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With over 400mn people eligible to vote, the recent European parliamentary election was the second-largest democratic exercise in the world. Yet, beyond the vote itself, how democratic really is the EU?
Despite worrying trends, European countries themselves are, for the most part, democratic. However, the European Union is more than the sum of its parts. Worryingly, 70 years after its creation, the EU continues to fall far short of the democratic standards we should expect.
Its democratic shortcomings are extensive and well-known: a Parliament without the right to legislative initiative, an executive Commission insufficiently linked to the popular vote, national ministers sitting in the EU’s upper legislative chamber, national executives heavily involved in EU law-making despite clear provisions to the contrary, and an overall lack of transparency and accountability in the decision-making process.
Beyond institutional deficiencies, it is important to understand that ‘direct representation’ is not akin to ‘appointment by elected representatives’. This is why the direct election of Members of the European Parliament, starting in 1979, was an important step towards legitimising the EP as a legislative body.
Conversely, this is why the presence of national ministers in an EU-level legislative chamber is so problematic. It is not a minister’s prerogative to discuss and adopt the law. Likewise, the President of the Commission ought to be elected by our European representatives, and not by an electoral college made up of the leaders of national executives.
The uncertain future of the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ process presents a risk for the strengthening of European democracy
While the topic may seem theoretical, it would be dangerous to dismiss voters’ ability to sense whether or not their institutions are democratic. The worrying decrease in voter turnout can be linked to a growing disaffection with mainstream parties and a popular feeling that the political class prioritises special interests over the public good. Paradoxically, this loss for traditional parties has benefited a series of populist challengers deploying the guise of direct democracy.
Despite this development, traditional parties have failed to grasp the importance of ensuring democracy at all levels of governance. On the campaign trails, parties elect to focus on supposed vote-bringing topics, such as the economy or security. By failing to discuss disenfranchisement and democracy, they contribute to ever-dwindling voter turnout rates.
For example, in France, despite clear calls for more citizen involvement, President Macron has so far failed to propose any significant institutional change. Even his pro-European programme for the May elections failed to mention making the EU more democratic.
In the UK, the resounding silence of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens on the democratisation of institutions has allowed the Brexit Party to stylise itself as the party of democracy. Despite having not a single policy proposal, the Brexit Party gathered a whopping 30,5% of the vote (far ahead of the runner-up Liberal Democrats’ 19,6%) by simply promising to preserve their constituents’ democratic rights by delivering Brexit.
The uncertain future of the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ process presents a risk for the strengthening of European democracy. Provided for in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty and launched in 2014, the ‘lead candidate’ system aims at linking the choice of the President of the Commission to the result of EU elections. This mechanism had the potential of increasing the visibility of the Commission President while involving citizens as a factor in their nomination.
However, President Macron — along with his liberal ALDE allies — has staunchly opposed the system in favour of inter-state bargaining in the European Council. The manoeuvre is clear: with few seats in Parliament, but as the President of a large country, President Macron has more leverage in the Council than in Parliament.
But the stratagem comes at the expense of democratic principles and sheds a bad light on EU politics. In a worrisome wager, President Macron is ready to trade off democratic practices for a political appointment. This is the sort of horse-trading that nationalist parties feed off as they form their narratives of elite corruption.
The solutions to strengthening European democracy have long existed. What is lacking is often the political courage, both at the national and European levels, to adopt and enact them.
Treaty changes are not the only reforms needed and they cannot be expected to be the first
Down the line, there can be no true European democracy without a true European government. In such a case, the executive branch would be centred on around the Commission, whose president would stem from a coalition in Parliament. Their legislative counterpart would be comprised of a truly proportional European Parliament and a directly-elected Council with equal representation for all Member States. The judiciary would be an empowered Court of Justice of the European Union replete with the powers to assess the compatibility of national law with EU law.
However, treaty changes are not the only reforms needed and they cannot be expected to be the first. For increased transparency, the Rules of Procedure of the Parliament must be reviewed to ensure that all votes are recorded nominally and made public. Likewise, the meetings of the Council of the European Union must be public and recorded. The EU’s lobby register has to be extended and made compulsory.
Additionally, the Spitzenkandidat system must be strengthened. Europarties may continue to designate a lead candidate for the campaign, but the Council must commit to nominating the individual chosen by parties – preferably from the ranks of the new Parliament – to lead a majority coalition, as in traditional parliamentary democracies.
As is its right, Parliament must finally propose a unified framework for European elections. Key to this end is the implementation of a common voting mechanism as a way to ensure the equality of citizens before the vote. In order to address persistently-low voter turnout, we must consider compulsory voting – as in Australia or Belgium – and facilitating voting procedures such as proxy, postal and e-voting. Elevating the voting day to the status of a public holiday would also increase public participation. A German-style dual-vote election mechanism should also be adopted as a means of bringing candidates closer to citizens whilst ensuring voting proportionality.
Finally, and most importantly, we need true European parties. Citizens cannot be expected to vote for parties they do not know. The proposed transnational lists are a quick fix and run the risk of over-representing larger countries. In the same vein as national federal systems, European Parliament parties must be present at the national and local levels. This tectonic shift in party politics can be initiated with a reform of the EU Regulation on Europarties and the introduction of the right financial incentives.
We can no longer side-step the need for a true European democracy. Without action, nationalists who have already seized this issue are sure to win the moral high ground. Solutions exist. We now need leadership and political courage from national and European leaders to implement them. Only then will citizens’ legitimate calls for democracy be fulfilled and the public trust restored.
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