Losing and taking power is part of democratic life across the EU. In national politics, opposition keeps mainstream parties in check and forces renewal when political projects become stale. Since 1979, European elections have instead proved the cynical, old adage that whoever you vote for, the government wins. For 40 years, three large political families have governed the European institutions through consensual policymaking divorced from politics as normally understood. With democracy a key theme of debates both national and European, it might be time for change. The Green European Journal asked French political scientists Christophe Bouillaud and Simon Persico about their proposals to breathe life into European elections by giving voters clear choices on who is in power and what is at stake.
That power can change hands is one of the criteria to gauge whether a regime is democratic. There has never been alternation of power in the European Union. In eight legislatures since the first European Parliament election by universal suffrage in 1979, three large historic parliamentary groups made up the dominant coalition in the European Commission and the European Parliament: the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES) and, to a lesser extent, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The same three established political families also dominate the ‘inter-governmental’ section of the EU: the European Council and the ministerial groups of the Council of the European Union.
This stability is unsurprising, as these political families are in government across almost all the EU. The experience of the radical-left Alexis Tsipras government in Greece since 2015 or the Giuseppe Conte government in Italy since 2018, a coalition between the radical-right Lega and populist democrats the Five Star Movement, as well as the participation of green or far-right ministers as junior cabinet members in some countries should not distract us from the key point. Almost all prime ministers, presidents, and even ministers in Europe stem from these party families. Their representatives sit on the European Council, on the Council of Ministers, and even in the Commission (which is made up of members nominated by national executives and approved by the European Parliament).
voters use European elections to reward governments or, alternatively, to favour their traditional opponents or new challengers at national level
However, large established parties are facing growing competition in national elections. The party system is undergoing a transformation and their domination is increasingly challenged by parties focusing on new issues: identitarian politics and migration on the extreme right, or environmental issues by green and new left parties. With setbacks at the national level, why do the same political families still govern Europe?
This stability can firstly be explained by the idea that European elections are “second-order elections”. Even if European issues are gaining prominence, voters use these elections to reward governments or, alternatively, to favour their traditional opponents or new challengers at national level. Electoral movements against sitting governments are not reflected in power shifts at European level unless they move in the same direction. However, national electoral trends in different countries have never all moved simultaneously in the same direction, be it to the right, the left or the centre. The same political family has therefore never been in power in all countries at the same time. When liberal, socialist, Christian democratic or conservative governments lose in some countries, parties from the same family, in opposition in other countries, perform better.
The large political families can also strongly disagree about issues decided at the European level. In 2019, a left-wing voter would certainly vote for the Spanish Socialists (PSOE) in support of the Spanish government’s programme to end austerity, but a voter supporting the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) or the German Social Democrats would be voting, at the same election, to back leaders that support austerity.
This stability can be explained by the “consensual” nature of the European decision-making process, which favours large coalitions and makes any alternation of power unlikely. Thus the EPP, PES and ALDE groups have never made up less than 60 per cent of the European Parliament, even if this bloc has weakened since 2004 due to long-term decline. Is this domination likely to come to an end? Will the selection of the European Commission be truly democratic this time around?
In 2017 the French President, Emmanuel Macron, proposed the introduction of transnational lists: each European party would fight elections across the continent with the same list of candidates to elect a portion of the European Parliament. This mechanism would strengthen the visibility and clarity of political competition at the European level. However, it does not seem realistic; no existing federal state currently uses this type of unified list. Balanced parliamentary representation of demographic, cultural, religious and economic diversity is always achieved by holding federal elections at the level of federated territories, the building blocks of the federation.
Three more radical changes can be considered.
The first would be to elect the President of the Commission by direct universal suffrage. This type of election would lend more political weight to the holder of the post, while making changes in the electoral balance of power more visible. However, it would lead to confusion about the powers and the democratic legitimacy of the President of the Commission compared to those of the European Parliament, which is also elected by universal suffrage. This tension can sometimes be observed in regimes with directly elected presidents. Furthermore, it is unlikely that member states would accept such a reform, as they tend to resist increasing the Commission’s political weight. At the Sibiu Summit on May 9 2019, 11 states opposed the principle of a Spitzenkandidat for the 2019 European election, according to which the candidate from the European party receiving the most seats would automatically be named President of the Commission.
The current lack of politics is central to the EU’s democratic deficit at this stage in its evolution.
A second solution would be to make the historically proportional European electoral system more majoritarian. This could involve a majority bonus for the European party or the alliance of European parties that comes first in the European election. This bonus would be awarded at the European level on the basis of a relative demographic majority, and would ensure that a majority of MEPs came from this European party or alliance. There could also be a proportional vote with two rounds and a majority bonus, along the lines of the French municipal and regional elections. The first round allows people to express a broad and diverse range of political opinions. The second round allows groupings, which are underpinned by the bonus for the winner; the electorate approves or rejects coalition choices. The EU would maintain the advantages of proportional voting – fair representation and promotion of dialogue and deliberation – but also enjoy the advantages of more majoritarian systems : stable governments and clear choices for voters.
A third solution would aim to prevent the political non-differentiation of the European Commission, and to end the constant grand coalition. MEPs would choose to form a more restricted and homogeneous majority coalition (along the lines of the minimal coalitions that exist in traditional parliamentary democracies) and demand that each commissioner should come from one of the party families that make up this coalition. The day after the 2019 European elections will provide a better indication of how plausible this type of reform might be. If the governments dominated by parties that are not members of the EPP, the PES or the ALDE manage to appoint a national commissioner from their ranks, the current grand coalition will in practice extend to include them. If the MEPs reject this type of extension, it could open the path to a greater politicisation of the Commission.
Such reforms are unlikely to be implemented, but they would be desirable if governments of the European Union are to pay the political price that democracy demands in exchange for power. The current lack of politics is central to the EU’s democratic deficit at this stage in its evolution.