More than any other European institution, the European Parliament bears the responsibility for nurturing the development of a truly trans-European citizenry. The path to building this European political and public sphere is riddled with pitfalls, created by both the EU’s political ecosystem and national political actors. Past, present, and potential future initiatives are promising, but they must be matched with sufficient political will and ambition.

Having sputtered since French and Dutch voters threw out the European Constitution in 2005, the EU’s constitutional process is finally getting back into gear. Joining the fray, the European Parliament is preparing yet another report on the “democratisation of the EU”. The report is based on a valid if somewhat obvious diagnosis, according to which the EU’s democratic deficit is fuelled by four shortcomings. First, a lack of intelligibility in decision-making, as political responsibilities are diffuse, numerous, and rarely owned. Second, the absence of a common European public sphere. Third, a lack of community spirit and a common European approach, exacerbated by an assertive European Council and increasingly intergovernmental approaches. And finally, a lack of legislative power for the Parliament, impeding its capacity to steer the political direction of the Union.

The European Parliament’s usual efforts to deepen European democracy consist of enhancing its powers of initiative, budget control, and oversight. These have been the underlying themes of its reports over the years, and are likely to remain so. Like every institution, the European Parliament fights for increased centrality within its political ecosystem.

If its solutions for more democracy at the European level sound repetitive, it is because the European Parliament has always been an “agent of federalism”, driving for a more political and integrated Europe.1 Until the late 1980s, most of its members were committed federalists, epitomised by Altiero Spinelli and the “draft treaty” for a politically integrated Europe adopted in 1984. Even after proportional and direct elections denied the federalists their cultural majority, this detailed blueprint and its author remained a source of federalist inspiration, as seen in the 2010 cross-group Spinelli Group initiative.2

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Politics takes over

Ever since its inception and particularly after gaining a direct democratic mandate, the European Parliament has continuously fought for a larger share of the European decision-making process. Throughout the 1970s, like any young parliament it focused on budgetary matters, gradually carving out the right to oversee, amend, and reject part and eventually all of the then-European Community’s expenditure. Prepared to confront impervious member states, the European Parliament rejected the budget as a whole in 1979 and 1984. Since then, the procedure has grown more sophisticated and less prone to deadlock, but the Parliament’s will to oppose member states has also lost some of its sharpness.

From the 1986 Single European Act to the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament grew to become a fully-fledged co-legislator across all common policies, on equal footing with the European Council. Moreover, European law-making evolved to emphasise its procedural role, to the extent that it now attracts growing droves of Brussels lobbyists. But while its powers were increased, its political legitimacy remained uncertain, dented by three major historical trends. First, until an upswing in 2019, turnout at European elections was steadily declining.3 Participation in many of the EU’s newer Eastern members was particularly low. Second, national parliaments continued to enjoy higher status in political and career terms. Third, the culminating crises of the 2010s (financial, migration, Ukraine, Brexit) saw the Council inexorably rise to dominance in the EU institutional order.

The European Parliament’s status as a political oddity within an unfamiliar institutional order that is barely understood, let alone covered, by national media outlets makes its task of establishing political legitimacy even more difficult. In addition, the poor behaviour of certain members has repeatedly damaged its reputation, from the outright corruption of the 2011 “cash for influence” scandal to its general permeability to corporate interest representatives (lobbyists). Certain political animals did thrive in this environment, succeeding in raising the Parliament’s political profile with their charismatic presence, pan-European appeal, and impassioned plenary speeches. But when it came to politically decisive moments, particularly moments of crisis, even its figureheads were unable to move the Parliament centre-stage.

Europe is still about policies, yet it is becoming increasingly about politics.

Things are changing for the better, however. The crises of the 2010s (and early 2020s) may have cast a shadow over the Parliament, but they also made national political debates more European. This was clearly demonstrated by the 2019 elections – fought more on European issues, and with a turnout not seen since 1999.

Of course, Europe is still about policies, yet it is becoming increasingly about politics. The 2019 elections were also a clear marker of the slow erosion of the Parliament’s political centre. The traditional ruling bloc of the centre-left and centre-right operating in concert is now challenged internally by the Liberals, to the left by the Greens, and to the right by a new strand of the nationalist radical right. This has paved the way for a potential reintroduction of a Left-Right divide that the grand coalitions had completely watered down.

However, a more political European Parliament will not necessarily be a stronger one. At the peak of its institutional influence, when it imposed the “Spitzenkandidat” system – the requirement that the Commission president have an electoral mandate of sorts – on a defiant Council, the Parliament was governed by a stable and disciplined majority coalition tied to supporting the Commission. Left/Right or government/opposition-style divides might help make the European Parliament more intelligible to the public and the media – and therefore enhance its democratic legitimacy – but, paradoxically, they could weaken its hand in the European institutional balance.

Bringing European democracy to life

This apparent trade-off between democratic legitimacy and institutional clout should encourage us to think outside of the box when it comes to European democracy. If the EU is a sui generis political construction, as is often argued, do we really want the same kind of politics at the European level as we have at the national level? Should we seek a transformation of the EU into a more recognisable parliamentary system? Would that not risk weakening or even losing the originality of the European Parliament?

