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Power to the Euro parliament

In place of the current limbo John Palmer proposes a new European demos with trans-national parties.

The suspension of the proposed European Union constitutional treaty, following the ‘no’ vote results in the French and Dutch referendums last year, has disoriented EU political leaders and left the European integration process in a temporary limbo. For the first time since the foundation of the (then) European Economic Communities nearly 50 years ago, some fundamental questions are being asked about the future of the European integration project.

Confronting these questions will assist – not obstruct – the eventual, but essential, reform and revitalisation of the European institutions. Only when there is clarity about what the Member States and the citizens of the Union want to achieve together on issues ranging from economic and social strategy to foreign and security policy can sensible decisions be reached about how to advance the treaty.

There is a set of questions - the answers to which may determine whether or not European integration – in whatever form - advances or regresses in the years ahead.

Will the European Union face a crisis of legitimacy unless EU voters are given effective ownership of the key political decisions which will determine future Union strategy?

How can voters take ownership of the process unless they are given the power to decide between alternative political programmes and alternative leaderships of the EU institutions?

How can EU democracy be strengthened in this way unless the embryo EU political parties become genuinely trans-national European parties capable of offering voters these choices?

The roots of the present crisis

What passes for public debate on the future of Europe in so many Member States is itself a chilling judgement on the health of trans-national democracy in the Union. This is reflected in the destructively short sighted way in which the political elites in the majority of Member States tend to conduct EU discourse. Fed by the media and by politicians on a diet, at best, of euro-indifference and at worst of outright euro-scepticism, far too many citizens feel an unacceptable distance – even a sense of alienation – has developed between themselves and the European Union.

The roots of the current malaise in European public opinion go deeper however. We live in times when national governments themselves almost everywhere are held in low public esteem. Why should voters feel disenchanted with the institutions of their national political lives? One explanation stresses the apprehension felt by large sectors of public opinion at the apparent impotence of national governments in the face of globalisation. In this perspective, governments even in some of the larger EU Member States are seen to be increasingly marginal actors in the dramas played out when global economic pressures lead to painful adjustment being made to national economies, patterns of employment and traditional social and welfare policies.

In the absence of a sense of democratic purpose behind the development of European integration, it is hardly surprising that public attitudes to the EU have become more cynical.

The limits of information and communication

The sense of alienation between voters and their national politicians is reinforced by the conviction that decision making at the EU level is itself too remote, too esoteric, too technocratic and too elitist. Many citizens believe they are denied the information they need to adequately understand (let alone pass judgement on) what is being done in their name by their governments and by the EU institutions.

There is a widespread feeling that EU decision makers are not being held properly to account. Voters are understandably confused about the division of responsibilities between regional, national and European levels of governance. They have no clear understanding about who is responsible for what – and who is accountable to whom – within the EU decision-making architecture.

In modern European democracies, the public expects not only to be consulted but also to help directly shape the future direction of decision making bodies. Within Member States voters do this primarily by exercising choice between competing party political programmes, and potential leaders in elections at local and regional – as well as national elections.

The political elite may imagine that information or more professional communication with citizens will suffice to close this gap between the public and the EU institutions. This, I fear, will not be the case. There has to be a radical change in the relationship between voters and the EU institutions. This process of change can only be begun if the embryo European Union political parties develop the self confidence to offer voters a genuine choice not only about strategic policy but also about the political leadership of the Commission – hopefully by the time of the next elections to the European Parliament in June 2009.

The evolution of European parties

At present we cannot say with confidence that European political parties really exist. There are obstacles in the way of them becoming serious players in the political life of the EU. It is not clear whether or how, individual membership of such parties should best be constituted. There appears to be no valid reason why individual members joining parties which are simultaneously active at the regional, national and European levels should not enjoy specified rights at all levels.

One of the more pernicious features of the present system is the ‘top down’ fashion in which many national parties select candidates for European party election lists. A more constructive model based on the German federal party election system would allow voters to choose an individual candidate in his or her local constituency while also casting a vote in support of a party list presented at the national level. The proposal for establishing a threshold at the European level deserves further exploration. Only those parties affiliated with a European party that attains such a threshold would benefit from the proportional distribution of seats at the national level.

