Europe’s Struggle for Democratic Legitimacy: Voters Say No to EU Super-State
July 10, 2014
For once, the pundits got it right: the May 22-25 European Parliament elections really did matter, albeit not in the way some had hoped. The outcome of the elections shook the establishment parties and shattered any illusion that the European Union is marching inexorably toward a United States of Europe. For many government leaders – notably, in the UK, France, Denmark, and Greece – the triumph of populist nationalist movements signaled a sharp erosion in the standing of their parties and a clear challenge to European integration. Even countries like Germany and Italy, where the ruling parties did reasonably well, witnessed a growing fragmentation of the political spectrum.
What the pundits did not get right was their prediction that this election would narrow the so-called “democratic deficit” in the European Union. The convoluted manner in which the EU’s top leaders are selected, starting with the all-important President of the Commission, has hardly put the voters in charge of Brussels. In fact, the newly created “Spitzenkandidaten” (leading candidates) system–in which pan-European parties chose nominees for Commission President, ostensibly to stimulate citizens’ participation in the election–has given way to traditional backroom maneuvering in European capitals that is unlikely either to produce inspirational leadership or to revive public faith in Europe’s future.
The implications for the United States are less clear-cut, especially since as of this writing we still do not know who will fill the EU’s top leadership positions. Still, during the several weeks that it will take to sort this out, one might reasonably expect the following:
- a temporary slowdown in the pace of negotiations of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and greater parliamentary scrutiny of sensitive topics such as data privacy, foreign investment, food safety, and the like;
- a possible deceleration of the momentum behind banking union, a loosening of fiscal disciplines, and continued stalemate on important Single Market initiatives;
- tougher measures to discourage immigration and internal migration;
- on balance, a Europe that remains economically weak and politically disunited in the face of the biggest challenge to its security since the end of the Cold War.
In what both French Prime Minister Valls and UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nick Farage called a “political earthquake,” the May elections shook governments in many of the EU’s 28 member states. Euro-sceptic and anti-establishment parties won over one-fifth of the 751 seats in the EP, and took top billing in the UK, France, Denmark and Greece. (A Flemish secessionist party also toppled the government in Belgium, which held simultaneous national elections.) Although it remained the single largest faction in the European Parliament, the biggest loser was the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which ended up with 53 fewer seats (221) than in 2009, while the other mainstream parties–the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D, 191), centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, 67), and Greens (50) -- together lost 28 seats. Interestingly, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, 70), which includes British conservative members who broke from the EPP in 2009, gained 13 seats and emerged as the third largest faction in the Parliament; while most want to stay in the EU, many ECR members are also stern critics of Brussels.
All Politics are Local
In Europe as in America, politics are local. Voters in the 28 EU member states were not voting for or against specific European-wide candidates so much as casting a judgment on how their own government was or was not functioning.
In many cases, the ruling party took a drubbing, in no case worse than in France, where Francois Hollande’s Socialists were mauled by Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-EU and anti-immigrant Front National, and even were beaten by the seemingly disunited and hapless conservative opposition (UMP).
Another clear loser was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who despite running against Brussels for years (and promising an “in-out” referendum on the EU), saw his fellow Conservatives soundly beaten by the upstart UK Independence party, which came in first, and Labour, which came in second. An even worse fate befell Cameron’s coalition partner, the Liberals, who after running on a pro-EU platform plunged to fifth in the polling (after the Greens) and lost a gut-wrenching 10 of their 11 seats in the European Parliament.
Another incumbent, the socialist Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who was bandied about as a dark-horse candidate for Commission President, likewise lost to a populist anti-Europe party. The far left Syriza party in Greece easily defeated the centrist government party (New Democracy) though a far right anti-immigrant party (Golden Dawn) placed a distant third.
In some cases, the status quo fared better. The center-right CDU/CSU rewarded Angela Merkel with a renewed solid majority though a breakaway anti-EU conservative party did better than expected, capturing 7% of the vote, and will enter the European Parliament for the first time. Perhaps the biggest victor among the incumbents was Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose socialist Democratic Party crushed the opposition, winning 41% of the popular vote.
Three specific issues–the Eurozone crisis, unemployment, and immigration– dominated debate in most EU member states, but the policy message was not always crystal-clear. The protest vote against the EU’s handling of the financial crisis, for instance, meant one thing in creditor countries like Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, where sentiment against the rescue of debtor countries ran deep, and quite another in Greece and Spain, where many citizens blamed Brussels’ austerity medicine for worsening their economic malaise.