At some point, treaty changes will most likely grant the Parliament much-needed rights to legislative initiative and greater budgetary powers, so it makes sense to keep demanding them. Another well-established debate surrounds making European elections more European in outlook. The merits and demerits of transnational lists, continental constituencies, the dual proportionality system, and European parties have been discussed at length among EU politics aficionados. It is likely that elements of these reforms will also find their way into European electoral law. But whatever the future of these institutional fixes, making our political system more European depends, above all, on making our political lives more European, too. Here, practices are more important than legal provisions.

A unique trait of the European Parliament is that it creates Europeans. Through an interesting phenomenon of acculturation, its members, even the most rabid Eurosceptics, truly become more European. Of course, European does not necessarily mean pro-EU but, significantly, even the nationalists have adopted a transnational dimension to their views and strategies. The ongoing reorganisation of Europe’s radical right in the wake of Viktor Orbán’s departure from the centre-right European People’s Party is proof of this trend. This is a key strength of the European Parliament: it is a factory for Europeanisation.

In this spirit, there are three avenues to explore to bolster both the democratic legitimacy of the EU as a whole and the political relevance of the European Parliament in particular.

The first proposal – political – would be to strengthen the connection between the Parliament and the Commission. Currently, in order to flex the powers afforded it by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament ritually sacrifices one Commissioner- nominee every five years during intense and dramatic hearing procedures. But it could go much further. Next time around, the European Parliament could reject nominees if they do not hail from its ranks. Rather than have Commissioners owing their jobs to their personal and political ties with the capitals, it would force governments to send their potential nominees to face the voters. For politicians, parties, and voters, there would then be more at stake come the European elections.

Making our political system more European depends, above all, on making our political lives more European, too.

The second idea – institutional – would be to find a creative way to reinsert the European Council into the democratic order of checks and balances. The ambivalent role of a body assuming both political leadership and legislative prerogatives has blurred the separation of powers at the EU level.

National governments alone have any level of control over the Council, and this only applies in countries where parliaments play a central role. If German, Dutch, Danish, or Finnish leaders are tightly bound by their parliamentary mandates when negotiating at a European level, elsewhere this control is much looser. In some cases, it is absent: in presidential France or illiberal Hungary, European policy is conducted more or less unchecked.

What is needed is oversight of the Council that upholds the interests of Europe as a whole. Here, the European Parliament could invest more time and energy in cooperation with national parliaments. This has so far proven disappointing, but one option to explore would be giving the specific organ common to the European Parliament and the parliamentary chambers of EU member states (currently known as COSAC) a joint mandate for overseeing the European interest within the Council. The European Parliament would thus become the place where national and European democratic legitimacies, instead of competing, converge and inform each other – bringing a European perspective to national parliaments while reminding MEPs that they cannot claim a monopoly on European affairs.

The third and final reflection – citizen-based – would be to make the European Parliament a real home for Europeans. In one of his last interviews before his tragic accidental death in 2008, the distinguished European and Polish historian Bronisław Geremek, who sat as an MEP from 2004, confessed that it had taken him a few years to grasp the specificities of the parliament he was sitting in. While at first glance it had appeared to be a somewhat limited oddity when compared to its national counterparts, Geremek eventually found the European Parliament to be the place in which citizens actually and physically form the European civic body.

In a manner unique among the European institutions, the European Parliament is the place where Europe is made.

To reconnect with this function of channelling the European spirit, the European Parliament should do its utmost to organise European debates and embody the much-needed yet sorely lacking European public sphere. The now extinct Agora initiative that the Parliament ran from 2008 to 2013 was a pioneering experiment in European direct democracy that developed recommendations on pressing issues such as poverty, youth unemployment, and the climate crisis. And the growing number of citizens’ assemblies across Europe provide many more lessons to draw from.

The European Parliament could set about making these experiences more systemic by organising forums all over the continent – gathering European citizens and giving them the chance to devise the policies that they wish to see take shape, without the usual mediation of party politics. In this spirit, the Conference on the Future of Europe – an EU initiative running from 2021 to 2022 that promises to directly involve citizens – could become the first of many exercises in participatory democracy.

Democracy is but a conversation between citizens. More than just institutions and electoral rituals, it is the feeling of sharing the same space; a sociological process bringing together the many into one shared community. In the absence of a continental demos and “democratic infrastructure” to use Jan-Werner Müller’s terms, namely a European public sphere and European political parties, what more adequate place than the Parliament to have this conversation?

Stepping into its fifth decade as a democratically elected body, the European Parliament may well be feeling the bite of a midlife crisis. Instead of simply complaining about the powers it lacks, it should take inspiration from its achievements so far. In a manner unique among the European institutions, the European Parliament is the place where Europe is made. This might be its most important contribution to the history of the European project: providing the conditions to foster, nurture, and deliver nascent European democracy. By inviting the citizens in.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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