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Patrick Cox: "Do not take democracy for granted"

Posted on 06 December 2018

During the conference on 40 years European elections, Pat Cox delivered a keynote speech: “I am here, first of all, to recognise and to thank the European University Institute for hosting this event which marks these 40 years of direct elections to the European Parliament and which offers a pause for reflection,” he said. “Also we recognise that we are living in a very contested, more fragmented, more nationalistic Europe and here share an opportunity to anticipate what these trends might mean electorally in 2019. I think the combination of academic, political, and administrative speakers at this conference has been a very rich and interesting mixture, and adds a lot of texture and shade to the story”. 

During a private interview with Pat Cox, we talked about his wishes for the future of Europe and touched on sensitive issues, such as the difficulties of communicating the European Union’s actions. Furthermore, Mr Cox left a message to young Europeans: “Whatever your political orientation, do not take democracy for granted.”

Mr Cox, what do you wish for the future of the European Union?

I suppose my earnest wish for the future of the European Union is firstly that we should appreciate the fact that we have the European Union. It has many imperfections that I shall not develop at length. We are confronting these challenges but have to realise that we have created through our Union something very precious that is resilient but also, like very delicate porcelain china, potentially very fragile. We are witnessing for the first time since the Schuman Declaration in May 1950 an act of disintegration through Brexit. I do not predict that this is the first in a set of dominos to fall, but the fact that it is happening is a break with the past. We have to learn again to appreciate the true worth of doing many things better together, even if there is much we still choose and wish to do separately.

Is there something you would have done differently in the past, as President of the European Parliament or as politician, in this respect?

Not really.  My mandate finished quite a while ago. I decided not to run again in elections having had the privilege to be Parliament President, which finished for me in the summer of 2004. The three driving ambitions of my presidency were what I called the “Reunification of Europe”, so the enlargement process; the second was the reform of the Parliament, specifically at that time to have a statute for members and to reform members’ expenses. I am absolutely satisfied that the work I did allowed my successor, within weeks in office, to close those dossiers. And the third was what I called “Reconnecting Europe”, that was communicating with citizens. 

I don’t have any regrets.  I worked hard and endlessly to communicate. But communicating to a differentiated mass public remains a core challenge for Europe. The European Parliament is an especially advanced user of every available social medium today but the truth remains - even as we have vast tsunamis of information, paradoxically, we also have the coexistence of vast reservoirs of disconnection. Trying to communicate something that is perceived in popular opinion to be complex and opaque even after many decades of living inside this system still remains a fundamental challenge for which we have not found easy or satisfactory answers.

What would you suggest to a young European today?

I would say to a young European today that – whether one’s orientation politically is left or right or liberal or green, or whatever else it might be – do not take democracy for granted. Pluralist open democracy, liberal democracy, has not been the norm in human history but its high point. The great challenge is that each generation has to find its own inspiration to rediscover that there are some basic truths worth holding to be eternal and worth defending.  I think that is the challenge facing young Europeans. I quoted here today ‘Il Gattopardo’, with its insightful line: “For everything to stay the same, everything must change”. So, to young people I would say feel free to change those many things that you may dislike, but do not resile from your belief in open, pluralist democracy. And finally, cherish layered identity that permits you to be who you are, proud of where you come from but with your sense of identity undiminished by being part of a wider community of destiny.

A photo reportage of the conference “40 Years of European Parliament Direct Election” is available here.

Related documents worth reading:

«‘World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it’ is the opening sentence of the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950. After seven decades of peace on our old continent that proposition may have lost some of its resonance for younger Europeans but certainly none of its relevance…». Download President Cox address here.