Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

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 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join 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.

Russia and money laundering in Europe

After Danske Bank, both the US and the EU need to abandon the principle in bank regulation that it is all right to be a crook as long as you are big.

Macron is confusing rigidity with strength

Jan Zahradil, EU Commission president Spitzenkandidat for the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, responds to Emmaneul Macron's European vision ahead of the May elections.

A compromise proposal for the Article 50 extension

At this week's summit, EU leaders should extend Article 50 until the May European elections. But they should postpone the effective date of the UK's withdrawal from EU rights, rules, and regulations for another year - to May 2020.

Catalan independence trial is widening Spain's divides

What is really needed is not the theatre of a rebellion trial, but a forensic examination of whether public funds were misused, and a process of dialogue and negotiation on how the Catalan peoples' right to self-determination can be satisfied.

My plan for defending rule of law in EU

EPP leader and prospective next EU Commission president Manfred Weber spells out his plan for dealing with recalcitrant EU member states - ahead of Wednesday's EPP meeting on the vexed issue of Hungary's Viktor Orban and Fidesz.

News in Brief

  1. May admits 'not sufficient support' for third Brexit vote
  2. Orban vows more EU 'information campaigns'
  3. May 'effectively out of power', says Scottish leader
  4. May under pressure to resign over Brexit endgame
  5. Million march against Brexit, five million sign petition
  6. Italy first G7 country to sign China Belt and Road deal
  7. EU leaders at summit demand more effort on disinformation
  8. Report: Corbyn to meet May on Monday for Brexit talks

Italy should capitalise on Brexit

Now that the UK is leaving, Italy can, and should, step up. It is the third largest country and economy in the EU. Spain and Poland follow, but they are significantly smaller economically and population-wise.

The Magnitsky Act - and its name

It is disappointing that so many MEPs in the Socialist and Green group caved in to Russian interests, in fear of challenging a plutocratic regime, by saying 'no' to naming the Magnitsky legislation by its rightful name: Magnitsky.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Latest News

  1. Romania presidency shatters EU line on Jerusalem
  2. The Spitzen process - a coup that was never accepted
  3. Russia and money laundering in Europe
  4. Italy takes China's new Silk Road to the heart of Europe
  5. What EU leaders agreed on climate - and what they mean
  6. Copyright and (another) new Brexit vote This WEEK
  7. EU avoids Brexit crash, sets new date for 12 April
  8. Campaigning commissioners blur the lines

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us