The EP elections: Deepening the democratic deficit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Honorary President of the EPC, Max Kohnstamm argues that the elections were an example of “the illness which threatens the progress, and if not looked after, the existence of the Union itself.”

The EP elections: Deepening the democratic deficit

There are not many issues concerning the EU on which there is general agreement. One of the few is that the EU suffers from a ‘democratic deficit’ – from the distance between European citizens and the institutions who together govern the Union: European Council, Commission, Council of Ministers, European Parliament.

The essential post-election question, therefore, is: did the recent elections for the EP reduce or widen the democratic deficit? Answers on questions regarding the EU are rarely simple. On this one, the answer is simple: they widened the deficit. Not because the participation in general was low, but because there was nothing European about them. As such, these elections are an example of the illness which threatens the progress, and if not looked after, the existence of the Union itself. It is the illness of using words without translating them into action. This creates a degeneration of language, resulting in confusion and contempt.

What makes democracy work and what makes citizens vote? A greater number of things than you may think! There are, however, a few items without which democracy definitely cannot work. They are: firstly, political parties with a clear sense of direction and secondly, visible leaders of those parties. Without these two, voting becomes a waste of time. On the European scene both have been totally absent. If people voted in spite of these facts, they did so not to for the sake of the EU, but to support or reject their national governments.

But are there really no European political parties? Yes, in façade, but not in reality. That, alas, is true of nearly all of them. Picking on one as an example, therefore, is rather unfair. However, without an example, it is difficult to understand the situation. Please remember that what follows is a concrete example – of what is the general case for a European political party.

The example is the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and the EPP/ED group. Within the Parliament, the group is composed of elected officials who strive for an integrated, quasi-federal Europe, and those who want a non-binding, therefore only cooperative European organisation. What binds them are not political objectives but numbers. To call such a group the parliamentary representation of a political party is no more than a game of words and a simple misleading of voters. The proof of this? Well, the European governments, on the basis of the existing Treaty, have accepted to take the results of the elections into account in proposing a candidate for the President of the next Commission to the European Parliament. Every party, therefore, could have provided voters with a second option: the proposal of a distinct, political leader it party wanted to become the next Commission President. The EPP/ED managed to turn this possibility into a bad joke by mentioning four or five persons who might become their candidate ahead of the vote. Can anyone think of a political party going into a national election proposing not one, but five people they want to see as the next Prime Minister?

The non-existence of these two above-mentioned essential elements of any democratic election left the electors no choice on matters that had anything to do with the European Union – only the word “European” remained. It is high time now to begin thinking about what has to change to ensure that the next European Parliament election will not deepen the Union’s democratic deficit, but reduce it for once. The first thing, of course, is to create serious European political parties with recognisable programmes and visible leaders. However, as important as this is, it will not be sufficient. There must also be a fundamental structural change. Parties must be enabled to present a unified list of candidates in all Member States, and introduce the man or woman their party wants to become the next Commission President. All we need is to allow EU citizens to vote for any other citizen of any of the Union’s Member States. The rest will then be left up to the Union’s political parties. A marvellous example of simplicity and the application of subsidiarity!

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