Saturday

4th Apr 2020

Opinion

Making the EU democratic is desirable but risky

Over the weekend Switzerland held its national elections, while a few days before that EU leaders agreed on a new treaty in Lisbon. The two events had no direct connection, because Switzerland is not an EU member. However, a Swiss would have little difficulty understanding the EU's institutional quarrels. Switzerland has been successfully dealing with the challenge of keeping a multi-confessional, multi-lingual society together for more than 150 years, while respecting a large degree of autonomy for its 26 cantons.

Unwittingly the EU has come up with institutional solutions that often resemble features of the Swiss political system: Ahead of this summit, the EU members have fought hard over the concept of a double majority by which decisions should be adopted by a majority of states, representing at the same time a majority of the population. A double majority is required in Switzerland for legislation to be adopted: The majority of the Parliament and the majority of the second chamber, representing the cantons, have to agree. The same goes for national referenda, which are only won if a majority of the population and a majority vote in at least half the cantons is secured.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The EU's executive, the European Commission, is widely considered to be a faceless bureaucracy, with commissioners being appointed on the basis of nationality rather than merit or popularity. Switzerland is governed for decades by a sort of national-unity government, in which all major parties are represented. The President of the Swiss executive is elected only for a one-year term, because the Swiss do not like over-personalisation of politics. As the Swiss, the EU came up with the idea of rotating presidencies, however exercised until now by member states which chair the Council. But here again the EU will follow the Swiss example, with the new treaty providing for an EU President to be elected for a short 2 ½ years term.

Given the rotating presidency, Swiss national politicians tend to be unknown and national politics perceived to be somewhat technocratic. The result has been little voter mobilisation for national elections with voter turn-out hovering under 50%. A similar perception of European politics has resulted in turn-out rates under 50% in elections to the European Parliament.

The Swiss cantons guard jealously over their prerogatives and - as in other federal system - legislative power rests with the cantons if not otherwise stipulated. The EU also operates on the basis of powers transferred to it by the member states. And there are other parallels between Switzerland and the EU, such as extensive translations efforts and choosing a lesser city as a capital. Obviously there are also a number of significant differences, the greatest of which is that Swiss voters are engaged in policy-making through referenda. In some countries EU-Europeans can block the occasional treaty, but have otherwise no direct say in EU affairs.

The Swiss feel however that they are becoming more 'normal' after an election campaign with unprecedented levels of political polarization and personalization. While some hope that this shakes up the cosiness of a consensus-driven political system, others fear that the resulting tensions may in the long term erode the foundations of Swiss unity. They wonder if their heterogenuous country would hold together without the glue of political consensus.

That is also one of the EU's greatest challenges: If the Union became more democratic as it should, but more polarised as a result, would Europeans accept to be out-voted on a European scale? Would they accept decisions that are taken by majorities of Europeans and member states, even though these decisions may not be supported by a majority in their own country and their own government?

Switzerland's exceptional political system has been a successful response to the challenge of uniting a people divided by languages and religion. It is to be seen how the system will fare if it becomes less exceptional. The EU is struggling to find a model to unite a continent divided by language, history and borders. Its response has been even more unorthodox than Switzerland's, creating a political system in which it is difficult even to identify the executive and the legislative branch of power. Making the EU more 'normal' and more democratic is desirable but risky at the same time.

The author is co-ordinator of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting democracy.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

A coronavirus 'Marshall Plan' alone won't be nearly enough

The 1948-51Marshall Plan provided about €118bn in today's figures in American assistance to European countries. These numbers are dwarfed by prospective needs, and the needs are not just European or American - but global.

Column

Trying to think straight about coronavirus

Clear-headed thinking becomes nearly impossible under this relentless barrage of bad news and apocalyptic analysis, Ferraris writes - a state of mind he describes as "cogito interruptus".

Column

Only democracy can fight epidemics

As Li Wenliang, the deceased Chinese doctor who was reprimanded for reporting on the virus, said: "There should be more openness and transparency".

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking Europe’s Economy Circular – the time is now
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  3. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms

Latest News

  1. EU's 'Irini' Libya mission: Europe's Operation Cassandra
  2. Slovak army deployed to quarantine Roma settlements
  3. Lockdown: EU officials lobbied via WhatsApp and Skype
  4. EU: Athens can handle Covid outbreak at Greek camp
  5. New push to kick Orban's party out of centre-right EPP
  6. EU launches €100bn worker support scheme
  7. Court: Three countries broke EU law on migrant relocation
  8. Journalism hit hard by corona crisis

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us