The recent elections for the European Parliament, despite ensuing some ‘earthquake’ changes to national political scenes, have been business-as-usual to a large extent: yet again no genuine public debate over the ‘European project’ and its ownership. Is a new ‘Plan-D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate’ necessary?
By Vigjilenca Abazi
After the failure of the European Constitution in 2005, the European Commission issued the so-called ‘Plan-D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate’ with the aim to ‘reinvigorate European democracy and help the emergence of a European public sphere, where citizens are given the information and the tools to actively participate … and gain ownership of the European project’. The results of the recent European Parliament elections, albeit not representing a peak of crisis as may have been the referendum for the Constitution, show that this aim is yet to be achieved and new clear steps towards a democratic practice in Europe are still needed.
Elections campaigns and outcomes
In these 2014 European Parliament elections, important campaigning innovations have been introduced. For the first time in the EU, the result of the elections of the European Parliament matter for the selection of the European Commission President, due to reforms of the Lisbon Treaty. The legal reform paved the way for new political efforts to create a pan-European campaign atmosphere. Following a Resolution of the European Parliament encouraging parties to nominate their Commission President candidate, soon European political parties proposed their Spitzenkandidat. It remains to be seen if national Heads of State and Government will approve the candidacy of Jean-Claude Juncker, nominated by the European People’s Party, which emerged as the largest party with 214 seats in the 751-seat parliament.
However, besides the top candidate nomination, much of the elections did not diverge from what they usually are: an opportunity for electorates to send warning signals to their own national leaders. Hence, France’s far-right party’s success is to be understood more as a message to Paris rather than to Brussels. Furthermore, French voters’ choices and rationale did not account how their vote jeopardizes the founder Member State’s position within the European Union in the longer term, and its ability to preserve the Franco-German tandem as valid and functional. Voters in other Member States were also more concerned about national issues (see study covering 11 states that elect 530 of the 751 MEPs).
Crucially, voter turnout was also not a major change with barely above 43% of the 400 million eligible voters. Such level of turnout is not surprising: why would European citizens vote if they generally do not know if and how their vote matters or why the European Parliament is relevant?
The European Parliament (not always) a Decisive Player
The European Parliament plays a key role in EU’s legislative processes and increasingly so in international relations. Whether it is about European Financial Transaction Tax, extended maternity leave policies, climate and energy packages or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States, the European Parliament’s vote is decisive. Yet, European citizens are largely unaware of such discussions and decisions taking place in Brussels or Strasbourg, as well as of their importance. The lack of national media coverage is also a factor in that regard. Moreover, in most critical matters such as sovereign debt crisis within the Eurozone and the following severe austerity measures that were adopted, it is not the European Parliament that citizens saw as being the key player but rather certain more prominent national leaders. This is also a direct consequence of the fact that decision-making on how to address the crisis took place outside the legal framework of the European Union and hence outside the scope of European Parliament’s powers (see previous ACELG blog for details). Finally, and this raises questions about the culture of transparency in the Union, such deals are commonly reached behind closed doors.
Secrecy and the Blame-Game
Without public debate and communication, citizens’ concerns and expectations cannot be fully voiced nor addressed. Without transparency and clarity on who does what, when and how, it becomes difficult for citizens to decipher how decisions that affect their lives profoundly are taken or who is the decisive factor behind them. When meetings take place à huis clos the blame–game between national capitals and Brussels becomes the tone of the debate as opposed to accurate communication to the citizens, leaving space for political rhetoric and not to an informed public discussion (an example of the Dutch immigration debate, see previous ACELG blog).
The first constitutive plenary session of the newly elected European Parliament commences on 1st July. In the run-up to that date, the parliamentary groups and the choice of the next Commission President are likely to be the center of political discussions. The focus should not turn away, however, from the fact that the emergence of populist and strong Euro-skeptical parties are progressively changing the European political landscape. These parties will represent more than 140 MEPs, close to one fifth of the Parliament. Whereas from their perspective the European Parliament will merely serve as a platform for promoting anti-EU views, the major European parties should focus on new efforts for a dialogue with European citizens. Sometimes it may just start by answering a citizen’s email (according to a recent study, of all 766 former Members of the European Parliament that were addressed by citizens via email, only 29% responded).
Public debate in Europe requires new efforts and a serious commitment to depart from current arguments divided along the lines of ‘creditors and debtors’ or ‘pro or anti-Europe’. Beyond elections, democracy in Europe relies on an open discussion geared to finding effective solutions for problems facing all 28 Member States. National media and national parliaments are also crucial to this end, yet it is the task of the European Parliament to ensure that citizen’s concerns are heard and make their voices count in the European Union.
Vigjilenca Abazi is a PhD Researcher at the University of Amsterdam and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Columbia Law School. Her personal page can be accessed here.acelg