While “Europe of the People” remains largely fictional, “Europe of the States” is definitely reality.  Contrary to popular belief, the governments (of the member states) are the ones making the calls in Brussels, and not a group of supposedly overpaid Eurocrats. We may just get a chance to witness that reality once again in the upcoming weeks during the process to appoint the incoming European Commission, which was one of the major elements at stake in the May 25th elections. Depending on the outcome of that battle, the democratic deficit will either be in part decreased, or increased.

By putting forth candidates to succeed to José Manuel Durao Barroso, the current boss of the European executive, the European political parties were aiming to force the hand of the Council. According to the treaties, members of the European Parliament only have the power approve (or not) the candidates nominated by the governments. So, this veritable constitutional putsch by the political parties was meant to clarify the political responsibilities of each institution. In fact, citizens of Europe do not seem to really understand who is in charge in the European Union: the Commission made up of individuals appointed by the member states and therefore unelected officials? The enigmatic “European Council”, or “Council of Ministers”, or “Eurogroup” all of which, unbeknownst to most, are composed of heads of state and government or ministers from the national governments? The European Parliament, a body that most voters still believe has no real power? Then there is the fact that France and Great Britain, with their presidential and brutal majority systems respectively, struggle to get their heads around the idea of a Union founded on compromise and consensus amongst national interests and competing political forces.

In attempting to make the President of the Commission, the elected representative of, not a single political family as proportional voting makes that impossible, but a coalition of several parties, MEPs were hoping to politicise European politics. Currently, decisions are often presented as technical, playing into the idea that everything is inevitable, or “TINA” (there is no alternative). In the early stages of European construction, de-politicisation was necessary and justified by the fact that countries that had very little in common had to work together.  But, as the widening of the powers of the Union speeds up, this has become untenable. In fact, Eurosceptics and Europhobes alike capitalise on this blind spot of European construction by criticising a Union in which it is impossible to change policy, and thereby identify the Union through its policies. Is it any wonder then that we tend to say “Liberal Europe” and not “Europe of Liberals?” wonders Élisabeth Guigou, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the French National Assembly. According to Vivien A. Schmidt, professor of International Relations at Boston University, the Union is “multi-levelled democracy”: at European level, “policy without politics”, and at National level “politics without policy”, with the latter being done increasingly in Brussels or Frankfurt (on policy areas including but not limited to international trade, monetary policy, agriculture, anti-trust, internal market, and immigration).

The sense of frustration amongst citizens is only exacerbated by the increase in integration amongst the 18 Eurozone countries in response to the beating they took by the financial markets. By now, Europe has seeped into even the core issues of national sovereignty, from economic policy to national budgets, pensions, wages, and healthcare. Meanwhile, the political decisions made together by the member states in Brussels continue to be, to paraphrase Vivien A. Schmidt, a lie that only accentuates the feeling of disenfranchisement of citizens and their mistrust vis-à-vis a construction process that is increasingly perceived as more autocratic than democratic.

This explains why the political parties decided to attempt to add more democracy “by the people” to the community system, i.e., by proposing to link the President of the Commission (which holds the right of legislative initiative) to a clearly identified political majority. But the states, the true masters of Europe, do not see things in the same way: there is no consensus amongst the 28 member states to establish a system of representative democracy at European level. The majority of governments believe that democratic legitimacy lies with the states: “la démocratie, c’est moi[1], as Nicolas Sarkozy so bluntly declared to a group of journalists whilst French President. Basically, second-degree democracy, through representatives of the democratically elected government, is more than enough.

Even direct suffrage of the European Parliament in 1979 was exacted by the German Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in exchange for the institutionalisation of the European Council of heads of government and state, which was what then French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing wanted. At the time, to the French, that seemed without consequence, since Strasbourg had no real power. It took continued efforts by the Germans and five treaties (between 1987 and 2009) to put the European Parliament on equal footing with the Council of Ministers (the institution composed of representatives of the government). Letting the European Parliament choose the President of the Commission would be tantamount to stripping the European Council – “the black box of democracy” as Modem MEP Sylvie Goulard likes to refer to it – of one of its essential prerogatives. The Council of Ministers currently chooses the President of the Commission behind closed doors and by consensus. Only François Hollande has gone so far as to publicly state that he would be prepared to let the European Parliament choose.

A real “battle for legitimacy” between the European Council and the European Parliament seems to be looming and that is precisely what the French Presidency fears.  Heads of state and government are betting on the fact that 1) no clear majority will emerge after the elections of May 25th; and 2) that divisions amongst European Parliament members, which are largely subject to the will of their home countries, will prevail, meaning that the decision will come back to the Council without there being any actual clash. If Parliament is unable to coalesce an absolute majority of 376 of its members out of 751 around one candidate, then the Council will pick the next President of the Commission by itself. If this scenario plays out, the big losers will be democracy and the very idea of Europe itself.


This article was originally published on the blog of the author and in Liberation. 



[1] Translation : “I am democracy.”

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