The message on immigration was clearer, though not a positive one: many voters want to restrict immigration from both outside and (more controversially) within the EU. Even in prosperous Germany, Angela Merkel had to promise to restrict the movement of (a relatively small number of) citizens from poorer EU countries to richer ones, allegedly in search of better welfare benefits.
Democratic Legitimacy in Question
The central message coming out of the elections was growing popular discontent with “more Europe,” that is, the growing concentration of political power in Brussels. For years, many voters have complained about the growing clout of EU institutions, which some critics disparaged as profoundly undemocratic. Indeed, voters from France and the Netherlands, both founding members of the European Community, had decisively rejected a proposed “constitution for Europe” in a 2005 referendum, and Ireland subsequently had to be coaxed to vote twice before it would lift its veto on the watered-down Treaty of Lisbon.
Even the reforms under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which were supposed to improve democratic legitimacy by giving more authority to the directly elected European Parliament (EP), did little to assuage popular indignation. The unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, a common lament goes, still draft and shape legislation over everything from financial regulations and industrial standards to trade and citizenship policies while citizens from the constituent states have to foot the bill.
So long as the Brussels technocracy appeared to deliver the goods (peace, prosperity, and jobs), voter discontent simmered beneath the surface, showing up only occasionally in squabbles over things like the budget and the Common Agricultural Policy. That all changed with the financial crisis that began in 2008, when the “prosperity union” associated with the common market became an “austerity union” for some and a “bail-out union” for others. As the recession deepened, national politicians even from the mainstream parties were only too happy to deflect popular discontent onto Brussels.
Test Case: Choosing the next Commission President
This year’s elections did not improve the situation. The first order of business was the choice of the next EU Commission President, the top job in Brussels. It was a significant decision not just because the Commission President is a powerful figure, but also because it would determine who – the European Council (elected leaders from the member states) or the Parliament – would run Brussels.
The main question was whether the European Council – consisting of national leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Francois Hollande, the UK’s David Cameron, Italy’s Matteo Renzi, and others – had to choose the next EU Commission President from Parliament’s list of nominees (the “Spitzenkandidaten”), or could choose someone else altogether. Either way, it was a muddle.
The first attempt at the “Spitzenkandidaten” process did not go very well. Each of the major party groups chose its candidate with virtually no direct voter participation. True, in a nod to American-style electioneering, the candidates engaged in a few television debates in the weeks before the elections, but viewership was limited (about 120,000 for the first debate, just over two percent of the EU population). Voters cast ballots either directly or indirectly for candidates to the Parliament, but there was no separate vote for the Commission President.
With just 29% of the overall vote, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) “won” the election, giving its candidate, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, first claim to be the next Commission President. Yet since only 43% of eligible voters took part in the election, Juncker actually received the (indirect) support of less than 13% of the electorate. Even in countries like Germany where the “Spitzen” system was well known, only a tiny minority of citizens were apparently aware they were casting votes for one candidate or the other.
Thus, none of the candidates for Commission President could by any stretch of the imagination be described as “the people’s choice.” Nor could the European elections be said to have resolved Europe’s democratic deficit. From the start, several national leaders (including Chancellor Merkel) had voiced skepticism about the legitimacy of the “Spitzen” process, and Prime Minister Cameron tried hard (unsuccessfully) to block Juncker, who as a European federalist embodies “more Europe,” not less. Indeed, Cameron warned that if the Council anointed Juncker, it could accelerate Britain’s exit from the EU.
Alternatively, the Council could have reverted to the traditional system and, in the equivalent of what Americans call smoke-filled rooms, chosen a national politician from one of the member states, as it did the last two times (2004 and 2009) with Portugal’s former Prime Minister, Jose Manuel Barroso. Many in the Parliament argued that their way was more democratic. For American observers, it’s hard to say which is better; what matters is the quality of the leadership and the future direction Europe will take, not the process that produces it.
Meanwhile, the European Union marches on: the Commission continues to crank out new regulations and to negotiate trade agreements, the European Court of Justice makes rulings on data privacy, the European External Action Service (foreign ministry) seeks to help the new Ukrainian government, and the European Central Bank works to stimulate growth with easy monetary policies. Despite its flaws, it is a durable and in many cases workable system. Before it can become a more effective regional and global actor, however, the EU needs a stronger democratic mandate and stronger leadership, and that will probably need to await another election.
Robert Pollard is a State Department Visiting Fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article are entirely his own.
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