The election to the European Parliament in May has one major flaw: it cannot lead to the election of a democratic European government.
There is one issue which cannot be ignored by parties intending to take part in the forthcoming European election—the absence of a democratic European government. This is the main cause of the crisis in the European Union: a union of states and citizens cannot thrive, or survive, without a government. As it does not have a democratic government, the EU has created a ‘governance’ which enables the European Council—therefore national governments—to wield legislative and executive powers, in contravention of article 15 of the Treaty on European Union.
The exorbitant privilege of the council is due to the continued right of veto. On questions decided by unanimous vote, the European Parliament cannot ensure its voice is heard. Europe’s democratic deficit has had two serious consequences: the rise of nationalist parties and the EU’s incapacity to act in foreign policy.
At a recent conference, Jürgen Habermas condemned the harsh measures introduced by the council—Germany and France in particular—against weaker countries such as Greece during the financial crisis: ‘It is a scandal that in the unfinished house of the European Union such draconian policy which impinged so deeply upon the social safety net of other nations was lacking even in basic legitimacy—at least according to our democratic standards … [T]he euro was introduced with the expectation and political promise that living standards in all member states would converge—whereas, in fact, the complete opposite has come to pass.’
This is compounded by the union’s shortcomings in world politics: not only is it absent from the middle east and Africa, as evidenced by the failure of immigration policy; it does not even occupy its rightful place in the International Monetary Fund. The decline in support for the European project is therefore also a consequence of the union’s inability to tackle the growing international disorder. The demise of the Soviet Union showed that the US cannot act as sole arbiter, when major continental powers like China and Russia are unwilling to play second fiddle. A unipolar world order has no future, while a multipolar world order breeds international anarchy, financial and economic crises and wars.
Fixing the deficit
Among possible ways to fix the democratic deficit, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, put forward an interesting proposal in his 2017 speech on the state of the union—that his successor should also be president of the council. An executive, thus a government, must have the support of the citizens and the parliament, an objective which can now be accomplished via the Spitzenkandidat procedure. Naturally the council president, Donald Tusk, immediately objected. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has even disfavoured the Spitzenkandidat arrangement, contradicting his plan for a sovereign, democratic union. Yet if the crucial decisions continue to be left up to the council, an organ which MEPs cannot challenge, the EU will continue to remain incomprehensible—a mere bureaucracy—to its citizens. Why vote if we are not actually deciding on the government?
In spite of these difficulties, the main European parties have already chosen their Spitzenkandidaten: the European People’s Party has nominated Manfred Weber, the Socialists and Democrats Frans Timmermans and the Greens Ska Keller and Bas Eichout, while the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe has a pool of candidates. These will soon be joined by others, including those representing some nationalist/extremist parties or groups.
The forthcoming European election is crucial to the EU’s future. The majority in the parliament will have the power to influence policies and reforms. It is true that all the European parties have factions in favour of creating a European federation and other, more cautious, circles which prefer a step-by-step strategy and oppose a democratic European government. But, overall, some parties are more progressive and others more conservative. What Europe now needs is a clear progressive majority.
The progressive and conservative parties differ in terms of their values and the reforms they wish to pursue and implement. The EU is a supranational polity which has provided the people of Europe with at least two major European public goods: the internal market and the euro. Yet its greatest achievement was that stated by the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize committee—’transforming most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace’. This is a public good which is not only European but also cosmopolitan, because the EU represents a new model of civilisation which any continent can apply.
Pascal Lamy and Jakob von Weizsäcker have rightly drawn up a list of public goods which should be part of the parties’ programmes: ‘In the past year or so, a reasonable Franco-German consensus has started to emerge on six priority areas for development of European public goods: the humanitarian treatment of refugees and control of external borders, security and defence; a new partnership with Africa; energy transition; pan-European infrastructures to support the single market; disruptive innovation and digital transformation. These priority areas are also supported in most other states.’ This is the way to consolidate the European project of civilisation and ensure it remains at the core of foreign policy and European security.
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There are three strategies open to progressive parties. The first is for each to present its own Spitzenkandidat, an approach which would play right into the hands of Weber and the EPP—a party which, burdened with the Hungarian nationalist Viktor Orbán and his cronies, can only be described as conservative. It would spell defeat for the progressive parties, and the EU. The second option is for the parties to choose a single candidate to represent a progressive coalition with a common programme, with the aim of achieving a critical mass of votes capable of taking on the EPP. This would make voters see that the progressives are serious about winning.
But the third option, and the winning ticket for the progressive forces in the forthcoming election, comprises primaries. The best way to choose a single candidate to represent the coalition would be to organise primaries, one weekend in early 2019, in all of the member states. This would serve to debunk populist accusations that the EU is a bureaucratic behemoth out of touch with the people, and would probably have the effect of increasing turnout, which has been falling steadily since 1979. The people in each EU state would have the opportunity to choose their preferred Spitzenkandidat, talk to the local candidates for the parliament about their manifestos and cast an informed vote in the elections.
A clear electoral victory for progressive forces would show that the EU can uphold a project of peace and solidarity for all the world’s citizens—that it can become an active player in international politics and is committed to reforming its governance, with the aim of establishing a democratic EU government, rejecting nationalism and protecting its citizens’ welfare.
Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. In 1987 he founded in Ventotene the Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).