Political scientist: European Parliament will not solve EU legitimacy crisis

Prof. Mark Andreas Kayser lectures at Berlin's Hertie School of Governance. [Hertie School of Governance]

Prof. Mark Andreas Kayser lectures at Berlin's Hertie School of Governance. [Hertie School of Governance]

Empowering the European Parliament will not solve the EU’s crisis of legitimacy. This effort has hit a dead end, says Professor Mark Andreas Kayser, advocating instead for more influence in the Council of Ministers and national legislatures.

Dr. Mark Andreas Kayser is Professor of Applied Methods & Comparative Politics at the Hertie School of Governance, focusing primarily on elections and political economy in his research. He spoke with EURACTIV Germany’s Daniel Tost.

During these elections, mainstream parties lost out to anti-establishment parties across Europe. What is your first assessment of the outcome?

As with all elections, it is always tough to figure out what the message is. There is so much information. But certain things are striking here: for one thing, the success of the anti-European parties.

Is this the earthquake the French Prime Minister spoke of?

It is hard to see how one could just go forward and ignore this. It is not just that anti-European parties did very well. It is that anti-European parties did well at the heart of Europe. That is amazing. France will send more Eurosceptic MEPs to the EP than any other party.

Was this really such a surprise though? Polls already suggested such an outcome before the elections.

It is not so surprising if you compare it to the polling, but the fact that it happened is noteworthy. It is not something that can easily be brushed off.

There has been a narrative in Europe for a long time now suggesting that we might have to worry about rising Euroscepticism because of the reaction to the euro and the financial crisis. But look at the pattern of where the anti-European parties did well: it would not shock us if they had done well in Greece or in Portugal. There, it would have had a very clear explanation. But France did not undergo serious reforms during this crisis. So this is not a reaction against austerity in France.

And look at the UK, where UKIP is the dominant party, but austerity was imposed by the domestic government. It was not imposed by Europe.

So what you see here are two very important countries, in which you cannot just attribute this to the economy. You cannot simply attribute it to the bailout interventions and conditionality that came along with it, as could be said about such a trend in fringe countries.

So what do you attribute it to then?

Plausibly there are multiple messages that could come out of the elections. Whether they are right or not remains to be seen. The negatives are clearer than the positives on what this cannot be attributed to.

One message has to do with the slow accumulation of power to the EP over time, which was justified as the hope for Europe; that it would bring legitimacy to the European project. I think that story has to end now.

If there is one thing that comes out of this, it has got to be a challenge to the idea that continued transfer of power to the EP is going to solve the legitimacy crisis in Europe.

We even see now that parties in the EP are running their own candidates. Has that made a big difference? In Spain, you did not see any campaign posters of these top candidates. The entire debate is national, over how this is reflecting on the popularity of Spanish political parties and their domestic competition. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Europe.

Geert Wilders performed less strongly than expected in the Netherlands, but in Finland, Denmark and many other northern countries there is scepticism about the over-expansion of the European Union into countries that are fundamentally economically different.

The idea that German, Danish or Finnish tax-payers would be on the hook for what happens in Greece was a bit of an epiphany, and is probably a big determinant fuelling scepticism in the northern countries.

Were you surprised by the overall turnout?

No, it is up a fraction. People were predicting that it would be a couple of points lower. It is basically stable. At some point, after a certain number of cycles when the novelty of EP elections wears off, you might think it would reach this equilibrium level. We just might be seeing that now.

It is impossible that turnout could continue on this endless slope until no one votes anymore. At some point it had to stabilise. I do not think it is so surprising that it is stable.

There was a message often conveyed in election campaigns that the EP now has more power, and people can supposedly now directly influence the election of the Commission President. Did this message come across to the voters?

It depends whether you are talking about Germany, Spain or Sweden. Sweden had long, sophisticated and informed debates about what Europe means to the Swedish voter. In Germany you saw a fairly sophisticated debate on television. In many (other) countries, they have no idea.

If you would ask the Spanish voter who the two Spitzenkandidaten (top candidates) are, or what a Spitzenkandidat is, they would have no idea. There were no posters. There was one campaign stop in Spain planned for Martin Schulz, but it was cancelled. The entire national media only spoke about how this vote reflects on popularity for the purposes of domestic parties. Europe does not even enter into the debate there.

And in Germany, where Berlin was almost the only city with posters hanging all along the streets: did the debate really happen here?

