Tackling the EU democratic deficit by increasing the representativity of the European Parliament

  1. Background

In recent years, political participation of European citizens has been decreasing. Voter turnout has declined from 62% in the first European Parliament (EP) elections in 1979 to 43% in 2014. At the same time, the 2018 Eurobarometer shows low levels of trust of citizens in the European Parliament (50%) and the European Commission (46%). Many critics argue that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit, noting that EU decision-making procedures are either inaccessible or excessively complex for ordinary citizens to comprehend and engage with. The latter accusation contradicts the notion of liberal democracy, which is one of the EU’s core values and a condition of membership.  

The ‘democratic deficit’ is characterised by two main issues: first, the lack of EP control over the EU executive (the Commission); and second, the lack of citizens’ representation in the EP. The former is based on the assumption that the adoption of a traditional national model, where election outcomes directly impact the composition of the Commission and therefore render it accountable to the EP, would reduce the democratic deficit and enable better representation. However, the latter stance is problematic . In national models, political parties have increasing difficulties in achieving legitimate effective representation and are contested by popular movements such as the Gilets Jaunes in France and Le Sardine in Italy.

The lack of representation can  instead be explained by the fact that Europarties do not compete for the votes of a European electorate.  Rather, national political parties take part in separate elections in their own countries for the votes of their respective national electorates, using mostly  national agendas. Europarties are, thus, overarching bodies of which national parties from the same political family are members and which do not directly compete in elections. For example, socialist parties across Europe are members of the Party of European Socialists (PES). This has led national parties, as well as voters, to abuse European elections, using them to express dissatisfaction with their national governments. As a result issues considered important by European citizens, such as the environment, never reach the EP since MEPs do not campaign on them.  While Europarties adopt electoral manifestos, which should be used by national parties during electoral campaigns, the latter, who control their campaign, prefer adopting their own ones. There are several exceptions, such as the French Parti Socialiste, which chose to translate the manifesto of the PES into French. Added to the fact that national parties select their candidates with minimal consultation at the European level, the European agenda finds itself largely excluded from these campaigns. 

2. Existing measures 

To make the Commission more democratic, Europarties proposed the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) model for the 2014 European election. Each Europarty proposed a lead candidate who would become President of the Commission if the party won the election. As such, when the EPP obtained the largest share of votes in the European Parliament (36%), Juncker became President of the Commission. However, this system relied on other Europarties to recognise the candidate advanced by the largest party as a suitable candidate for the presidency of the Commission, as well as  the Council’s willingness to propose the him or her to the European Parliament, which per article 17 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) either confirms or vetoes the Council’s proposal. Because of this, the Spitzenkandidaten model backfired in 2019.  Lead candidates were unpopular with other Europarties; for example, Manfred Weber (PPE) adopted a friendly stance towards Orbán’s regime in Hungary, which rendered the likelihood of his endorsement by other parties unlikely. Other candidates were also disliked by the Council, who as last resort proposed Ursula Von der Leyen, who had not participated in the elections, as President. 

These attempts to politicise what should be an apolitical body ultimately serve the interests of national political parties, which continually compete to obtain power. In doing so, these parties must navigate numerous international obligations such as international commitments (protocols, agreements, etc.), numerous veto players, external influence groups such as lobbies, and finally a fragmented electorate. In other words, parties underwent a “cartelization”, with leaders having more in common with one another than with the citizens they supposedly represent. Such a detachment from citizens has undermined the role of politicians as representatives. However, at the European level, the aim of parties cannot be to fight over control of the government (the Commission) and should thus concentrate on a single mission: representing citizens. In contrast to the state level, the European level offers the possibility to keep the executive and representative functions separate.

However, as mentioned, EU elections are organised individually by member states. In fact, European citizens do not even vote on the same day in different countries. The individualised nature of elections causes significant discrepancies regarding electoral rules. For example, in the 2019 election, Italy ended its postal vote system for expatriates, while the UK maintained it, causing a scandal in which ballots were delivered late, denying a fraction of the electorate the opportunity to vote. Additionally, these elections gave national parties the opportunity to seize control of their campaigns to strengthen their positions within their countries and at the European level. 

3. Protecting the representative role of the European Parliament

  1. Reinstatement of the Commission appointment rules under Article 17(7) TEU

The Spitzenkandidaten process should be replaced with a system that conforms to   the formal procedures outlined in Article 17(7) of the TEU. The politicisation of the Commission that results from the Spitzenkandidaten model threatens the correct functioning of political representation in the EP. Under Article 17, the Commission is not a government composed by MEPs; rather, the heads of government of each Member State, constituting the European Council, propose a candidate without any obligation to adhere to the suggestions of the EP. The argument that this is  an undemocratic process represents a misunderstanding of the institutional framework of the EU. The heads of state that comprise the Council are all democratically elected by their citizens, meaning that  they have the same democratic legitimacy as MEPs to propose a candidate for Commission President (article 14(1) of the TEU)  and to force the President’s resignation (article 17(8) of the TEU). This allows the Commission to pursue an independent agenda and freely propose legislation to the Parliament without any incentive to control the latter; this ultimately enables the Commission  to fulfill on its intended purpose rather than advancing national political agendas. Additionally, in contrast to national-level governments, parties in the EP are not compelled to build a majority in order to form a government. Ultimately, a shift from Spitzenkandidat to a stricter adherence to article 17(7) would not limit the EP’s co-decisional power, but simply provide a greater incentive for MEPs to respond to the demands  of European citizens, avoiding institutional tensions which can be witnessed at the national level. 

  1. Harmonisation of the electoral system through a uniform framework

The lack of a pan-European constituency or Europe-wide candidate lists further constrains the already limited ability of Europarties to speak to their constituents about European issues, rather than national ones. In order to rectify this,  European elections should follow a uniform framework in all Member States. Such a framework entails replacing current national constituencies, as they encourage division and campaigns based on individual national interests rather than pan-European agendas and campaigns based on the interests of the community as a whole. Instead,  candidates should be enrolled on a single list for each Europarty, which can then campaign all Member States. While such a system risks marginalising smaller states, Europarties are generally not discriminatory towards MEPs from the newest and poorest member states. Indeed, a consideration of the current presidents of the main Europarties reveals a variety of different national origins: Poland (EPP), Bulgaria (S&D), Netherlands (ALDE), Italy and Germany (Greens) and Czech Republic (ECR). Thus establishing a pan-European constituency would provide incentives to political parties to campaign on European agenda and, by doing so, improve the representativity of the EP.

4. Conclusion 

As demonstrated above, the ‘democratic deficit’ can be addressed in two manners: establishing a stronger EP, which risks causing deleterious effects on representation of the will of European citizens, or to improve the representativity of the EP. In order to reduce the democratic deficit, this paper proposes a stricter adherence to the rules set forth in Article 17(7) of the TEU, as well as a replacement of national constituencies with a pan-European one, which should encourage agendas and campaigns to match European citizens concerns. These changes would enable a more representative and citizen-oriented European Parliament, whilst avoiding the current politicisation of the Commission. Ultimately, these institutional reforms would reinforce trust in EU institutions within each member state, and improve the transparency of institutional processes at EU level.

Image: “European flags at the European Parliament” by TPCOM is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 Tommaso Codazzi

After graduating from the University of Bath in Politics and International, Tommaso joined King’s College to complete a MA European Studies. During this year, he worked with the centre of European Affairs at KTT. His main interests and areas of expertise are European policy-making, migration and European identities.

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