This time it is “different”: The upcoming European Parliament Elections

Between 22-25 May 2014 the European Parliament elections (“EP”) will take place. It is stated that the elections are “the second biggest democratic exercise in the world”; 400 million people of now 28 member states can cast their vote for a new EP.

Since the direct voting began those are the eight elections. According to Art. 14 TEU, the European Parliament will consist of 751 Members (MEPs) including the President for the next five years. For the first time, voters will also “indirectly” choose the President of the European Commission, giving citizens a fresh chance to shape the future of Europe. The election is pan-European by nature, but people will still vote for national parties and candidates. These elections of the EP could be considered as the most important and thrilling ever. They will be an opportunity for European citizens to express their views about how the Europe’s leaders have managed the crisis in the Eurozone. “Far from being national elections these days, national elections have started to become European elections,” said Prof. Simon Hix, the head of LSE Department of Government. However, the turnout at the European elections is becoming less and less. In 2009 there participated only 43 percent in the election.

In the following, we touch upon Sweden on the edge of elections. Then we assess if the 2014-elections are different” with reference to the question on how the elections of the EP will affect the Commission and possibly the European Union.

Sweden and elections

Sweden has been a member of the EU since 1995 and has 20 seats in the EP. EU citizens have the right to vote [Art. 22 TEU, Articles 39 and 40 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights]. Currently, the political temperature is feverish in Sweden.

“This is one of the most value-based elections we will have during our lifetime,” said EU Minister Birgitta Ohlsson. But it’s not only the May European elections that are causing the fever. In addition to the elections to the EP, Sweden will hold national, regional and municipal elections in September 2014. Every new incident involving politicians is reviewed in the light of the upcoming elections. For the EP elections in 2009, less than half of voters in Sweden voted. It was nonetheless an increase compared to 2004 elections, when around 37 percent of eligible voters headed to the polls. The interest in the European elections seems still very low.

In the view of preparing the 2014 EU elections, the Commission adopted a Communication and a Recommendation for further enhancing of EU citizens. The Commission recommended that Member States “encourage and facilitate the provision of information to the electorate on the affiliation between national parties and European political parties […] by allowing and encouraging the indication of such an affiliation on the ballots used in those elections.” And those national political parties “make publicly known ahead of those elections their affiliation with European political parties” and “prominently display their affiliation with European political parties in all campaign materials, communications and political broadcasts”. The EU elections for Sweden this year run the risk of serving as a warm up for the coming national elections.

How will the Commission President be elected?

According to Art. 17 (4) TEU the Commission shall consist of one national of each member state. The members should be completely independent [Art. 17 (3) TEU]. The first stage of selecting the Commission is to elect the President of the Commission. Then, the President of the Commission will take part in the composition of the Commission. According to Art. 17 (7) TEU, each Commissioner is first nominated by their member state in consultation with the Commission President. Normally a member state will nominate someone of the same political party as that which forms the current government but that can vary. Once the list is adopted, the Commission as a whole including the President is subject to vote of consent of the EP by two-thirds majority of the votes cast, representing a majority of the component members of the EP. Finally, on the basis of this consent the Commission will ‘formally’ be appointed by the European Council acting by a qualified majority.

Apart from taking part in the formation of the Commission, the powers of the Commission President are stated in Art. 17 (6) TEU. Briefly, the President of the Commission decides on the internal organization of the Commission, lays down the political direction of the Commission and determines the Commission’s policy agenda. In the light of those powers, it would not be wrong to say that the Commission President holds a very strong position especially as to “shape” the [political] policies and “direction” of the Commission and the EU. The President also represents the EU abroad together with the President of the European Council and the High Representative.

The Lisbon Treaty established a new system to elect the Commission President. Before the Lisbon Treaty, the Council, meeting in the composition of Heads of State or Government, nominated a candidate for the presidency of the Commission acting by a qualified majority. Then the candidate was subject to the EP’s approval (ex Art. 214 EC). With the Lisbon Treaty, the EP will “elect” the next Commission President. In accordance with the new system, the European Council will propose the EP a candidate for the presidency of the Commission by taking into account the European elections. Then the EP will approve that candidate by a majority of its component members. If the candidate cannot receive required majority, the European Council will propose another candidate to the EP.

