Democracy International: In your opinion, why do we need to democratise the world?
Erwin Mayer: Democracy enables people to decide about what really matters for them. Democracy is a precondition for liberty and justice. Of course every form of democracy is better than dictatorship or monarchy. But even so-called western parliamentarian democracies have a high potential to improve the sovereign's influence on the legislative process. People have the right to vote for parties in western style democracies. Yet, their real influence on pure parliamentarian and governmental orientated democracies is low. Concentration of governmental power is heavily linked to lobby interests. Global decisions are taken far away from the reach of parliamentarian and even further away from direct democratic control. So there is still a need to democratise the world.
What is your view of the European Citizens' Initiative?
I'm ambivalent about this question. On the one hand, the ECI is our “baby” as brought into life by a good campaign by my colleagues Gerald, Bruno, and many others of Democracy International. On the other hand, we should be critical of it. Especially as an Austrian I am experienced with non-binding pure agenda setting initiatives. We have had those initiatives for more than 50 years almost without any consequence. People are not political consultancies who work for free, they are no keyword deliverers for the EU Commission or the EU Parliament. Instead, they are the sovereign of Europe.
If people sign a legislative proposal they also should have the right to decide in the voting. So the ECI definitely needs to be improved to become a real legislative initiative that is to be followed by a binding EU-wide referendum. This was already Democracy International's demand ten years ago when EU leaders avoided to share power with the people and made restrictions to the ECI in the EU constitution. The three-year experience shows that not only the technical deficits reduce the legal impact of the “successful” ECI campaigns. Also, the missing direct link to binding referenda reduces the will of civil society and NGOs to use this instrument.
The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. Do you see a connection between the social economic crisis and citizens’ participation? What should be done to fight this development?
Yes, in my mind there is a strong connection. Globalisation has led to an increased influence of economic interests. At the same time, globalisation has reduced ordinary people's influence. This results in a more “marketbased” or, as Angela Merkel says “marktfähige”, democracy. Poor people are loosing ground even in modern western democracies. The more we will reach “egalité” in a political arena the more we will have “egalité” in the form of distributive justice. This is true on a national basis and in the international context. And of course, this influence is also true in the other direction. Economic justice enables people to educate themselves and to participate in democratic processes.
In your life, what triggered your activism for more democracy and citizen participation? Was there a key moment in your life?
My first political activities have been in the peace movement. In the early nineties of the last century – I am getting really old – we had good contacts with the GSOA in Switzerland and shared information with them. Andi Gross explained the possibilities of direct democracy in Switzerland. From that moment on I wondered why so many states do not offer these possibilities. I wanted to have the same or a similar political system in Austria. When I was working for Greenpeace I realised the heavy influence of special interest groups and lobbies on the climate and energy policies. The name “representative democracy”, mainly used by politicians, is not adequate. I call it “indirect democracy”. And this parliamentarian and governmental system had to be made representative be the strong use of direct democracy.
What is the next political goal you want to achieve?
On the international level the improvement of the ECI is a core question. It is the first international agenda setting tool. Yet as I said above it is only an agenda setting tool. At least we should start a broad discussion in Europe more on the public side about a reform of the ECI in Europe. Lobbying on the EU level in Parliament and the Council is only the second part of this campaign.
In Austria the running parliamentarian “Enquête on democracy reform” should at least bring a small reform on direct democracy with binding referenda initiated by the people.
What should Democracy International do to realise more democracy and citizen participation in the world?
Support national organisations to improve direct democracy on the national side. At the same time it should be a platform to share experiences of more or less successful campaigns to realise direct democracy. A new but increasingly important field for Democracy International is the democratisation of international organisations like the UN, WTO, TTIP, CETA, IWF (IMF) etc.
On the strategic and tactical side I would prefer to reach out to people first. Then, only in a second step we should tartet politicians with our messages and demands. We should go for what people like and not limit ourselves to the narrow fields politicians like us to work on.
Interview by Cora Pfafferott