The case for common rules for EU democracy

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The initiative of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs to reform the outdated European electoral law is a positive move. A reform of the European electoral system and the rules governing the European parties is necessary to strengthen the link between the European parties and the European public, writes Bernd Hüttemann.

Bernd Hüttemann is the vice-president of European Movement International (EMI) and co-chair of the Political Committee More Democracy, Citizens’ Rights and Freedom.

Participative Democracy

Democracy is one of the key values on which the European Union is founded. To ensure the functioning of a representative democracy on the European level, the treaties determine that the citizens of the European Union are directly represented in the European Parliament. Political parties also fulfil an essential role in a representative democracy, creating a direct link between the citizens and the political system and thus enhancing the legitimacy of the system. In this vein, European political parties are expected to express the will of the citizens of the Union and contribute to elevating the level of political awareness. Indeed, European political parties are firmly established in the European democratic structure.

Despite this, discussions about the so-called democratic deficit of the European Union and the continuing gap between the Union and its citizens persist. Moreover, an incongruity can be observed between the accepted functions of European political parties (as well as the functions laid down in the treaties), and the actual functioning of European political parties in everyday European politics. To remedy this, and attempt to better engage citizens, the European Parliament has consistently promoted the role of European political parties. Furthermore, in an attempt to increase turnout at the 2014 European elections the “Spitzenkandidaten system” represented a further innovation by allowing political parties to nominate candidates for the presidency of the European Commission (on one occasion even through an open primary).

Bridging the deficit

To date no satisfactory solutions have been offered to this ongoing problem. Turnout at the European elections remains low; ‘Brussels’ is seen as distant. If we truly want a transnational European democracy, we need to see a greater innovation of the European political system. A reform of the European electoral system and the rules governing the European parties is necessary to strengthen the link between the European parties and the European public. In its resolution on electoral reform and the role of political parties, adopted in November 2014, the European Movement International proposed the following reforms:

The creation of a European constituency, in addition to the national party lists and voting procedures, in order to create a truly trans-national European democracy. The introduction of a European constituency will take into account the adaptations proposed to ensure the representation of minorities and to alleviate the concerns of smaller member states.

More autonomy for the European political parties with respect to their national members to enrich the role of European political parties that currently function predominantly as coordinating institutions. This would include the selection of candidates for the European constituency by European political parties, to ensure MEPs are more attached to their European political parties and to enable European-wide campaigns.

The expansion of individual membership to all European political parties, so as to give European citizens the opportunity for direct participation in the European political system, and the possibility to found European political parties based solely on individual membership of citizens from several member states of the European Union.

The consolidation of the democratisation of internal party procedures, including a vote on the Commission presidency candidates at party congresses or through open primaries, as well as the adoption of clear party programmes at party congresses. This would also enable a clear focus on European themes in European elections, providing a link between the voter’s choice in the elections and the actual work of the European political parties and groups in the European Parliament.

European democracy

The European-wide selection of candidates and adoption of party programmes would, in turn, also lead to an increased presence of European political parties in media and public debates.

A first debate on the reform of European electoral law in the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs will take place on 17 March. Co-rapporteurs Danuta Hübner (EPP, AFCO chair) and Jo Leinen (S&D) await the task of leading a much needed reform that touches upon the core function of the European Parliament – expressing the will of the citizens.