Pan-European political parties: a weak step towards a more democratic EU

, by Fernando Remiro Elía

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Pan-European political parties: a weak step towards a more democratic EU
To date there are 10 recognised European political parties © Westend/Belga
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As the European Parliament is preparing to re-open the debate about Political Parties at European Level (PPEL), there are still some critical points to clarify. Is the creation of a transnational party system the best path towards a more democratic and accountable EU?

The development of a transnational party system in the EU has been a common claim of those citizens, scholars and politicians worried about the so-called democratic deficit. Thus the current round of hearings in the Constitutional Affairs Committee is the latest chapter in a long story in which this demand has been an important satellite of a broader debate. As an answer to these concerns, the Regulation (EC) No 2004/2003 was approved in 2003 to set out the basis for a European party system, defining the conditions, the process and the funding of possible parties (ten, to date). Moving in this direction, federalist groups (UEF-JEF) and some politicians (e.g. Jo Leinen) have proposed that PPEL could pick a “top candidate” for the Commission’s Presidency before the European election. Moreover, Andrew Duff (MEP for the East of England) submitted in 2007 a report on the creation of transnational lists for a section of the EP, a proposal that has grown popular since then. All these movements are the expression of a particular way of understanding the EU and its constitutional agenda which might not be the best or the most democratic one.

This background is scrutinized in a recent study by the European Democracy Observatory (EUDO), published by the European Parliament, which lays out the path to the forthcoming debate. Although the report undoubtedly advances in the same direction as the former proposals and completely shares with them the diagnosis of the problem, it has some caveats that happily break the federalist consensus on this issue.

In a first approach to the matter, this focus on political parties as one of the main ways to fix the democratic deficit is striking, as they are the least valued political institutions in almost every European country (the situation is diverse, though). If there is a general crisis of representation through political parties, why should we insist on that path? If we want to build a more accountable and transparent Union, why are we going to use a tool which is dramatically loosing accountability and is characterized by its opacity?

It is said that political parties are the key intermediaries between citizens and the state. This may be true at a national level, but why should it be acceptable for the EU, which is neither a nation nor a state? In this issue, as in many others, Euro-federalism has borrowed too many concepts and political tools from the nation-state. All the proposals for a transnational party system seem to be built on the axis Commission-European Parliament. A less corporative and therefore more competitive EP, composed by transnational, solid and ideologically homogeneous parties, would interact with the EC (whose president would have been selected by European parties before the election) following a government-opposition rationale. In the end, these proposals intend to complete the everlasting evolution of the EP, paradoxically turning what is by nature a supranational chamber into a more national-like legislature. This could jeopardize the singularity of the EP which, despite all the moaning about its performance, has more chances than government-oriented national parliaments to accomplish an effective representation of citizens.

Besides that, the EU does not (and cannot at the current constitutional stage) work as a national state: where would the European Council stand in the political scene described above? A politicized Commission and strong pan-European parties would create a disfunctional political mirage and the public will get frustrated when acknowledging that the EU does not work according to a government-opposition game.

In addition to these both practical and theoretical flaws, an excessive focus on PPEL could sadly oversimplify the debate on Euro-democracy, which is actually richer and far more imaginative than that. At this very moment, Euro-federalism is fully engaged in the promotion of the European Citizens Initiative, a potentially powerful tool related to direct democracy. To what extent is it compatible with the growth of PPEL? According to the authors of the EUDO report, pan-European parties could coordinate the recollection of signatures for a Citizens Initiative, but it is not a necessary (nor, perhaps, a desirable) interaction. The EU has a vibrant and resilient network of associations which will be able to fully develop this new democratic tool, and it will be more useful as long as it remains independent from political parties.

Furthermore, the success of strong European parties could close forever the unfortunately weak debate on political representation and the effectiveness of electoral constituencies. A transnational party system will not automatically solve the mess caused by 27 different electoral laws, and a party-centered approach to the problem will surely avoid the core issue of electoral connection and effective representation in the EP. How can the link between MEPs and their constituents work when they are elected by closed national lists, as in Spain, or in huge regional constituencies, as in the UK, France or Italy? An urgent debate must be held on these issues, because they are the real cause of the gap between MEPs and voters. A debate delayed, if not neutralized, by the prominence of the PPEL issue.

It is true, though, that the champions of a transnational party system as an effective way to a more democratic Europe have furnished the debate with some appealing and valuable arguments, based on a clever political rationale. Introducing some elements of electoral competition at the European level will surely improve the turnout at elections for the EP. In particular, picking a top candidate for the EC presidency in advance would help to personalize the election (and as a not less important side-effect it would progress in the quest of a more accountable EC), although it is not clear if the EU is really prepared for a more presidential system. Moreover, voting for a transnational list would be, if successful, a big step towards real political integration and would help to create a full European citizenship. Finally, it might also focus the electoral debate on the topics which really belong to the European field, usually outshone by petty national quarrels.

In the next two months the European Parliament will take on the matter. If MEPs assume the critical, nuanced and broad approach of the preparatory report by EUDO, the debate will be worth watching. But if they just keep a restricted party-based vision of the future of Euro-democracy, it will be (yet) another lost opportunity for drawing up a comprehensive democratic agenda. The upcoming debate should take advantage of the singularities of the European system of governance rather than sticking to national analogies. The nature itself of the European Parliament (transnational, limited in its competences, not directly tied to an executive) brings the possibility of developing a new way of political representation on a new level of political action, because the EU is not (and should not be) a large-scale version of national democracies. Only if the debate over PPEL and political representation in the EU becomes independent of traditional rationales will it meet the innovative and original spirit which is the core of European integration.


