This year’s European elections constitute the eighth direct election of the European Parliament, but they differ in one important regard from previous elections: For the first time in history, all major European parties have selected front runner candidates to lead their respective tickets, and have positioned them as contenders for the office of President of the European Commission.
The Social Democrats campaign under the banner of Martin Schulz, the current President of the European Parliament. The radical Left has nominated Alexis Tsirpras, the current opposition leader in Greece. Conservatives are uniting behind the EU-Commissioner Viviane Reding and the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and finally Jean-Claude Juncker.
The system wasn’t designed for candidates and partiesThe decision to introduce front runner candidates into European electoral campaigns follows on the heels of the Lisbon reforms, which mandate that the president of the European Commission must be elected in acknowledgment of the outcome of the European elections. But the Lisbon treaty doesn’t provide further specifications: Europe’s heads of state are not required to elect the candidate of the strongest party.
Still, the front runner strategy is often seen as an attempt to overcome the democratic deficit. Simon Hix, a political scientist from the London School of Economics, is especially eloquent on this point. He argues that the democratic deficit of the EU isn’t the result of institutional shortcomings but of insufficient political competition at the continental level. Hix believes that the deficit can be overcome, and that popular identification with the European project can be strengthened, by making European elections more like national elections by introducing front runners and competing party platforms.
Can we thus expect a deeper democracy from this year’s elections?
Hix is correct in arguing that the main cause of the European democratic deficit isn’t the lack of democratic institutions but the lifelessness of existing mechanisms of political decision-making. But the correct diagnosis of the problem leads to a more difficult solution than Hix is willing to admit.
The most important argument for a personalization of European elections is this: If elections have a visible effect on the composition and political priorities of the European Commission, it will become much easier to convey the importance of European institutions to Europe’s citizens. There’s only one problem: The system of governance at the European level wasn’t designed for candidates and parties.
Attractive to Eurosceptic and populist partiesIn contrast to their national counterparts, the President of the European Commission has little influence over the composition of the EU’s executive body. It largely depends on the (partisan) preferences of the governments of the EU’s member states. Additionally, the consensus-based processes that dominate at the European level imply the need for political pragmatism: Policies are considered acceptable if they can attract support from different countries, not if they adhere to the platform of any particular party. Turning an electoral victory into policies inspired by partisan preferences poses a daunting challenge for any front runner candidate. Electoral promises are bound to be broken.
One might object that election campaigns bear little resemblance to the practice of governance. The focus on front runners might still be useful if it forces Europe’s parties to make this election about Europe (and about their competing visions for the future of the European project), instead of campaigning on the back of national issues. It would turn European elections from a second-rate event into a truly meaningful political exercise.
Can we expect such a development? Especially mainstream parties confront a strategic dilemma: Issues that matter at the European level – primarily related to the design and regulation of the single market – hardly excite the passions of voters at home.
Studies about the politicization of the EU show that fundamental questions about European integration create the greatest national echoes: What changes does EU membership imply for individual countries? How should the weight be distributed among states? How far should Europe’s expansion proceed? That’s one reason why the European elections are especially attractive to Eurosceptic and populist parties. But mainstream parties are caught in the bind: They can either attempt to campaign with a few European platitudes or fall back on national issues.
Result of an informational deficitThe introduction of front runners can hardly change those facts. Personalized jousting remains a democratic facade as long as the issues that matter in the European Parliament fail to resonate with Europe’s citizens.
Here lies the root cause of Europe’s democratic deficit: A majority of people is well aware – partially as a result of years of crisis – that decisions at the European level carry great political importance. But at the same time, knowledge of the EU and of Europe’s institutions is fragmentary at best. Many feel helplessly surrendered to decisions from Brussels or Strasbourg.
Europe’s democratic deficit is the result of an informational deficit, which cannot be overcome through a more exciting electoral campaign. It demands systematic efforts to communicate and justify the minutiae of European politics.
By Guylain Gustave Moke