European Parliament elections: an ex-post account of 5 popular arguments 

Article published on July 31, 2014
Article published on July 31, 2014

Now that polling stations have long returned to their everyday utility, Jean-Claude Juncker has been elected European Commission president, the time is ripe for a short post-election assessment of 5 ill-directed yet popular arguments on why the European Parliament is a distanced, unaccountable institution that leaves voters and decision-makers alike indifferent and disappointed.

Now that polling stations have long returned to their everyday utility, Jean-Claude Juncker has been elected European Commission president and a variety of baffled Euro-sceptics of different hues have found their way to the European Parliament, the time is ripe for a short post-election assessment of 5 ill-directed yet popular arguments on why the European Parliament is a distanced, unaccountable institution that leaves voters and decision-makers alike indifferent and disappointed.

1| MEPs are obscure in their dealings and hold excessive power. Thousands of lobbyists crawling in the Parliament is clear evidence of this.

Ever since the introduction of the Transparency Register, admirable efforts have been made to record how organised interests (be it business or civil society) interact with the EU institutions -European Parliament included. At the same time the European Parliament itself has introduced in 2012 a first-ever code of conduct for MEPs which strongly encourages information disclosure on MEPs’ meetings and expenditures. An example of how an MEP discloses this information can be found here. Since both the register and the code of conduct are voluntary-based, responsibility to disclose information lies indeed with lobbyists and parliamentarians themselves.

Looking back ten years however, the EU institutions themselves are participating in information sharing in away unimaginable before. From the transparency register and the code of conduct to the legislative observatory and decision-makers’ twitter accounts, everyone with access to the web is in a position to scrutinise information available either on lobbyists or the MEPs on an issue of their concern. As Corporate Europe Observatory points out on many occasions, there still remains a lot to be done but nobody can deny efforts being made towards more transparent disclosure of information on how the Parliament (and the European Commission) deals with organised interests.

2| There is growing citizen dissatisfaction with the EU which is evident in low election turnout. This is further worsening in countries where closed lists are in force.

Since election night already everyone highlighted that the long trend of falling participation in the vote has been reversed- even by a frail 0.09 %. At the same time looking at the figures of years past, if anything can be argued, that is lack of interest in politics altogether across the continent.

As a survey of the European Parliament points out, since 2010 in 17 out of 28 member-states there has been lower participation in national elections. Added to that, one needs to consider that vote is legally compulsory at national level. There is no single remedy for this but one valid point remains: Responsibility for who is in charge (irrespective of Europe or in a national capital) lies with everyone. It is common ground by now, that the crisis has affected millions throughout Europe and the trend has indeed reversed in 2014 when voters came back to participatory decision-making even to show their dissatisfaction with the current status quo.

Another popular argument that made the rounds before elections was the one about countries with closed lists. In a country where close lists are in force, citizens are unable to choose their candidates of preference and their vote is automatically cast to the leading ballot-paper candidates. It is safe to say that out of 28 member states of the EU, only 7 of them had in place in the 2014 European elections closed lists across their constituencies.  Added to this, electoral law in every member state is voted by national parliaments and the EU has no say. Blaming the EU in an area where it has no competence is in itself invalid.

3| The Spitzenkandidaten idea designed by the European Parliament to galvanise voters, is about to fail. Serious leaders would never put forward their candidacy.

For the first time ever on the way to May 2014 European elections we witnessed the nomination of leading candidates from all pro-European parties. The role of these candidates would be to “put a face” to the policies put forward by their parties and hence engage citizens more with elections and the overall decision-making process.

From Angel Merkel’s initial reluctance to give her blessings to the process and Van Rompuy’s awkward silences to David Cameron’s childish anti-Juncker campaign (once the European People’s Party got majority of the votes), we have seen all kinds of reactions to the leading candidates’ process. The fact however today stands: Jean-Claude Juncker is going to be the next President-elect of the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU decision-making system) as the leading candidate of the party which won European elections.

As for the future of the process it remains to be tested as it already does along the reluctance of heads of state and government to choose the next High Representative of the External Action Service and nominate a college of Commissioners.

We are in deed in need of courageous leaders that will look further than their capital’s mandate. In the meantime let us not forget that the same people (i.e. Heads of state and government) who choose at European party level leading candidates for Commission President are also the ones that nominate at Council level the person who will be voted by the Parliament to undertake the much-discussed role. It is up to them to put forward serious candidates and up to voters to choose a national government which they trust to do so.

4| The entry of populist, far-right MEPs in the European Parliament will polarise debates and further strengthen “business as usual”, closed doors decision-making.

We did indeed witness post-election a coalition of the same -as in the previous legislature- parliamentary groups (EPP, S&D, ALDE) that will define trialogues on European legislation with the Commission and the Council. Reducing however the checks and balances of the legislative process to the power of two majority groups and their kingmaker is akin to disregarding say at respective Council configurations and Commission know-how.

Eurosceptic and anti-European parties at the further right of the hemicycle (Golden Dawn, Jobbik, PVV, Front National, Movimento 5 Stelle) prove unable to coordinate and/or form a group as most commentaries and analyses point out. One exception is the recently renovated EFDD by UKIP and Movimento 5 Stelle which managed to form a group when reaching the necessary threshold by including in its ranks a defected Front National MEP, days after EFDD group leader Nigel Farage stated that his party has nothing to do with Marie Lepen’s FN.

There are historical, structural and organisational differences between populist and/or far-right parties. There isn’t but one common denominator which resulted to their establishment in the European Parliament: citizen dissatisfaction throughout European countries.  The reasons however allowing them to occupy political space in their home countries vary fundamentally leading to a confused rhetoric at European level which insofar does not substantially challenge the functioning of European decision making.

It is indeed disturbingly sarcastic watching a far-right a Golden Dawn MEP urging the Parliament to defend minority rights in Ukraine while his party leadership is prosecuted for organising violent pogroms against migrants back in his country’s capital. The exact extent to which such examples affect the overall policy debate remains to be seen.

5| The euro crisis has further empowered Brussels to intrude into member-state affairs by scrutinising and enforcing rules that lack legitimacy.

The crisis Europe faces is structural and endemic. Confining it only to the shortcomings of Europe’s common currency does not take into account the crisis’ effects to member-states outside the Eurozone and vice-versa. Depending on the measure at hand responsibility for conception, scrutiny and enforcement lies at different levels that cannot be reduced to the institutions based in Brussels, Luxembourg or Frankfurt. Most importantly however, elected representatives at national level (i.e. Heads of state and government or members of national parliaments) have been part in setting-up and monitoring a number of responses aiming to deal with the crisis.

MPs at Eurogroup level conceptualised the EFSF, the bail-out fund from Eurozone members for Eurozone members that has lend Portugal, Spain and Greece. Heads of state and government set out economic policy priorities for the Commission to assess member-state medium term budgetary and economic strategies along the provisions of the European Semester. Finally heads of state and government started in 2009 the single financial rulebook now materialising into the recently adopted Banking Union initiative allowing for supervision (Single Supervisory Mechanism) and resolution (Single Supervisory Mechanism) of failed banks under its scrutiny. The European Parliament and more in particular its ECON committee did much to shape regulations on Banking Union and the European semester but let us not forget that it is a responsibility shared by nationally elected representatives at the Council as much as by European elected representatives at the European Parliament.