Your comments

  • On 28 February 2011 at 23:16, by Cédric Replying to: Pan-European political parties: a weak step towards a more democratic EU

    Hard to imagine a democracy that wouldn’t rely on parties, even looser forms of political parties such as the ones that recently had a great success in Czech Republic (Věci veřejné) or Ireland (New Vision). And parties are as much characterised by their opacity as human relations in general. Full transparency exists only in an anarcho-liberal utopia.

    I’m not sure that citizens see the European Parliament as a relevant model or an effective way of representation. If they did, they would vote. Imagining that the ICE or that a great redistricting of constituencies for European elections would be a solution is a bit exaggerated. We already had several ICEs, on the seat of the EP, on GMOs, with more than 1 M signatures each. The European Commission simply turned the proposals down, and will continue to do so in the future.

    57% abstention is enormous. Add 3% more, and nobody will ever be able to resist calls to suppress these elections or to simply suppress the Parliament. The Parliament costs more than €1Bn a year. If we do not manage to raise the turnout, how will we justify its very existence? We are going right in this direction.

    I’m not sure that being afraid of generating frustration or being afraid of what presidentialism would mean in the EU is the right attitude, in such a situation. Being afraid, in general, cannot be an attitude.

    The European elections need to change radically if we want to keep them. Agree or not, the “traditional system” of representation is the only one that works in reality. But I encourage you to describe a little bit the content of the “innovative solutions” you are referring to.

    Good national solutions shouldn’t be excluded for the sole reason that they are good and national.

  • On 3 March 2011 at 21:31, by Fernando Replying to: Pan-European political parties: a weak step towards a more democratic EU

    Dear Cédric, thank you very much for the feedback.

    In this article I did not intend to discuss the role of political parties in national democracies, but the possibility (or not) of automatically transfering national political practices into the European arena. I do not question (at least here) the “traditional system” but try to underline the fact that the EU is neither a national state nor a conventional democracy. “Good national solutions” could be suitable for national democracies, but not for the first transnational democracy in history.

    The European Parliament itself (a transfer of a national institution -especially steemed in the post-war years- to a transnational sphere) was the dream of the founding generation. And its election by universal suffrage was the core demand of the next one. But, as you clearly point out, the decreasing turnout in European elections proves that the institution has failed (or is failing) to adapt itself to the transnational and increasingly complex European system of governance.

    So, why do we insist on putting at the top of the democratic agenda an effort which sticks to the idea of a national-like EU? A new connection with the citizens is needed, but I do not think it will be achieved creating the misleading impression that the EU works as a national democracy, with a single executive branch, controlled and at the same time desired by competitive pan-European parties. It does not.

    I do not have a programmatic alternative in mind, but I think every reform and effort about euro-democracy should focus on explaining the EU system to citizens, instead of simplifying or concealing it. Make clear which topics belong to the EU sphere and which not. Improving the individual representation at the EP (smaller constituencies, a better use of the internet for the communication between MEPs and constituents), reinforce the link between MEPs and national parliaments, increasing the accountability of the Council through national parliaments and the accountability of the Comission through EP, integrating associations and civic groups in EU decission-making through tools like the ECI... that is for me the path. But it would deserve another article!

    I did not intend at all to send a message of fear, I am sorry if you have feel so. The article is just an attempt to introduce some critical points in the debate. In the end, what I tried to say is that I am not sure if it is possible to sustain a comprehensive and coherent federalist agenda which embraces at the same time such diversity of proposals (which come from different political traditions and represent different, if not antagonic, visions of the EU’s future).

    Thank you again for reading the article and taking time to discuss it.

  • On 4 March 2011 at 21:40, by Cédric Replying to: Pan-European political parties: a weak step towards a more democratic EU

    I really can’t imagine that most of the proposals you make will bring any change to the fact that the EU has become quite unpopular. Explaining the EU system to citizens is something we have already spent litterally billions on, smaller constituencies for the EP have already existed in UK, and what was the outcome?, internet communication between MEPs and constituents is and will remain a farce as long as MEPs will be elected politicians, linking MEPs to national parliaments is and will remain a concept for the same reason, and tools like the ECI is something we will stop being so enthusiastic about in 5 years, like with the Bürgerinitiative in Nordrhein-Westfalen.

    Nothing in this list will ever reverse the trend of decreasing voter turnout, which is, in the end, the only prism through which people assess how democratic the EU is. People won’t put on other glasses just for the EU, they won’t change their way of assessing the democratic legitimacy of a political entity just for the sake of the EU, even if it is the “first transnational democracy in history” (what about Switzerland and India?). They are not going to tell themselves: “well, nobody votes in the European elections, but the EU has such great policies and interesting procedures that it must be democratic. That’s what ‘sui generis’ means!”. If the EU is to be democratic, I’m sorry but it has to look like a familiar democracy (based on elections). If, on the contrary, it can remain a mere organization for transnational cooperation, well, it can satisfy itself with innovative information and consultation tools.

    To summarise our divergence, I would say that, from your point of view, applying a state-like approach to the EU is too demanding of our societies, whereas my point of view is that applying a completely new, specific approach of democracy to the European level of government is too demanding of the “average Joe”.

    You insist on the great diversity of political traditions in the EU. Well, haven’t you notice that all EU democracies are based on common principles, like fundamental rights, western values, European welfare state, and most importantly: representative democracy?

    To be very clear, I believe that the only ‘federalist’ reform worth fighting is the direct election of a EU Commission president. All the rest, from the constitution to political parties or transnational lists, is just for fun. But as long as this reform is unrealistic, we have to promote it through indirect channels.

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