A new forum for Europe

June 5, 1998

Academics are one of the groups in society that is most integrated into Europe. Student and faculty exchange programmes such as Socrates or Tempus, collaborative research programmes, training and mobility schemes as well as the Jean Monnet initiative to encourage the teaching of European studies have contributed to the emergence of a trans-European academic community. The theory of the founders of the European Union, especially Jean Monnet, was that this type of integration at the level of economy and society would "spill over" into other areas and eventually create the basis for a political union.

This has not happened. Despite the fact that students and faculty are interconnected through EU programmes and electronic communication, this academic culture has not filtered through to the broader public which remains, by and large, preoccupied with national concerns.

A welcome innovation of the British EU presidency, designed to generate public debate about Europe, is the decision to host "People's Europe", which starts today, one week before the Cardiff Summit. At previous summits, parallel meetings have been held where non-governmental organisations, social movements, interest groups and intellectuals meet and put forward ideas and proposals. But there has never been an interaction between the official process and these parallel activities.

People's Europe is an attempt to stimulate the interaction between European institutions and European civil society, to start the process of constructing a public sphere where European issues are discussed and debated and where the concerns and ideas of various groups in society can be heard. Proponents of European political union argue quite rightly that what is needed is democratisation of EU institutions - more power to the parliament, an elected president and so on.

Undoubtedly, institutional reform is crucial. But this will not be achieved without political pressure. Moreover, in the complex insecure world of today where individuals are demanding greater personal autonomy and control over their lives, there need to be new forums for deliberation, new ways of harnessing social knowledge and of representing strands of opinion and interest that cannot always be captured by the formal democratic process.

People's Europe could offer one such mechanism. It began as a proposal by the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly to hold a large meeting of non-governmental organisations in parallel with the Cardiff Summit, as happened in Amsterdam. Negotiation with the government, the commission, and the parliament, who are jointly supporting the project, has produced a different and perhaps more interesting kind of experiment. The organisation People's Europe is now a coalition which includes representatives from all political parties in Britain and in the European parliament together with representatives from broad sectors of society - NGOs, academics, women's groups, the voluntary sector, trade unions, business, and local government.

The event will involve large plenaries, panels with speakers representing the groups involved in People's Europe, and self-organised workshops. The end result is going to be a fascinating mix of politicians, academics, free floating intellectuals, NGOs and others. Among the main British speakers are Neil and Glennys Kinnock, Michael Ignatieff, Jon Snow, as well as a range of academics including Elizabeth Meehan from Queen's University Belfast, Helen Wallace from Sussex University, Richard Layard from LSE, plus European academics, peace, anti-poverty and human rights activists, Roma representatives, trade unions, businessmen, farmers, and MEPs.

The conference has been organised in such a way as to encourage interaction with the presidency throughout the three days. The event is organised into four themes: democracy and citizenship, economy and employment, enlargement and external policy, and the environment. Each theme is organised by a working group which is preparing a background document on the main issues. The panels and workshops will report to a government minister. And in the closing plenary, the theme chairs will report on the new ideas put forward at the conference for the Cardiff Summit to Robin Cook.

Whether it works and whether it is the first of many such events depends to a large extent on the commitment of participants. I believe that academics have a particular role to play. They have the privilege of already being part of the European process and yet are not officially part of European institutions. They are able to act as independent commentators while at the same time having access to some of the loci of power at a European level. They are therefore in a position to provide a bridge between those people who are outside the European networks and still think in national terms and the European institutions and to animate a broad European public debate. People's Europe will be an excellent opportunity for bridge-building.

Mary Kaldor is co-chair of People's Europe with Shirley Williams. It will take place at the London School of Economics on June 5-7. For details, tel: 0171 833 1629, fax: 0171 833 1652.

See Perspective page 20 and 21.

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