The results of the European Parliament elections were only a little less predictable than the fact that the total voter turnout should have fallen once again to just over 40 percent. It is true that this would be regarded as quite a healthy voting record in a mid-term congressional election in the United States. But it is deeply troubling for the European Parliament which will – when, as is now very likely, the Lisbon Treaty comes into force – play an even more important role in the lives of the 750 million voters in the EU in the future than it has in the past.
In broad brush terms the centre-right European People’s Party – the largest in the European Parliament – has advanced, even after allowing for the defection of the British Tories to an alliance with cranky right-wing conservatives in Poland and the Czech Republic. The centre-left Party of European Socialists has lost substantial ground – mainly in Germany, France, Italy and the UK - and the Liberals have marked time. The Greens and, in some countries, both the extreme right and the far left have made gains – including the British National Party (BNP) in Britain.
One consequence of the results in that the incumbent President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, will probably now be reappointed by the new Parliament (without opposition). But a key question, at a time of profound economic crisis, is how it was that the centre-right government parties in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere were able to steal so many of the policy clothes of the social democrats – especially on economic issues such as public spending and stricter financial regulation – and emerge stronger in this election.
This crisis is unlikely to slow down the transfer of decision making responsibilities by Member States to the European Union. This is in spite of the virtual disappearance of a strongly Euro-federalist political current in the EU and the yawning gap of credibility between the EU institutions and important swathes of public opinion. Governments know that EU unity is needed in piloting a way out of a decade of low growth and high unemployment. The current debate on stronger EU regulation of the financial system is an obvious case in point.
However, this only highlights the profound contradiction between the continuing trend towards closer European cooperation and integration and the widespread doubts about how to build an effective democracy at the European level. Unless the decline in voter participation (down to 43 percent this year) in European elections is reversed doubts about the legitimacy of the European Union's institutions will grow, even as its importance continues to expand.
The current debate has revealed a vogue for mild euro-scepticism (or at least Euro-Parliamentary scepticism). This has been reflected in some recent articles published by openDemocracy. In her commentary on the European Parliament elections, Gisela Stuart rightly points out that MEPs and the European political parties they form remain accountable primarily to their constituent national leaderships and have failed to establish themselves clearly on the political horizons of European voters.
Stuart is also right to say that voters taking part in European Parliament elections are not being given a real choice about who should lead the EU’s supra-national executive – the Commission. Unless and until voters are able to choose not only between rival policy platforms offered by the emerging European political parties but also choose between the political personalities who are proposed to head the Commission, readiness to vote in European elections will continue to atrophy. The result will be a continued decline in voter turnout and, consequently, a disproportionate over-representation of extreme right wing populist, xenophobic and racist parties.
Unfortunately, Gisela Stuart’s proposed solutions to these problems fall well short of what is required. She says that in future all new legislative proposals should pass the “subsidiarity” test: that is they should justify why action at the European rather than the national level is necessary. But this is already the case. Indeed under changes which will come in with the likely implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, national Parliament will be given even greater powers to question and even block legislative proposals which they believe violate subsidiarity. Moreover the public will also be able to require the Commission to consider proposals for new laws if they can demonstrate sufficient support.
In his analysis, Anand Menon, suggests a far more drastic solution to the ills of the European Parliament: shutting down the entire institution. In its place he proposes that democratic control of decisions by the European Commission and – more importantly – the Council of Ministers representing the 27 ember States – be transferred to national Parliaments. To be fair Menon acknowledges the importance and the quality of the members of the European Parliament and even says that they are “far more effective than virtually any Parliament in any domestic setting.”
In spite of this, Menon advocates a return to the situation where national Parliaments nominate representatives to the job of the European Parliament. It is not entirely clear from his article that Anand Menon has studied what happened when such a system existed – as, of course, it did before direct elections were introduced in 1979. This was a time when the volume and importance of the business handled by the then European Community was a fraction of what the European Union is responsible for today.
As a journalist, I covered the meetings of the appointed European Assembly in Luxembourg during those years. The experiment was, by almost universal consent, judged to be a total failure. It simply was not possible for over-burdened members of national Parliaments to give the attention necessary to effectively hold the Commission and the other EU institutions to account.
Many appointed national MPs regarded their periodic trips to the old assembly as little more than a “freebie” and they had little opportunity and interest in trying to understand the wider panoply of interests which drives politics in the different European countries. Consequently, they never developed the knowledge and expertise needed to hold the EU executives (the Commission and the Council) to account.
That is why elections were introduced and why even Menon concedes that his recommended “return to the future” is most unlikely. More worrying is his under-playing of the process by which the EU – and especially the European parliament – continues to acquire greater responsibilities. Of course he is right that national governments will not agree to transfer decision-making powers to the EU simply to give a bigger role to MEPs. Member states do not transfer competences from the national to the European level out of any kind of euro-idealism or federalist commitment.
National governments agree to transfer more and more issues to the European level because they have learned (often the hard way) that some of the most important challenges they face simply cannot be solved at national level. Indeed as the case of justice, internal security and climate change indicate, they also eventually accept that mere improved cooperation between EU states does not always do the trick and that some agreement on shared sovereignty is unavoidable.
There is one increasingly important area of policy where neither national Parliaments nor the European Parliament are really able to hold governments to account – common EU foreign, security and defence policy. This is primarily an area of inter-governmental cooperation but the future appointment of a de facto EU “foreign minister” with a developing EU diplomatic service reflects a profound change. Only by uniting the roles of MEPs and national MPs – perhaps through a hybrid Parliamentary body including both – will governments be made answerable for decisions in this increasingly important area. This is why, whatever politicians say, the European institutional debate will never completely go away.