It’s the parties, stupid!


Prospects for a trans-national European democracy by Jo Leinen President of the European Movement International (Wold Commerce Review june 2014)

During the campaign  for the 2014 European elections many parties campaigned in favour of further democratisation of the European Union. How exactly this should be achieved  remained  somewhat vague,especially given that  the EU’s political system already fulfils a lot of democratic  standards comparable to the systems of the Union’s own member states. However, progress can and should be  made  especially  through an  evolution  of the  European political parties.

With only a few exceptions  EU legal acts require the approval of the directly elected European Parliament. As in other federal systems  a ‘second  chamber’,  the  member  states,  also need to  agree  with  a  majority  in the  Council. The  Lisbon  Treaty has  created  more  links between the  democratically  elected European Parliament and the election  of the President  of the European Commission. That is not to say the system could not be  improved  upon. One could  point  to  the  abolition  of the remaining unanimity voting procedures in the Council and the few legislative  processes, in which  the  European Parliament plays no or only a consultative role. However, unused  potential exists with  regard  to  a true  European democracy  - for that national parties calling for a more democratic EU would have to join powers at the European level.

In any representative democracy, but especially in parliamentary governmental systems, political  parties  are  of prime importance. As an intermediary  between the people  and the political institutions  they are indispensable to the articulation of the electorate’s interests. At the European level, parties have existed for some time already, although not necessarily in the traditional sense.

Parties such as the PES (Party of European Socialists/since 1992), the  EPP (European  People’s  Party/since  1976),  ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe/since 1976) and the EGP (European  Green  Party/since  2004)  are  missing  the  means, legal recognition  and  powers  to effectively fulfil the  classical functions of political parties, which continue  to be carried out by the national parties. This makes it almost impossible to run effective election  programmes and election  campaigns  - and thus hold political debates - beyond the national context.

So far European parties have found recognition only within the EU institutional architecture in the narrower sense through the grant  of EU funds  under  certain  conditions  since 2004. How narrow  the  limits of this recognition  were  becomes  evident from the fact that, in absence  of a European legal statute for political parties, European parties  had  to register  themselves as national  civil society  organizations  (mostly in Belgium or Luxembourg) and were treated as such by national authorities. 

In addition, the electoral programmes of the European parties were  barely  perceptible in the  election  campaigns, because the seats of the European Parliament are awarded solely under national  quotas   to  national  parties.  Moreover  the  German Federal  Constitutional   Court  does  not  recognise   European parties as real parties and referred in its judgments (in which it declared  the  five- and  three-percent hurdle  in European elections unconstitutional), that in 2009 more than 160 parties were represented in the European Parliament and further party fragmentation therefore would not constitute a real threat. The judgement clearly referred to national parties; the 13 European political families represented in the European Parliament were largely ignored in the verdicts of the court. The role of European parties  is  therefore   limited  to  a  coordinating  role  for  the national member  parties and the members  of their respective party-families in national governments, for example in advance of meetings  of the Council.

The  2014  European  elections   have  brought  with  them   a historical novelty insofar as the European parties are now given a voice in the nomination of top candidates for the President of the  European Commission. This was possible  due  to  the rules of the Lisbon Treaty, which were applied for the first time and  according  to  which the  European Parliament  elects  the Commission’s President.

Indeed the nomination of frontrunners and the gradual personalization   of  the  election  campaigns   has  had  a  very positive  impact  and  helped  to  stop  the  tide  of decreasing voter turnout. Thanks in part to the televised  debates, media coverage  started  to  look beyond  national  borders,  focusing far more  attention to  European topics  than  in all previous European election campaigns. Despite this, the election campaigns  were still conducted by the national parties, which have  the  necessary  resources  and  structures. This led to the paradoxical situation that while there  were candidates for the most important office in the EU, their faces and names - just like the names and emblems of European parties - were hardly seen on any billboard, let alone on a ballot paper.

