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Democracy without Demos? The EU Won't Survive Without Truly European Elections

Kenneth Stiller



This year will see the ninth elections to the European Parliament (EP). Before 1979, delegates selected among national MPs acted as the EP. The current electoral system, however, is highly dysfunctional. Citizens neither seem to have European politics in mind when making their choice, nor does a meaningful and visible competition for policies exist. Ultimately, the post-1979 electoral system failed to transform simultaneous national elections into truly transnational elections. The current state of affairs reduces the EU’s legitimacy among its citizens, giving them hardly any chance to influence policy-making than through protest votes.

The current state of affairs reduces the EU’s legitimacy among its citizens, giving them hardly any chance to influence policy-making than through protest votes.

Only 11% of Britons say they are confident naming their MEP and, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll, almost 50% of EU citizens feel that their voice is not heard in Brussels. A fall in turn-out from 62% in 1979 to merely 43% in 2014 should not come as a surprise. That the lack of confidence in these elections is growing is certainly harmful to the idea of a democratically legitimated European Union. But why aren’t citizens more enthusiastic?

Elections to the EP are not unitary elections, so the European Parliament is not a unitary parliament either. In fact, elections to the European Parliament are the sum of independent elections that simultaneously take place in the Union’s member states; voters choose among national parties, who might have a more or less explicit European manifesto. In the vast majority of cases the results of European elections reflect the national party systems and electoral results on the national level. The European Parliament is the sum of partly incompatible national party systems.


The institutional design of these elections limits the degree of democratic integration. If voters have to make a choice among national parties, it is no surprise that national issues play a determinative part in their campaigns; cleavages in those debates follow the familiar ones in national campaigns rather than reflect voters’ political views regarding European policy decisions. The lack of common political deliberation, which is essential to democracies, is hardly deniable. The EU simply is not a political community.


Fortunately, the formation of a political community, with genuine deliberations taking place across national borders and transnational mass media, is not a requirement for the democratisation of the EU. Instead, the promise of such a community can be realised by embedding truly European debates in the already existing political communities of the member states: a form of institutionalised transnational democracy that heavily relies on democratic discourse on the national level.


In the absence of a European political community, transnational elections with truly European parties running in all member-states are the most promising way to achieve the democratisation of Europe. They would not result in the creation of a European people or demos, but, via single transnational manifestos, centre national-level debates around truly European issues. Presenting clear European proposals to citizens as well as enhancing accountability through direct responsibility of transnational parties for policy-making will contribute to giving citizens the opportunity to vote parties into and out of office based on the actual performance of parties.

Transnational elections would create a functional division between European and national political parties and allow the EP to better represent the diverse politics of the member-states. Besides this fundamental change to European democracy, transnational elections would also mitigate other problems of the current electoral system.


First, they would force voters to deal with issues that are of relevance in other states, but not necessarily of primary importance in their home state. Transnational elections might induce mutual understanding of other societies’ concerns by bringing them all onto the agenda across the EU.


Second, the tyranny of the most populous EU member states would diminish. Even if allocations of seats in the EP would not be altered, transnational elections would reduce the power of, for instance, German or French parties compared to their weight within the current factions. While those states’ MEPs would still dominate, their advantage would be less institutionalised and organised than it is currently the case.


Third, parochial debates would be prevented, and electoral subsidiarity would be established; only European issues that are of relevance for a significant share of the EU population would be picked up by transnational parties. Issues that are national in character would be dealt with in national elections.


Fourth, transnational elections would open up a constructive political discourse on the future of the EU, reducing the need to protest or revolt against “the establishment.” Though the repeated grand coalition bargain in the EP does not give citizens the chance to effectively determine the course on which the EU will embark, there are numerous legitimate democratic views on the future of the EU. Giving Eurosceptics a louder, institutionalised voice in Europe might in fact increase the perceived legitimacy of the EU. Transnational European elections would give voters the chance to vote to halt European integration and, possibly, certain reforms that are disintegrative. But more importantly, they could only effectively do so by forming alliances and coalitions on European level.


So far, the EP has failed to fulfil this promise, maybe because it was never designed to do so. In fact, electoral reform seems highly unlikely as it would be diametrically opposed to the interests of the current system’s beneficiaries: national political parties. It was not by chance that Emmanuel Macron dared propose electing former British seats in the European Parliament through transnational elections. Not surprisingly, the European Parliament itself and representatives of national parties rejected his proposal.


This year’s election to the EP will see two attempts to reform its electoral system overcome its current dysfunction. It is not by accident that these reforms do not originate from within the EP or established national parties.


First, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek minister of finance, is creating a transnational European party that seeks to contest the elections with a single manifesto. In a highly symbolic move, Varoufakis will run for a seat in Germany, where he became an object of hatred during the heights of the European sovereign debt crisis. Technically, every EU citizen can run for a seat in the European Parliament in any EU country. While it is rather unlikely that his party will gain a large number of mandates, Varoufakis seeks to show that European elections in their current shape are unsustainable and must be democratised. Further, by contesting the elections in Germany, he will make the point that it is political beliefs, not nationality, that should be and are the defining cleavages in European politics. Consequently, his candidacy could be a first step in dissolving the monopoly of national political parties. It is an attempt to reform the European Parliament from the bottom up, whose success, however, is questionable.

Varoufakis seeks to show that European elections in their current shape are unsustainable and must be democratised.

Second and paradoxically, an alliance of nationalists and Eurosceptics is overcoming the national divide through the creation of a common set of political beliefs and demands. Without any doubt, those parties have developed a political position that is coherent, easy to grasp, and makes clear demands. Most likely, their success is also a consequence of perceived political impotence in European elections. Moreover, they appeal to voters across borders as part of a transnational campaign. If Eurosceptics manage to create what established national parties still reject, are nationalists the better Europeans?

If Eurosceptics manage to create what established national parties still reject, are nationalists the better Europeans?

Clear recognisable positions and political beliefs of pro-Europeans remain scarce in elections to the European Parliament. However, Europe cannot afford a situation in which only anti-European national parties are able to jointly pursue their partially destructive aims. If the established national political parties that currently represent citizens in the EP fail to act on reform, they will run out of arguments soon. They might lose grip on European policy-making, either through grassroots-movements or, more likely, a unified alliance of anti-Europeans and nationalists. Depending on the outcome, their not being open to reform might be very costly to Europe. The EU might be able to survive without a European demos, but not without functional European elections.

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