Tuesday

17th Jan 2017

Opinion

The day we got EU parliamentarianism

  • The European Parliament - its deputies have greater powers than their national counterparts (Photo: European Parliament)

Parliamentarism means that a parliament elects a country's prime minister and decides its laws. A majority can turn against the prime minister, in which case the government must resign or call an election.

The essence of democracy is that we can go to the polls and elect a new majority, a new government and new laws.

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This democratic essence is now guaranteed in all EU countries. A country must be democratic in order to join the EU.

But the EU itself is not a democracy.

This year, 2014, was when the EU underwent a systemic change - as yet incomplete and still remote from citizen voters.

Today, 15 July, the European Parliament is set to vote in Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President.

Juncker was a successful Prime Minister of Luxembourg for nineteen years, but he was ousted in the last general election and did not seek election for the European Parliament. When he was not elected in his own country, he became the centre-right's candidate for the commission presidency.

The Socialists proposed European Parliament President Martin Schulz, while the Liberals proposed their group leader, and former Belgian PM, Guy Verhofstadt.

The Greens put forward two candidates while the Left proposed the leader of Greece's principal opposition party.

Various eurosceptics did not take part. They criticised the Union's lack of democracy, but did not participate at its birth. They underestimated the democratic "coup" that was skillfully staged by the European Parliament's powerful secretary-general, Klaus Welle.

Welle orchestrated the introduction of European parliamentarianism with campaigning during the EU elections and transnational TV debates among the candidates.

But the president-hopefuls remained largely unknown outside their own countries.

Thus European parliamentarianism was born, but it was not felt as such by citizens. Juncker was elected, but without voters choosing him directly.

What will the new EU Commission President say when he lectures China about democracy and the question is put to him: How many votes did you get in the last European elections?

The answer will be none, for Juncker did not stand. No citizen voters had a chance of accepting or rejecting him. No one could make him liable for the eight years he was chairman of the Eurogroup and watched as youth unemployment rocketed in Greece and Spain.

I have known Juncker since he was a young assistant in the Ministry of Finance in Luxembourg. He is competent and flexible but he was not the preferred choice of national leaders.

They were taken by surprise by the pace and momentum of the election campaign.

Now Juncker has to be elected by an absolute majority of MEPs – meaning at least 376 of the 751 deputies. But this is a done deal.

Looking to 2019 and the next European election, the EU "prime minister" will effectively be elected by the European Parliament.

The majority of MEPs, and through them citizen voters throughout the EU, will decide who will head the European Commission, essentially the EU’s government.

Next time round more voters will be aware of what is at stake. Thus a major step towards European parliamentarianism comes about.

It will not be easy for national government ministers to put the ketchup back in the bottle, even if they can plausibly argue that they have more democratic legitimacy than a European Parliament which was elected on a 43 percent turnout.

Gossip

Next time turnout is likely to be higher because there will be stronger campaigns. But it will still be an artificial process.

Europeans are not, and are unlikely to become, a common people.

There are scarcely ten Danes who know Juncker. How can people really engage in choosing candidates they do not know?

I once stood talking with former Commission President Romano Prodi at Brussels Airport. Many passers-by recognised and greeted him. But they were officials, ministers, and members of parliament. No ordinary constituents came by.

But when Prodi crossed the square in Bologna, people spoke to him. He had personal contact with voters, but only in Italy.

That is how it is, whether one likes it or not.

Voters need to know these people at EU level. We have to choose between them. We need to be able to discuss things with them and keep up with media gossip about their private lives, as we do at national level.

If we are to have a vibrant European democracy, we must have a common public space with an international media and journalists who cooperate across borders to uncover scandals and keep EU politicians on the straight and narrow path.

Even then it will be hard to engage voters with such matters as the election of the President of the Commission.

Electing commissioners

There would be much greater electoral interest in being able to choose one's own country's representative on the Commission.

If that were to happen, national parties and movements could compete over who was the best candidate.

But we will not get a Commission with members elected like that, as EU leaders would never sanction it.

But their powers are already limited. They can only "suggest" whom they would like to be commissioner. The final decision has to be negotiated with the commission president-elect.

Then the parliament has a say.

The EP rejected two candidates in 2009 (even though, technically, it can only reject the commission as whole rather than individuals) and is likely to reject someone this time round too. Of key importance to MEPs is the number of women – deputies are likely to hold out for 10 of the 28 commissioners being female.

In 2019 the Parliament may seek to decide on the political colour of commissioners.

Will this new European parliamentarianism be perceived as more democratic by voters, or will they feel that they have lost more influence than they have gained?

Making the EU more democratic

A big question is what reforms are required to reconcile democracy in member states with democracy at EU level.

In the next five years, Jean-Claude Juncker will be the head of a de facto common EU government with much stronger powers than any national government possesses.

The Commission is the only body that can propose new laws at EU level.

Meanwhile, members of the EU Parliament have far greater influence on most legislation than national ministers and MPs.

Now they also have a say in forming the EU government, the commission, with their success in chosing Jean-Claude Juncker.

The writer is a former Danish MEP (1979-2008)

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