The EU Parliament's dilemma


Picture of Jaap Hoeksma
Jaap Hoeksma

Philosopher of law and author of the book 'The European Union: a democratic union of democratic states'

A year before the 2019 elections for the European Parliament it is slowly beginning to dawn upon politicians in Brussels that the European Union can only function as a European democracy if it is perceived as a Union of States and Citizens. The reason why the EU has a hard time in coming to terms with this conclusion is that it has been deadlocked for decades in the debate whether the EU should evolve towards a federal state or form a confederal union of states.

The result of this stalemate in the discussion about the future of Europe has been that the EU used to be unable to say what it is and where it is heading. Jacques Delors ventured to portray the EU as an ‘Unidentified Political Object’, while one of his successors as president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, floated the idea to describe the EU as a ‘non-imperial empire’. The vulnerability of the diplomatic compromise to agree to disagree about the end goal of the process of European integration was exposed by EU critics, who accused the EU of being undemocratic.

The anti-European parties further exploited this weak spot of the EU, when former British prime minister David Cameron, in announcing his decision in 2013 to call an in-or-out-referendum, described the EU as an undemocratic organisation. From then on, the critics of European integration could say whatever they wanted in order to undermine the legitimacy of the EU without being refuted. Seen from this perspective, the lesson of Brexit is that the EU shall either be democratic or disintegrate further.

President Jean-Claude Juncker may be credited for being the first politician to have learnt the lesson of Brexit

The conceptual problem in establishing the nature of the EU has been that traditional theory insisted that the only two options for the EU were to either become a state or form a union of states. According to the so-called Westphalian system of international relations, which has dominated international political theory for centuries, the terms democracy and international organisation are irreconcilable.

The novelty of the EU, however, is that it has overcome this dichotomy by sharing the exercise of sovereignty. This practise has also enabled the EU to introduce EU citizenship. In fact, the EU is the only international organisation in the world, which entitles its citizens to participate both in the national democracies of their countries and in the shared democracy of the Union.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be credited for being the first politician to have learnt the lesson of Brexit. In his State of the Union address, which he delivered in the European Parliament on 13 September 2017, he described the EU as “simultaneously a Union of states and a Union of citizens” and emphasised the need for the EU to become more democratic. Although his proposals lacked detail, he acknowledged the principle that the EU can only function as a transnational democracy, if it is perceived and presented as a Union of states and citizens.

In this week’s plenary of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, President Juncker advised the Parliament that it should prepare itself for an institutional confrontation with the European Council over the procedure concerning the election or appointment of the next President of the European Commission.

The EP undermines its claim concerning the democratic legitimacy of its candidate for the presidency of the European Commission

In 2014 Mr Juncker was elected for the job by the EP as a result of the new ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, or leading candidate-procedure. In spite of the fact that this procedure forms an important step in the democratisation of the EU, a considerable number of government leaders, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, want to return to the old way of appointment behind closed doors. Obviously, the EP is adamant that the election of the President of the Commission should be the outcome of a democratic process.

With its decision on 7 February 2018 to reject the proposal of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs to introduce transnational voting lists, however, the EP places itself in an awkward dilemma: by maintaining the present electoral system of electing national candidates from national voting lists, the EP undermines its claim concerning the democratic legitimacy of its candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.

The European Parliament can only win this battle if it brings the present procedure concerning the election of its members, dating back to the first direct EP elections of 1979, in line with the relevant provisions of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The dilemma for the EP is that it cannot combine the continuation of the present national voting lists for the election of its own members with the claim of greater democratic legitimacy for the election of the President of the European Commission.

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