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European democracy’s moment of truth

European democracy’s moment of truth

Challenges facing a divided union 

by John Nugée

Thu 19 Jun 2014

The first message from the European parliamentary elections last month is that Europe is still very far from being one electoral space. The elections remained very national in character. Anti-EU parties did well in some states, notably France, Denmark and the UK. In others they fared less well than expected, with Geert Wilders’ Freedom party underperforming expectations in the Netherlands and orthodox pro-EU parties doing well in states like Poland, Italy and Germany.  There is still no European Demos, no single ‘voice of the people of Europe’.

This in turn means that the political class can pick and choose what they want to read into the result, and not surprisingly, many have seen in the outcome mainly a confirmation of their prior beliefs. Those in favour of a closer union and a more federal Europe point to the fact that the anti-EU parties remain in a minority – the parliament will be dominated by MEPs from the more traditional parties who believe in the European project. For the dedicated federalists, this is confirmation that the drive towards an ‘ever closer union’ must continue.

But democracy consists of more than choosing a winner at a quinquennial election. The ballot is not the end of the democratic process, but the start of it, and how the victors choose to use their victory dictates whether or not the democracy is healthy and will survive. It is natural for the federalists, in the first moment of victory, to take comfort from the 75% who voted for parties that believe in ‘more Europe’. It is more important that they reflect on the nearly 25% who did not, and construct a dialogue with the disaffected.

Unfortunately, this is not something Europe’s politicians are good at. For nearly 60 years, Europe’s political class has governed de haut en bas, deciding on behalf of the people of Europe what is in their best interest, but seldom listening to their concerns when the people have the temerity to disagree. 

This makes the response to the election even more important. Europe’s political elite are not unaware of concerns over the ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU. In response to the accusation that the parliament (the only elected part of European governance) is too weak, its powers have been increased. The leaders of Europe are now duty-bound to ‘take the result of the parliamentary election into account’ when choosing the next president of the Commission.

But what this phrase means in practice is unclear. For some, it means merely that the political persuasion of the chosen candidate should reflect the votes for the parliament – with more votes going to the centre-right than the Socialists, the argument goes, the next president of the Commission should be from the centre-right.

But others go further, and hold that the Council should choose the candidate of the leading party in the parliament. That party is now the European People’s Party (EPP) and their candidate is Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and a dedicated federalist. For Juncker, the solution to almost every problem that Europe faces is a closer union and a stronger central government. Just as in the Soviet Union, most of the problems were deemed to be because the country was not Communist enough, so for Juncker and his followers, most of Europe’s problems are because the Union is not close enough and the central authorities not powerful enough.

The challenge for the heads of government who have the task of choosing the next Commission president is that this is not a view that commands a solid consensus either among the leaders themselves or among their peoples. David Cameron, the UK prime minister, is far from the only one who would find such an appointment deeply difficult to accept. Repeated polls across all 28 member states show no majority for a closer union. Appointing a dedicated federalist to run the Commission risks exacerbating the discontent and feeling of distance that large elements of the electorate already feel.

For Britain, the issues are even starker. The balancing act between a centralising EU on the one hand, and a deeply sceptical British electorate on the other, was already proving difficult even before last month’s election, and the two election results – a national victory for the anti-EU Ukip and a European victory for the pro-federalist EPP – have made the position of pro-EU conservatives even more exposed.

The widely-leaked warning from Cameron that the appointment of Juncker could destabilise the UK government and hasten moves for the country to leave the EU is not a comment from a position of strength. But although he is not alone in his concerns, Cameron faces the formidable opposition of Angela Merkel, who has voiced her support for Juncker, and he has insufficient allies and no veto to stop her getting her way.

Europe’s elite have experimented with giving their parliament, and so their people, a slightly greater say in the government of the Union. How they collectively respond to the electorate’s voices, both the 75% who voted for mainstream parties and the 25% who clearly do not agree with the Union’s direction, will define the state of European democracy in the years to come.

John Nugée is a Director of OMFIF.

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