Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Commission tells Macron to pick political side

  • Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (l) on a visit to French Guiana with French president Emmanuel Macron (r). He wants Macron's party to reveal which group it will join. (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has called on political parties to declare which European groups in the European Parliament they will join after the elections of May 2019.

"National and regional political parties should position themselves clearly and distinctively on the main issues at stake in the European debate," the Brussels-based EU institution said in a paper published on Wednesday (14 February).

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  • The EU commission said in its paper on Wednesday that the lead candidate system halted the drop in voter turnout - without much evidence to support (Photo: European Parliament)

While many political parties already affiliate themselves with a pan-European group in the EU parliament, there are some newcomers since the 2014 elections that have not yet declared their allegiances.

Most notably, French president Emmanuel Macron's party, La Republique en Marche, has not yet affiliated itself with any of the existing groups - nor declared if it would aim at starting a whole new group.

"The links between national parties and European parties should be more visible and encourage more openness in the European political landscape," the commission said.

The paper also argued that national and regional political parties should announce before the elections which candidate they would support for the commission.

Lead candidates

"It is important to nominate a lead candidate as quickly as possible," commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told political parties on Wednesday at a press conference, presenting the report.

The document included several recommendations aimed at improving the European public debate, with the unspoken reason being the lacklustre voter turnout at EU parliament elections in most member states.

It embraced the 2014 "experiment" with lead candidates (or so-called 'Spitzenkandidaten') for the main political groups.

Five of the groups had selected a figurehead as the parliament's proposed president of the commission.

The European People's Party (EPP) became the largest political group, and EPP candidate Juncker managed to rally a majority of MEPs behind him.

This left the EU's national government leaders - who, until then, had been able to handpick the commission president - with little room for manoeuvre. In the end, they had to accept Juncker as the commission's new head.

Now Juncker wants to consolidate the process.

The commission paper said that the lead candidate process should be kept in place, and proposed some improvements.

European primaries

It argued that political groups should nominate their lead candidate before the end of 2018, and preferably in "an open, inclusive and transparent way".

"In 2014, European political parties selected their candidates relatively late in the process, leaving only a few weeks for them to campaign and create a profile across the continent," the commission said in the paper.

"If European political parties, which bring together like-minded national and regional political parties and their leaders, were to hold, for instance 'primary' elections to select their candidates, the process of familiarisation and profile-building could start earlier," it added.

The commission argued that primary elections would mobilise voters and increase awareness of the upcoming EU parliament elections.

Voter turnout has never been as high as the first time European Parliament elections were held in 1979, when 62 percent of eligible voters showed up.

In the seven subsequent elections, voter turnout has been lower than the previous elections every single time.

While voter turnout dropped from 45.47 percent in 2004 to 42.97 percent in 2009 (2.5 percentage points), it dropped only slightly further to 42.61 percent in 2014 (0.36 percentage points).

Unfounded claim

In Wednesday's paper, the commission claimed that the slower decrease was due in part to the lead candidate system.

"While not reversing the downward path of voter turnout witnessed in previous elections to the European Parliament, the lead candidate system helped in stemming its fall as it injected a greater element of information and choice," the paper said.

However, that claim is hardly backed up by any evidence.

A footnote attached to the second part of the citation referred to a 2015 commission report on the 2014 elections.

That 2015 paper does not prove a clear correlation between voter turnout and the existence of the lead candidate system.

The only quantitative piece of evidence is a survey requested by the EU parliament, in which 5 percent said they voted in 2014 to influence the choice of commission president.

However, respondents to that survey were allowed to give up to three answers.

Some 41 percent of respondents said that they always vote, and it is unclear to what extent there is an overlap with the respondents who said they showed up to choose the commission president.

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