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Saving EU democracy: emotional intelligence or cold stupidity?

Heather Grabbe and Stefan Lehne claim in a new Carnegie Europe report and a shorter op-ed that all it needs to save EU democracy is ‘emotional intelligence’. I doubt that this is what we need, even if ‘emotional intelligence’ sounds nice.

The idea sounds nice, because the opposite of ‘emotional intelligence’ is probably ‘cold stupidity’, and who wouldn’t want the former over the latter?! But can this positive terminology hold up once the nice term is looked into more analytically?

The idea of emotional intelligence is translated into three different perspectives by Heather and Stefan, each of which is a trap into which the authors want us to fall because they sound just so good:

First, emotional intelligence is about individual stories and how the EU needs to take into account those individual life realities. By noticing personalities like Carl the Catalan and Simona the Slovak, the EU would finally realise how we have to communicate EU policies so that it is relevant to those outside the bubble. In political terms: Find the right target groups and adapt your political communication to them.

Second, emotional intelligence is about patterns of participation. If we just had more focus groups and more online communication, then every perspective could be heard and every point of view would become part of a more intelligent and more democratic policy-making. In political science terms: Get more input legitimacy.

Third, emotional intelligence is about social policies that matter for the lives of those sidelined in the current European society. If Europe wouldn’t just be about the evil market and would also be about the redistribution of wealth and Europe-wide unemployment benefits, then everyone would know why it’s good to participate in European democracy. In political science terms: Get more output legitimacy.

There are two arguments why those three are nice but simply impractical: complexity and scale.

Sure, you can try to understand the stories and personal perspectives of 500 million EU citizens, each of them with their own dreams, hopes, personal stories, plans and worries. But the challenge of building democracy is how to aggregate them into popular will.

Sure, you can try to put representative people in to focus groups, but who is representative? And who makes this choice? And are there enough focus groups for each individual issue that is regulated?

Sure, you can do more online involvement, but if even just 10 million EU citizens participated in each online public consultation, which institution let alone individual politicians would be able to handle that? And even if they were able to handle that, how to deduct a common will, a common political direction, incremental or not, from such large-scale participation?

And sure, you could convince Europeans that European democracy is great by introducing common welfare, a common military, a common language, all of which would make people realise that we are one people that needs democracy to organise all this. But how do you know what system to introduce when you don’t have the means to generate a democratic choice about that system?

I’m not arguing that we don’t have this system with the European Parliament and national parliaments, but the authors seem to imply that this is not working, this is not enough.

You may ask: So what is your solution, smart-a##?

I’m not the one to defend the European Commission, but the recent buzzword “big on big things, small on small things”, which is effectively the practical translation of the Euro-slang word ‘subsidiarity’, seems the much better solution.

Building a political system that regulates and supervises regulation for 500 million people is not about emotional intelligence, because no political leader or political body can have an emotional connection with all of those people. Individual stories, better online participation, social policies are all nice and important, but they are not the solution to European democracy.

What I’m arguing in a sense is that the higher the political level, the less emotional intelligence makes sense. Making policy for 500 million people is about solving problems that go beyond emotion and individual intelligence. It’s about identifying problems that go beyond borders and addressing them with policies that are (a) acceptable to a double majority of people and (b) that actually solve them.

To shape policies at this level you have to work with idealisations, stereotypes, simplifications – just like the hypothetical personalities in Heather’s and Stefan’s report are just stereotypical views on abstractions of human beings.

To come to these abstractions, we need representative systems that put people into power who are legitimate to make those choices for us, and we need elections through which we can get rid of those people when we are dissatisfied with their choices. Stories and public consultations can give hints about what mood there is, they can help to gather facts and realise just how complex problems are. But just like press reports transport certain moods to policy-makers (and thus shape how they think and work), this kind of input does not automatically create legitimacy.

Only at the lowest levels of government, the local level, where leaders can speak with a representative share of their constituents, direct participation, human stories and social policies make sense in the way proposed by Heather and Stefan, because at this level politics can be built on a meaningful concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ in real human interactions that don’t break down due to scale.

But sure, ‘emotional intelligence’ still sounds better than ‘cold stupidity’, and so pushing for the former is definitely nicer than arguing for the latter.

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