Well, the debate was broadcast here. In Spain, there was no national television carrier who actually picked up the debate. You had to go online to find the debate. Those voters who are highly informed could easily find it here, and highly informed voters in Spain could find it there as well. But more informed voters also tend to be more ideological. So persuading them is much more difficult. They usually collect information to reinforce their political views rather than really responding to any messages.

The people the campaign really needed to reach, those who are less informed, less sophisticated and might actually be affected by such influence were probably not reached.

There was somewhat of a public outcry when German public television broadcasters pushed a television debate to their political information channel, whose audience share is smaller than the country’s main broadcasters.

I think the television stations had it right. There was just a tepid interest for this in the first place. That was their programming decision based on how they saw it and they were probably right.

What do you make of Martin Schulz’ performance in Germany?

He tried hard. One poster claimed that if you wanted to have a compatriot in office, then you had to vote for the Social Democratic Party in Germany. In this sort of ‘inside political world’, he was ridiculed for that. But if you were not a politico, you were not even aware of the issue.

So most people were just not addressed correctly?

Most people do not know what the European Parliament (EP) does. It goes back to the whole argument of: sure, there is a European electorate. But is there a European public, a demos, here? Not really. They are all interested in really local issues. A European Parliament election is seen as a second order election that you can use to cast a vote of protest against your national politics.

What is the governing campaign issue that is going to be salient across all the 28 countries of the European Union right now? There is no real European public.

If there is something to be drawn from this, it is that if you want to have legitimacy in the European Union, this idea of having a Parliament conveying the legitimacy of the EU’s actions might have been a dead end.

And where should we go from there then?

We saw the next step already with the Spitzenkandidaten. That does not seem to have helped much. Turnout remains low. It seems that legitimacy and identity are still nation state issues in Europe.

Similar to ideas suggesting a eurozone Parliament. Are such ideas likely to become reality?

Europe expanded broadly to 28 countries before they got the institutions right. Now, you are going to need unanimity for a real constitutional reform. If I were Estonia and Poland and I saw these wealthy six core countries hoping to form their own club within a club, why would I support that?

What is also important here is that the important functions of the European Union are divorced from the EP. There are these unelected bureaucratic institutions or regulatory committee circles. That leaves the EP with regulation and that also matters. But will a two-speed Europe solve the problem, for example, in taxes on trade? It is not going to make a difference.

But concerning Schengen and the euro, there is already a two-speed Europe.

That could be part of the solution.

The theme we are going to hear more of is finding a way to build on legitimacy by focusing on reform of the nation state and having the nation state take on a larger role in European issues.

But that is at loggerheads with what you see coming out of the EP with Spitzenkandidaten that they choose themselves. It could also be a challenge to the European project.  A two-speed Europe on certain issues enables and preserves forward progress.

What would a bigger role of nation states specifically look like?

That could either mean empowering the Council or empowering national legislatures as opposed to the EP. Some scholars have even suggested that it is possible for a subset of national legislators to wear two hats. You would be directly elected to the Bundestag, for example, and also have a position in the EP.

That way there would be more legitimacy through the nation states and voters would know more about what policies their EP representative advocate.

Do you see any likelihood of this being on the agenda in the near future?

A lesson that could be taken from the elections is that something has to change. To a certain extent, it feels like the end of the road now. People speculated, we knew it was coming and it has arrived. Can you really claim that you have a legitimate democratic enterprise when you have a 43% turnout and 25% of the voters in France voted for an anti-European party and nearly 30% in the UK? This is the point where plan B needs to be formulated.

How is the work in the EP going to change with the new Eurosceptic members?

The Eurosceptic parties cannot agree with each other. There will probably be some grand coalition in the EP between major players that we see now. There will be some interesting recruitment stories concerning the candidates who are not affiliated with the big party groups. But in terms of the type of policy-making that comes out of the EP, it is not going to be very different. It will be a bit more entertaining. But I do not see a serious challenge coming from these sceptical parties because it will be difficult for them to actually come together and come up with a positive proposal.

Who is going to become the next Commission President?

It is interesting from Angela Merkel’s perspective. She got her candidate Jean-Claude Juncker. But there is a different logic over the role of the nation states in the Council. Should the Council let itself be dictated to by the EP?

One of the bigger lessons after these elections is that an ever-increasing role of the EP does not seem to be increasing legitimacy. If anything, this might be the beginning of the return of the nation states and their role in the EU.

Merkel has a partisan incentive to go along with it. But she also has an institutional incentive not to. She was never thrilled about this grab for power by the EP. But in the case of it being inevitable, she at least wanted to see a strong candidate from her party group. She, along with the rest of the European Council, will have to make a decision now.

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