May, ahead of the elections. Held at the Free Thinking Zone bookshop, which has been a long-term supporter of our international programme of Battle Satellites, the panel discussion tackled the question ‘Does the EU stand for democracy and democracy?’ A diverse international panel of academics, journalists and political activists took part in a robust public debate on the EU’s democratic shortcomings and whether the European dream can be salvaged.

As one of the panellists, Dr Philip Cunliffe (senior lecturer at the University of Kent, Canterbury), noted, the lack of enthusiasm and engagement on display in most debates over Europe made a poor comparison to voters’ engagement with the elections taking place in India – the world’s largest democracy – at the same time.

You can watch a video of the debate here.

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