The European Parliament has acquired significant (if still too limited) powers as a result of successive EU Treaties. Since the last European elections EU political parties have attempted to establish themselves as distinct political entities. There is evidence that at least in their voting behaviour EP political groups are motivated now less by national interests and more by trans-national political/ideological differences.

In a study of this striking shift in voting patterns, Simon Hix, Professor of European and Comparative Politics, at the London School of Economics states: ‘…on the positive side, and potentially far more profound, is the emergence of a genuine ‘democratic party system’ in the European Parliament…voting in the Parliament is more along transnational and ideological party lines than along national lines, and increasingly so…’(1)

The incentive for parties to take this path is precisely to enable them to tap into the political legitimacy and influence within the EU institutions which fighting and winning elections on a clear policy mandate would give them.

Giving substance to European elections

European elections are simply not about enough at present to capture the imagination and enthusiasm of the electorate. A vote in the European Parliament election has no executive outcome. National and regional assembly voters can elect or dismiss governments. A vote in the EP election elects neither the President of the Commission (one key part of the European executive) nor the President of the Council of Ministers (the other part of the EU executive). The real wonder is that voting turnout in European elections has remained as high as it has.

If there is to be any reworking of the agreed text of the Constitutional Treaty, it should include clearer wording about the election of future Commission Presidents through the European Parliament. The emerging European Union political parties (which are hopefully now evolving from bring mere collections of national parties) should nominate their preferred candidate for the post of Commission President as part of their European Parliament election campaigns in 2009. The European Parliament would then take the final decision on who is made Commission President.

The job of the European Council (the EU heads of government) should be to ensure that the process is carried through constitutionally and then ratify the decision of the Parliament. All of this will involve an unambiguous politicisation of the Commission. It is too soon to be sure whether the emerging European political parties will be able to define their respective ideological territories with sufficient clarity on issues of sufficient importance to give voters a real sense of political choice in the 2009 European Parliament election. Important divisions are beginning to emerge between the major EP parties on issues such as the future of the European economic and social model, the services directive and the weight to be given to environmental sustainability in EU economic strategy. How should EU decision makers be held to account when they are not acting under ‘Community law’ but through looser forms of inter-governmental cooperation?

Foreign and security policy is a case in point. More can surely be done to strengthen the role of national Parliaments in scrutinising the policies and voting positions of their governments within the Council.

But, at present, there is a worrying grey area for democratic accountability where governments avoid effective scrutiny by both national Parliaments and the European Parliament. Indeed this failure of accountability may also be a problem in the new and rapidly growing field of European justice, policing and internal security policy. Member State cooperation and joint policies on the fight against terrorism, for example, have very significant implications for human rights and civil liberties.

Towards a European demos

The existing provisions of the EU Treaties, including the Constitutional Treaty, do mark an important advance in the powers and role of the elected European Parliament. But if democratic politics at the European level is to become a reality, the elected European Parliament must be given eventual equality in terms of co-legislative powers with the Council of Ministers. It is also profoundly unhealthy that the European Parliament has an important voice in determining how EU revenue is spent, but no powers to raise revenue. The present system for financing Union policies is opaque, unbalanced and open to charges of foul play by Member States.

There is also a case for the direct election of the proposed President of the European Council. It partly depends on what exact functions are attached to this job. Some will claim that the public will not readily vote for candidates for the Commission Presidency even when they are attached to the lists of trans-national European parties. There were similar fears before the introduction of elections for the Presidency of the United States when it was thought voters in one state would not elect a candidate from another state. They proved transient difficulties.

It will take years – maybe decades – before a European demos comes to full fruition. But its creation will not threaten democracy at either the national, regional or local level. Rather it will reinforce accountability at all levels of governance.

1Simon Hix, (2006) The European Parliament- stocktaking and challenges in ‘After the annus horribilis – a review of the European institutions’ EPC Working Paper No.22, Brussels (www.theepc.be)

John Palmer is a politically homeless independent socialist who has written widely about European politics and the left.