Europe's democratic challenge

Adam Hug / Jun 2016

Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Martin Schulz. Photo: European Union

The EU finds itself at a crossroads: Britain faces a historic vote on Thursday that will shape the future of both the country and the EU. For all the Sturm und Drang of the referendum campaign, the UK is far from being the only EU member state wrestling with the question of whether the EU has enough democratic legitimacy. Across Europe the long-term political impacts of the 2008 economic crisis, the migrant crisis, national scandals and the rising pressures of globalisation have helped to drive public distrust in traditional sources of influence and authority, a schism between the people and those in power. As an institution working across 28 member states with often divergent interests and public attitudes on a huge range of issues, the EU feels this strain more than perhaps any other body. From the Greek crisis, to the rise of Podemos in Spain ahead of Sunday’s election, to the rise of the far and radical right in France, Germany and across Eastern Europe, the established EU order is under threat unlike any time in recent history.

A recent Foreign Policy Centre publication, Europe and the people: Examining the EU's democratic legitimacy Europe and the people: Examining the EU's democratic legitimacy, brought together a mix of experts to examine some of the challenging issues around how accountable and transparent EU institutions actually are. The central findings are clear: public trust in the EU is in decline, but so too is trust in national governments. While recognising the role of existing EU democratic mechanisms it is clear that in themselves they do not currently provide the level of connection to the public that is needed. Further attempts to artificially create a European ‘demos’ by handing more powers to the European level, or grafting additional democratic mechanisms onto EU institutions, fails to meet the public mood in many states demanding greater national involvement in decision making.

An example of this ‘do more’ tendency is the emerging common ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process for leadership of the Commission, which led to the election of Jean Claude Juncker as Commission President. The process led to a transfer in power and influence over candidate selection away from member states to the European Political groups at a time when the public mood is pushing in the opposite direction, and limited the pool of candidates able to put themselves forward. While a handful of states paid attention during the 2014 European Parliament elections, particularly those with a candidate in the race, many did not engage fully in the process and continued to use the elections as second-order debates on national issues. Particularly in countries with a history of constituency-based elections there is also a need to look again at the voting systems used to elect members of the European Parliament, potentially returning to systems with MEPS for local areas while maintaining the required proportionality through a national top-up list.

The EU must continue the tentative steps being made to enhance the role of national parliaments in European decision-making. This can involve consulting them directly earlier in the process of legislative development, potentially giving them the power to suggest new laws, further developing the yellow, orange and red card warning and blocking mechanisms for unwanted laws and enhancing the role of national parliaments in final EU decision-making. Perhaps building on the model of the German Constitutional Court, national courts or bodies can play an increased role in checking the ability of the ECJ in reinterpreting EU legislation in relation to the core treaties rather than the meaning of directives and regulations intended by their framers, with some experts suggesting limited ways to nationally disapply EU law in response to public or Parliamentary concern. These shifts could be supported by new mechanisms at an EU level to monitor and protect the principle of subsidiarity (that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen).

The principle of strengthening the power of nation state parliaments and institutions within the EU system is not primarily because national institutions are more trusted than European ones. In most member states the data suggests the opposite is true with national politicians even less trusted. However EU citizens rightly feel they have a greater ability to directly influence decision makers and decisions within their own borders.

There is a need to further reform and reinvigorate the EU’s structures of consultation and stakeholder engagement. This could include reconstructing the European Economic & Social Committee to involve the election of representatives from within its constituent groups and doing more to provide clear, issue-based information about the policy issues at the heart of EU consultations that could be more easily disseminated to facilitate online campaigns.

There are a number of incremental steps, as shown in the publication, which over time could help to improve the EU’s accountability and democratic legitimacy as it wrestles with deep and wide-ranging economic, political and strategic challenges. However they will not, or certainly not by themselves, address the fundamental lack of trust that many people feel in so many traditional institutions that is part of a broader need to respond at a local and national level to the lingering impact of the 2008 crisis.


Adam Hug

Adam Hug

June 2016

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