1. EU’s NEW Political Dynamics
BSSB.BE carnegieeurope.eu 5/03/2019
* Over the last several decades, a broad alliance of big parties has called the shots in the EU. Politicians from the mainstream center-right and center-left parties have held a comfortable majority in the EU’s principal institutions, including the European Parliament (EP), European Council, and European Commission.
However, this era could come to an end with the next EP elections in May 2019, following waning support for mainstream parties, rising populists on both the radical right and left, and emerging new political players.
If the existing power balance changes, a complex constellation of forces could develop with more ad hoc coalitions across traditional party divides. While this might detract from the parliament’s legislative efficiency, a more open decisionmaking process might have a positive effect on public interest in democracy at the EU level. However, if the populist parties gain enough power to block crucial decisions, all the other parties will have to pull together to keep the EU functioning. If they don’t, member governments will start bypassing parliament by doing intergovernmental deals.
A UNIQUE BUT FLAWED EXPERIMENT IN TRANSNATIONAL REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
The EP is the world’s only transnational parliament that is directly elected. It has powers over important decisions such as how public money is spent through the EU’s common budget and how the single market is regulated. However, parliamentary democracy at the EU level has long suffered from a structural deficit.
While national governments have given the EP power over far-reaching legislative and budget decisions, the national political elites have been unwilling to create a pan-European democratic space. European parliamentarians are elected from national lists, according to each country’s election laws, and national political parties have kept an iron grip on the electoral process. Thus, EP elections have more resembled twenty-eight national elections than transnational contests.
Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
- In the EP, national parties group themselves into party families. The political composition has corresponded roughly to the left-right ideological spectrum found in most member states until recently. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP, 219 MEPs) includes all the Christian Democrat and conservative parties (except the UK Conservatives, which pulled out in 2009).
- The center-left is covered by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, 189 MEPs), while the smaller mainstream parties are grouped under the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, 71 MEPs), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, 68 MEPs), the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, 52 MEPs), and the European Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens, 51 MEPs).
- Apart from the ECR, which contains several anti-EU parties, these groups are united by their overall support for European integration (although the EPP includes Hungary’s Fidesz, which has turned anti-EU in recent years). The far-right parties are divided among several party groups: the ECR, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, 45 MEPs), and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF, 35 MEPs).
Beyond the left/right dimension, the EP is divided into promoters and skeptics of European integration. Some parliamentarians (usually on the right) are pro-European because they consider the EU an important force for liberalizing the European economy.
Others (mostly on the left) see it as an essential shield to protect European social standards against the negative consequences of globalization. And then there are both left-wing and right-wing groups that are critical of the EU’s supranational powers or nostalgic for the protective role of the sovereign nation-state. The austerity policies that resulted from fiscal discipline measures taken at the EU level during the last financial crisis have reinforced this tendency.
When it comes to substantive decisions, the EP has never had consolidated coalitions with high levels of party discipline. Rather, MEPs join ad hoc alliances on different issues according to party and national and personal preferences. But on running the parliament’s business and the sharing of influential roles, the Christian and Social Democrats have always called the shots.
As more and more anti-EU MEPs have been elected over the past fifteen years, the pro-European mainstream has closed ranks. Nathalie Brack, author of an in-depth study on populists in parliament, explains how the big parties have reduced the maneuvering space of individuals and small groups of parliamentarians and channeled power to the large party groups.
These party groups wield substantial power in EU decisionmaking and lawmaking, but have hardly any visibility or presence in the member states. The lack of transnational parties at the EU level is not a bug in the system but rather a feature of it. National political elites have little incentive to give up some of their power, and this is largely the root of the EP’s weaknesses in legitimacy. For most national parties, the question of who will sit in the next national government will always come first. They consider EP races as second-order elections, so they commit far less time and money to them than to national ones. As a result, voters’ choices are determined primarily by feelings about their current national governments rather than by the performances of the EU or individual MEPs.
Heather Grabbe is the director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.
- Many EU parliamentarians play prominent roles in the legislative process and often have greater influence than most of their counterparts in national parliaments. But the legislative process has become complex, technocratic, and opaque, particularly because of the reliance on nonpublic negotiations through trilogues.
- 1 Consequently, the EP attracts little attention among the media in member states. Political careers are made at the national level. Decisions about who appears on the party lists are motivated primarily by domestic considerations.
- Two key elements for genuine parliamentary democracy at the EU level are missing: first, it is almost impossible for voters to assess the performance of individual MEPs, and, second, there has been no change in regime, as the center-right/center-left Grand Coalition has long dominated the EP. The absence of these elements makes it difficult to explain to the public why EP elections matter. Voter turnout has therefore declined from 62 percent in the first elections in 1979 to 42.6 percent in 2014.
TRANSNATIONAL LISTS AND THE SPITZENKANDIDATEN HAVE NOT REVIVED INTEREST
There have been various attempts to make the European elections more relevant. The most prominent proposal, first presented in 2011, aimed to introduce transnational lists, whereby a number of seats would be reserved for a special electoral district covering all of the EU. The idea was to break the national parties’ grip on the composition of the parliament, but it ran into fierce opposition and repeatedly failed to obtain majority support.
Somewhat more successful was the parliament’s initiative to link its elections with the decision on who should be the next president of the European Commission. Prior to the 2014 elections, all the major party groups agreed to designate Spitzenkandidaten (“top candidates” in German), with the understanding that the candidate of the most successful party group in the elections would then become the commission’s president. Given the key role of the commission in shaping what the EU does, electing its president would give the voter a real say on the union’s future.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: carnegieeurope.eu