EP election 2019: How national-level parties can make Europe democratic

Sunglasses on a Jeunes Européens shirt
Photo credit: Les Jeunes Européens – France

Bloody unelected Brussels bureaucrats, right? It’s common knowledge that the EU system is notoriously lacking in democracy. The biggest secret that national-level political elites have is that they are largely at fault. The EU system in itself would allow for a lot more ‘democracy’ than what we currently have, if only national-level parties made certain choices. What’s even better is that parties across Europe will be offered a chance to do so in the upcoming months. In fact, they will be given a clear-cut choice: more European democracy, or less.

National-level parties will have to decide how they incorporate their Europarties’ campaign points and Spitzenkandidat in their programmes. They will also have to decide how to go about their Commissioner game. In these decision-making processes, rejecting a more democratic Europe will, if made, be a conscious choice. If after 2019 Europe is no more democratic than what it is now, it’s because national-level parties wanted it that way.

Follow your Europarty’s campaign

The first democratic choice a national-level party can make is to promote the top candidate of its Europarty and align with the top candidate’s talking points. We remember how in 2014 the Spitzenkandidaten system was hailed as a victory for European democracy. Finally, the people decide who should lead the European Commission! Despite

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán’s objections, the system was eventually successful. However, because national-level parties refused to give sufficient prominence to their respective Europarties’ campaign priorities and to use their lead candidates as figureheads, the success was a moderated one. In 2014, fewer than a quarter of Europeans surveyed in 15 countries could name any Spitzenkandidat.[1] Had national-level party executives so wanted, the situation would have been different.

Now, perhaps the top candidate is so different from the national-level party that campaigning on European-level themes would amount to a betrayal of the party ideology. To prevent that from happening, however, a party has the chance to provide input to the European level about its preferences well in advance. In the event of fundamental divergence, a national-level party should, of course, reconsider its European affiliation. Who is scared of enunciating their Europarty’s policies or hides the party candidate from public view can be accused of not “telling it like it is”, and for good reason.

If elected, candidates for the European Parliament will be working within a Europe-wide party group under the leadership of a group leader. Accepting leadership from the European level before the election already would be both logical and honest to the electorate. Conversely, not accepting it easily comes across as dishonest.

Nominate your Commissioner candidate for election in 2019

The second choice for any party dreaming of sending a Commissioner to Brussels would be to ensure that the person they are thinking of will stand for European Parliament in 2019. It is perfectly possible for an elected MEP to become a Commissioner, as was illustrated by Mariya Gabriel’s move from the Parliament to the Commission after Kristalina Georgieva’s departure from the Bulgarian Commissioner’s seat. If in the Commission starting in 2019, each individual Commissioner has a mandate from the people, no one can call the Commissioners “unelected bureaucrats” anymore.

You can see few issues for national-level parties here. Running for the Parliament and being left without a seat would be a major embarrassment for an aspiring Commissioner, making it politically impossible to nominate them. But that is the point – if the people won’t trust you with a seat in the Parliament, why would they think you are qualified to be a Commissioner?

In fact, this should be an easy choice for a party. Being open about its intentions would provide a party with political ammunition. Suppose that the conservatives have named their suggestion for the next Commissioner, and that person was elected, while the social democrats promote a person not standing for the Parliament. It would not be difficult for the conservatives to publicly proclaim that ‘at least their Commissioner would be elected’ and to put the social democratic candidate in disgrace.

European democracy is what national parties make of it

National-level parties are the ones with the most direct reach to the voters. Moreover, what parties do influences media reporting on elections. Both directly and indirectly, national-level parties largely determine what information the electorate gets about politics ahead of elections. After the 2019 election, when a politician accuses the EU of being undemocratic, a wise citizen will ask if they chose to do anything at all to remedy it. National-level party machineries have a surprisingly important role to play in determining the state of European democracy. When the EU is lacking in democracy, they deserve a corresponding portion of the blame.

Footnote [1]: Hobolt, S. (2014), ‘A vote for the President? The role of Spitzenkandidaten in the 2014 European Parliament elections’, Journal of European Public Policy, vol. 21, No 10 pp. 1528–1540. Survey results on page 1536. Knowledge of top candidates was the lowest in the UK where 1.1% could name any candidate, and highest in Luxembourg where 54.7% were able to do so.

This text was originally published as an article on The New Federalist. You can find the original at https://www.thenewfederalist.eu/ep-election-2019-how-national-level-parties-can-make-europe-democratic.

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