- Jonathan Wijayaratne
Vox Populi Vox Dei: Addressing the European Democratic Deficit
Brussels, 15 May 2019. Public television networks in all 28 Member States of the European Union are broadcasting the Eurovision Debate between the candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission — also called ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, which is German for ‘lead candidate’. It is the last debate before the European Parliament election, held a week later throughout Europe to elect the 751 Members of the European Parliament. Manfred Weber, a protégé of Angela Merkel from the centre-right European People’s Party and Frans Timmermans, the Maastricht-born nominee of the Party of European Socialists, are the favourites to take on what the moderators of the debate call “Europe’s top job”. But none of them will end up in this position. Instead, Ursula von der Leyen, another protégée of Merkel and also from the EPP, is designated and then voted in as President of the Commission, becoming the first woman to lead Europe’s executive branch. The European heads of State and governments, gathered in the European Council, are behind this change of plans. As per the European treaties, they are not doing anything wrong:
Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. (Article 17(7) of the Treaty on European Union).
Von der Leyen belongs to the party with the most seats in the European Parliament, so one could say she and her Commission mirror the results of the 2019 elections. But the Spitzenkandidat system, which successfully brought Jean-Claude Juncker to power in 2014, should have allowed Manfred Weber to take the top job. Instead, it collapsed, in what was described as a “betrayal of democracy”. This showed that the process to decide who should lead Europe was not as well-oiled as expected, and was in the end quite dubious.
“Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
This question was once asked by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Europe replied, “call the High-Representative for Foreign affairs!”. But if the US President were to call Europe, the answer is less clear. In Europe, the word ‘President’ — just like the word ‘Council’ — is so overused it is almost losing its meaning. The EU has a President of the Commission, a President of the European Parliament, a President of the European Central Bank, and a President of the European Council. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, President of the European Council, are two people Joe Biden could call. They often travel together on state visits to represent the Union, hoping that they will both get a chair to sit on — since Türkiye’s Erdoğan seemingly did not get the memo in April 2021. Speaking of councils, the EU has the European Council and the Council of the European Union (gathering national ministers holding a portfolio relevant to the bill discussed, Jacques Delors wanted it to function as a Senate). And no, the Council of Europe is not part of the EU, it is a separate entity with other competences.
Even if high school programmes were to provide sufficient information about how the EU works — which they do not —, it would still be normal to be confused by this web of institutions with twinning names. The average European surely would not be able to tell them apart, they might also not be able to name the President of the European Commission or of the European Council. In a Union that emphasises on the fact it is not a federation, rather a gathering of States, one still looks up more to the national leaders. Merkel then, Macron now are who people in- and outside of Europe think of when they talk about Europe. The EU running on a Franco-German engine, this is not surprising, but it does raise the question of the legitimacy of pan-European leaders. When people go to the polls in national elections, they know who the candidates for the leading positions are. In France, a semi-presidential republic, you vote for the President directly. In parliamentary democracies such as the Netherlands or Germany, the leader of the winning party or coalition becomes the head of the Government. They automatically become the face of the nation, the person to praise or blame depending on the country’s fortunes. The European electoral system does not allow such a clear mechanism.
Re-thinking the electoral system
Rules for the European election change from state to state, but there is a common condition for all of them: proportional representation. This means that the share of seats a party gets mirrors the share of votes it won. The scale of proportionality can be either regional (Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Poland) or national (all the other states). In each state, you vote for a national party, which is required to display their affiliation to a European party. In countries with first-past-the-post (also known as ‘winner takes it all’) systems such as France, having proportional representation for the European Parliament is a great opportunity for smaller parties to stand out, and thus to open up new conversations. Nevertheless, the European election is among the least popular ones. 1 in 2 Europeans went to vote in the 2019 election; the viewership of the Eurovision debate was very low (72% of respondents in five Member States said they did not watch it); and the voting system made national topics more salient than European stakes. In France, for example, the European election was a rematch of the 2017 Presidential election between Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche/Renew and Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally/ID.
Macron has been a fond supporter of transnational lists for European elections. This means that instead of voting for lists representing national parties, voters could choose between lists including representatives from several or all Member States, under the banner of a pan-European party. This would put more emphasis on the leaders of such lists and give them more legitimacy to claim the EU’s top job, eventually reinforcing the Spitzenkandidat system. It would mean that the President of the Commission would have a true mandate stemming from the will of Europeans — and the overturning of this will by the European Council like it was the case in 2019 would be a lot more controversial. A proposal to this effect was rejected in 2018, on the grounds that it was “elite-driven” and would make France and Germany, the two most populous states, even more powerful.
But one other reason that is not mentioned as often is the effect it would have on the European integration process. Transnational lists would provide less space for the political subcultures of each state to flourish in the European Parliament. Making the one truly democratic institution of the EU, the European Parliament, more supranational could have a significant impact on the federalisation of the Union. And that is a step not many in Europe are ready to take. Conservatives are reluctant to give away even more national sovereignty, which is what motivated the Dutch ‘no’ to the European Constitution in their 2005 referendum. The French also held a referendum that year, and also refused the Constitution — but in that case, the left-wing shone through with their disapproval of the enshrining of the EU as a neo-liberal power, and thus a threat to the welfare state.
Less say to the governments, more to the citizens
Making the EU more supranational is thus a touchy topic. But to address the Union’s democratic deficit, making it less intergovernmental might be another solution. The EU currently has a rather top-down democratic approach: only the Commission can make legal proposals, to be voted by Parliament and the Council, and the latter often uses qualified majority voting. This system requires that a draft bill be approved by a number of members representing 55% of the EU’s population and 65% of the Member States. It has blocked some initiatives, because of alliances between governments (such as Hungary and Poland). Generalising simple majorities could lift such blockades.
The 2018-19 Yellow Vest movement in France has highlighted that democracy is not only representative. A government elected every four or five years cannot always accurately mirror the changing dynamics amongst an evermore volatile population. Involving citizens in a more direct manner is thus crucial. That was the spirit behind the launching of the Conference of the Future of Europe in 2021. More than 700.000 participants from all 27 Member States, selected in a demoscopic manner, discussed topics such as climate change, European democracy, health — the panel that gathered in Maastricht in February 2022 discussed the EU’s place in the world and migration policy. They rendered hundreds of recommendations for the Commission to examine. The Conference can be easily seen as the largest instance of participative democracy in history, in terms of scale and ambition. But one year later, it has left a bitter taste. Some recommendations require treaty changes, which the Council does not agree upon. In a petition, the citizen’s panel “denounce this silent and stalling behaviour of the Council which is damaging the potential of the Conference”. In their efforts to preserve the status quo of the EU as an intergovernmental entity, European governments are prolonging a democratic standstill.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.