Opinions European elections

The Unique Nature of the European Union and Its Supranational Democracy

, by Sylvie Goulard
There is something fundamental at stake during the forthcoming elections: it is the capacity of Europeans to build cross-border cooperation in a transparent, inclusive and democratic way

European citizens from 27 Member States are being asked to go to the polls this June. Why should they vote? Firstly, because it matters. Their daily life is impacted. Not only does the European Union (EU) provide peace which – as Ukraine or Gaza have shown – no one should ever take for granted, but it also brings tangible advantages: to live in countries where personal data is protected and discrimination by gender, race or disability is forbidden, as is the death penalty; to study and move without visas and controls (except when governments ignore their Schengen commitments); to enjoy free phone roaming and free banking transfers during their holidays. From human rights to the environment, from agriculture to finance, the majority of the rules applying in the 27 EU countries are adopted with the active involvement of the European Parliament. 

Secondly, it is a privilege to participate in direct democracy at the supranational level. If the EU is not an international organization like many others (paralyzed by veto, as is the UN for example), it is because of its unique double nature: a Union of Member States and a union of citizens.  

Democracy vs Diplomacy 

The European Parliament is actually the only assembly worldwide where directly elected representatives of citizens make laws together alongside ministers representing States. When in so many parts of the world cross-border cooperation means only diplomacy behind closed doors, democracy in the EU offers other tools with a higher chance to put the common European interest before the lowest national common denominator.  

To defend and promote this method is our only chance to solve the major problems the world is facing, from climate change to inequalities or biodiversity loss. In addition, it must be done in a democratic way, where people have a say, instead of delegating to diplomats behind closed doors. 

Unfortunately, democracy at the EU level is still an unfinished business. The best reason to go to the polls should be the urgent need to transform the EU, in order to make it more efficient and more democratic at the same time. 

Right now, the EU does not have the elections it deserves. 45 years after the first direct election in 1979, there is still no pan-European constituency. In the absence of pan-European lists, there is little pan-European debate.  

The unfinished nature of the EU allows nationalists to destroy it from the inside, like a Trojan Horse. Voters go to the polls in 27 national constituencies: This is gift for nationalists and narrow-minded national parties who can use this poll as an opportunity to trap voters by making them believe that either the election does not matter, or that is a contest to express anger towards the national government, or that the Union does not represent their national interest.  

In fact, nationalists like the European elections almost as much as they dislike the EU, because it serves them a free lunch. Not only can they use this opportunity to spread nationalist sentiment, but they frequently do not show up at debates and votes, but still bring home a considerable pay check. They are having their cake and eating it too. They are the real European profiteers.   

In some countries, national politicians that have no intention to do the work in Brussels / Strasbourg are leading the lists. It is a contempt of democracy, not often seen in other elections. Who would take seriously a person being a candidate at local elections pretending to become the mayor of several cities at the same time, without the intention of managing any of them?  

Elsewhere, leaders are interfering in the campaign without leaving space to the real candidates. Almost everywhere the debate is focused on national issues at the moment where the need for cross-border debates has never been so high.  

How can we envisage more joint European debts to finance investment without building a compromise between North and South? How can we find a common ground on future enlargements to Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia and the Balkans, without talking to each other, people from West and East? On these topics, as well as on defense and autonomy from the US, views diverge dramatically from country to country. If the European elections do not allow a cross-border debate on fundamental issues, when and where should it take place? 

A Half-Cooked Democracy 

European elections have lost part of their meaning since the European Council became the cockpit of the EU. The fact that it decides on so many crucial topics without much influence of the Parliament and without much accountability is creating a black hole at the center of the EU. The more the Parliament has gained control over the European Commission, the more power has shifted from the Commission to the European Council.  

As long as the European Parliament does not have the prerogatives of a “real” Parliament, determining who is leading the “real” executive body (the European Council) and making it accountable, the European elections will remain what they are: the strange date of European citizens with a half-cooked democracy.  

Members of the European Parliament are working hard on legislation but they do not have the right of initiative of European directives and regulations. They do not even have the sovereign right to choose where their sessions take place. The European Council does. 

MEPs do not adopt the EU budget as parliaments usually do in democracies. EU resources are not their own resources but an addition of national fees, negotiated behind closed doors by 27 governments, unanimously. In a strange way, MEPs represent without taxation, when Parliaments were born on the principle “no taxation without representation”.  

Furthermore, the European Parliament does not have the usual competences that parliaments in federations have on foreign policy and defense. In these fields, the European Parliament acts mainly through resolutions that give useful orientations but do not influence policies. Many decisions are still taken at the national level. It plays the role of a moral authority, through the Sakharov Prize for freedom and human rights for example, but the impact on foreign affairs decisions is limited. 

In a nutshell, even if national governments and parties try to highjack this poll and make us believe that their own national fate is the most important issue, we should not buy these arguments. There is something more fundamental at stake during these elections. It is the capacity of Europeans to build cross-border cooperation in a transparent, inclusive and democratic way. To safeguard the unique nature of the EU, a union of States and citizens is the only way to have a say. 


Bocconi University

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