An exception  was Martin Schulz in Germany, since he was also the leading candidate of the national social-democratic  party, SPD.  The German  conservatives, the  CDU,  however, almost exclusively showed Chancellor Angela Merkel on their posters - who did not even stand for elections. Thus, for most voters, the link between a particular candidate and a party was not clear.

This ambiguity  can  only be  made  transparent if democracy is trans-nationalized by strengthening the position of the European  parties.  An important   step  in  this  direction  was already realised  in the  final plenary  session  of the  European Parliament prior to the European elections. This plenary session was the last chance  for the Parliament to complete  legislative processes  within the  2009-2014 period  and  was loaded  with important  decisions, such  as the  completion  of the  banking union.

The adoption of new rules on the statute for European parties therefore  escaped  media attention. Nevertheless a small revolution  took place: for the first time in history, a European legal   status   for  political  parties   was  created.  When   the regulation  enters  into force in 2017, this legal status  will give automatic  legal recognition  to European political parties in all member states.

In  other   words,  all member   states   would  accept   that  the European parties exist at the European level, which would then create  the  basis to develop  their activities and  campaigns  in future. The newly elected European Parliament must now build on that decision by advancing a unified European electoral law. The Lisbon Treaty clearly states that members  of the European Parliament  are  ‘representatives  of the  Union’s  citizens’,  and not  anymore,  as in the  previous  treaties,  ‘representatives  of the  peoples  of the  States’. If the  members  of Parliament  are representing all European citizens, how can it be defended that the seats in the Parliament are still solely distributed according to national quotas among national parties?

Ever since the Treaty establishing  the European Coal and Steel Community  (ECSC)  of 1951, the  European Parliament  - then still called the Parliamentary Assembly - and the Council have had  a mandate to  adopt  a uniform  European electoral  law, whereupon Parliament  can  “draw  up a proposal  to lay down the provisions necessary for the election of its Members by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member states”.

This constitutional mandate was poorly implemented through the European Elections Act of 1976, which specified only a few basic common  principles for the  relevant  national  provisions on the European elections, for example that the elections must be based  on proportional representation using either  the list system or transferable  vote system and that  members  of the European Parliament should not hold a similar office in one of the member  states. With the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1992 this practice was legitimised ex post by the alternation of the article in question into a softer version, stating that the common rules shall provide for an electoral law “in accordance with a uniform procedure or in accordance with principles common to all member states”. There was truly no lack of attempts to provide  for a uniform European electoral law in the history of European integration, “Europe needs a common electoral law with transnational  lists decided   democratically by the European parties”

but all attempts were deemed to fail because  of the resistance of national parties, national governments, or sometimes  from within the Parliament itself. In 1998, the European Parliament proposed, on the initiative of the then Vice-President Georgios Anastassopoulos, for the first time, an option that would have introduced a transnational constituency comprising the whole territory of the European Union.

This idea  was  particularly  controversial  in the  debate, even though only a small part  of the  deputies would  have  been selected  via pan-European lists. According to the proposal the voters would have had two votes: one for the allocation of the national quota among the national parties, and another one for one of the European parties, which would have been responsible to select the candidates running on the transnational lists.

The importance of the European parties would thereby increase significantly, as they could actively take part in the campaign to present their candidates and programmes. Although according to  the  ‘Anastassopoulos  proposal’  only  10  percent   of  the deputies were supposed to be elected  on transnational lists, member  states blocked the proposal. A similar initiative by the British liberal Andrew Duff in 2011, which foresaw 25 additional MEPs to be selected on the basis of transnational lists, failed to secure a decision in Parliament.

In  the  new  legislative  period  the  new  European  Parliament as well as member  states, and  the  national  parties, have the opportunity to  prove  that  their  calls for a more  democratic Europe are more than mere lip service. It is high time that the political public debates are freed from their national chains and conducted across country borders, as has been the case within the European Parliament for a long time, where MEPs already organise   themselves   into  political  groups   rather  than  into country delegations.

To this end, Europe needs a common  electoral law with transnational  lists decided   democratically  by  the  European parties. This would be the final breakthrough towards election campaigns  and a European public space with European personalities  and programmes - and a milestone  for European democracy. ■