Consequently, under the new system, the European Council will still propose a candidate for the Commission presidency, and the EP will then vote to accept or reject the nominee. However the European Council is “forced” to take into account the elections of the EP because, in practice, there will be a pressure on the European Council to propose the candidate of the largest political group in the newly elected EP. If the European Council nominates another candidate, it can be hard to get the majority of the newly elected EP to support that candidate. This can be seen as “indirect” election of the Commission President by the European citizens. Furthermore, this means that the political majority that emerges from the May 2014 elections will not only determine the policies pursued by the EP but also determine who will become the Commission President. As suggested, this new system is likely to mean that the main European parties will nominate “lead candidates” ahead of the election with the hope that their candidate will be elected as the Commission President. Considering the fact that until the President of the Commission is elected, the Commission cannot be composed; the EP has a “powerful” delaying power as to the composition of the Commission.

Assessment of the new practice and democratic deficit

Since the Treaty of Lisbon, it is likely that the President of the Commission is of same political persuasion as the victorious party of this election. This time, the voters will choose not only a party, but also their representative for the central post of the Commission. The positive effect is that new practice will likely to reduce the discussions on “democratic deficit” (1) because those discussions have recently been focused on the composition of the Commission. Even though the Commission can be considered as “accountable” (2) to the EP, the Commission is the least democratic institution in the EU as the citizens do not take part in its composition. If the Commission President is going to reflect the citizens’ will, then democratic deficit can be seen as “reduced”.

As regards as the EP and democratic deficit, the power of the EP in the legislative process has increased within time. In the institutional triangle, the EP and the Council are the legislators, and under ordinary legislative procedure, legislative acts cannot be adopted if the EP does not approve. Effectively, citizens vote directly for their representatives in the EP. This possibility to elect directly the representatives carries out citizens to influence the political life in the scale of European Union. Furthermore, as stated, the EP will influence the election of President of the Commission through the vote of citizens.

However, a few negative effects of this new practice regarding election of the Commission President by taking into account of the EP elections can be discussed. In practice, the citizens are voting for the political parties. That is the democracy. But, under the system, the EP will approve or disapprove the candidate for the Commission presidency. Therefore, the majority in the EP elected by citizens will “pressure” for one candidate of same political values. Then, the elected Commission President will perhaps follow the political ideals of the majority of the EP [and] the political party, and will influence the political direction of the Commission in line with the ideologies of that political party. Minority will not have much influence over the political direction of the Commission. This aspect could present a risk for the European progress. Today we can notice the development of the extremist parties in the member states, and some of those parties can clearly influence political actions and legislation in some of those member state. As mentioned, the citizens vote for the political parties. Those who support the extremist parties at the national level can carry the ideologies of those parties to the Commission. An extremist approach -even in the form of “approved majority”- can damage the integrity in the Union or integrity of the “European Union”.

Conclusion

“This time is different”: the EU may be heading to a “dangerous” point, if the dominant speaker will be the “political parties with extremist” ideologies. National parties almost in each member state are getting stronger and stronger. Now the strongest political party is likely to “elect” the Commission President, and perhaps affect the composition of the Commission. In such a case, ideological diversity (3) will diminish between the Commission and the EP. However, ideological diversity can act as a (protective) mechanism that “balances” the interests of different groups, even though it may make legislative process longer (in extreme cases, it may lead to deadlock). The European Union is composed of 28 member states, and nationals of those member states have different cultural, religious and moral values. It could be very difficult to effectively represent and protect the needs of “different”, if ideological diversity especially between the institutions is compromised.

Influence of ideologies in the action of authorities is normal and inevitable in any system but acceptable only to some extent. And there is a thin line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” degree of influence of ideologies or partisanship on almost every level of administration and governance, and it is very important for the EU to stay in “acceptable” zone for the unity of the European Union and the general good.

This time may be “different” in another way. There could be a major change: if the “national parties” are getting stronger and are going to have a “big” influence over European politics and decision-making, the European Union in its current form could adversely be affected. However, one point is clear: take part in this election – it’s still our future!

By Emanuel Mavi Ipek, Gudny Ragna Ragnarsdottir, Luisa Ascencio, Michael Benesch and Yohan Bastart.

(1)Moravsiki, Andrew,  “In Defence of the Democratic Deficit: Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union”, Harvard University, JCMS 2002, Volume 40, No. 4, p. 603-24.

(2)Rihackova, Vera, “Making the European Commission more accountable? Enhancing input legitimacy and its possible impact”.

(3)Heike and Sagarzazu, “Ideological congruency and decision-making speed: The effect of partisanship across EU institutions”, European Union Politics (Issue 14/3).

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