The European Union has often been accused of having a ‘democratic deficit’. Sir Robert Cooper writes that what the EU actually suffers from is a ‘democratic surplus’: elections are held, but turnout remains extremely low due to a lack of interest among citizens. As national parliaments appear to bring greater legitimacy than the European Parliament, he argues that the EU should consider returning to a system in which MEPs are appointed by national politicians rather than through European elections.
The European Union is the world’s most successful experiment in regional integration. Those nearby want to join; those further away want to imitate – Mr Putin’s Eurasian Union is only the latest example – but it is still an experiment; and as well as successes there are failures that should be corrected.
The elections for the European Parliament are one of these. Overall turnout remains around 43 per cent; in Slovakia, a country that has done well out of EU membership, it was 13 per cent. In Egypt a turnout of 48 per cent is taken as evidence that the election is not legitimate. If there was any increase in the turnout for the European elections this time it came in the votes for fringe parties.
This is the shock: 25 per cent for the Front National in France; in Britain UKIP topped the poll. Radical right and left in many other European countries achieved better results in the European elections than they get in national polls. We know the background: austerity, lack of trust for political elites; concern (plus scaremongering) about immigration.
But why do extremists and incompetents do especially well in European elections? The answer was given by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who told voters that these elections represented a “free hit”, a chance to stick it to the government without the risk of consequences. There is some truth in this as far as UKIP is concerned. They have never done much in the EP except to demonstrate their dislike of the EU and to collect their expenses.
Most voters don’t know what the European Parliament does. Even if they did they would not be interested. Its main work is about regulation of markets, consumer standards, environmental standards, foreign trade and aid. The issues that matter to most voters – employment, social security, education, health, taxes – are handled at national level.
The EP elections produce an illusion of democracy. For years the EP has talked about a democratic deficit, and has demanded more power for itself to remedy this. A democratic deficit is when there are no elections, and the people are on the street demanding them. What we have in Europe is a democratic surplus. We hold elections but people do not turn up.
At national level, voting gives you a chance to choose the government. In the recent European elections, the leading parties tried to reproduce this by nominating candidates for the post of President of the Commission, claiming that the one with the most seats should get the job. This is a new version of the old refrain that giving the European Parliament more power will encourage voters to take it seriously. This did not work before, and it has not worked this time. Most voters had no idea that their vote might result in one of these three gentlemen – all three Brussels insiders – becoming Commission President.
The election campaigns were stubbornly national. Mrs Merkel’s face appeared on CDU posters, although she was not running in the European elections. Voters in Britain, France and Italy punished or rewarded parties according to what was happening nationally.
The conclusion is that democracy works at the national level, but not at the European level – at least not now. Many people argue today for a greater role for national parliaments in Brussels. Why? Because of an instinctive feeling that national parliaments bring a democratic legitimacy that the EP does not.
So let us do the job properly and return to a system in which the European Parliament is composed of members nominated by national parliaments, reflecting their own composition. They could select a mixture of MPs, who would be members of both Houses and ensure good communication, and others who could be full-time in Brussels. At the same time we could end the nonsense of the EP meeting in different places, and instead try virtual meetings for those with national responsibilities.
If this worked, Europe would be better connected to the people and to national politics; and the European Parliament would spend less time pressing for more powers for Brussels in general and for itself in particular. Above all it would prevent the European Parliament from being an incubator for parties that are incompetent or worse. UKIP would never have got where it is without the platform and the funding it has received from Europe.
The European Union needs an assembly to examine legislation in detail, and to control the Commission. Most members of the EP are hardworking people who do a decent job. They have many merits, but democratic legitimacy is not one of them.
The European Parliament is a democratic failure. We should try something different. If that works, so much the better; if not, try something else. That is how democratic institutions have always developed.
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Sir Robert Cooper
Sir Robert Cooper is a diplomat who has been a Counsellor of the European External Action Service and a Special Advisor at the European Commission. He was also formerly Director General of Political and Military Affairs of the EU’s Council of Ministers, and former chief foreign policy adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is currently a Visiting Professor at LSE IDEAS.
Why is it that the stock response of bureaucrats when faced with a democratic challenge is to call for less democracy? Thankfully the EP is here to stay and is led by people who clearly have more faith in the transformational capacity of democratic politics than the author of this article.
This is a personal opinion by the writer , and should be read as such . He is part of the system which has created all the problems in the EU and the world , teaching them outdated ideas without the creative element , biased towards big business and the financial crooks of this world . The financial sector has proved time and time again its incompetence , with crisis after crisis and bailout after bailout.
So why should we listen to or even read what these people have to say , he like many others are arrogant and unaccountable , and their track record is far from good .
The whole EU system is corrupt and unsustainable , and it may take violence and revolt to make things change , getting rid of the current out of date politicians and political parties , followed by the incompetent financial and international business sector .
“This is a personal opinion by the writer , and should be read as such”
Well yes, it’s an opinion piece. Your “rebuttal” here seems to be to sidestep everything said in the article and argue that we should ignore it simply because of who has written it, rather than what they’ve actually said. Needless to say that’s about as convincing as a paper padlock.
Try and argue using evidence, reason and logic rather than ad hominem gibberish.
Go and live and work in other EU countries and across the world ,, then comment , with experience
Just another EU desk bound comment
The democratic deficit is there for all to see , people appointed to many EU positions , with no accountability to electors . The EU Commission is totally unaccountable to electors , and in a democratic system politicians have to be accountable to electors , .
The Lisbon Treaty was made very opaque and pushed through by politicians more intent on creating a federation and gaining more power than creating a democratic society.
When we read that an EU Commissioner said the UK citizens were not capable of taking a decision about the EU , shows their arrogance , lack of diplomacy , as many UK citizens are more highly qualified and knowledgeable that any EU Commissioner , as Commissioners are often professional politicians who have little knowledge of the real world of work , business and finance , only their limited world of politics.
It can be said today without hesitation that EU politicians are third rate and unfit for their posts , the proof being the state the EU is in , the costs of running the EU , the lack of certified accounts , and the fact that commissioners have refused to swear the oath of office , this being pure arrogance .
Also if this was not the case then why are people voting out the current political parties in many countries , the only option being to vote extreme as all classic parties have been incapable of running EU countries or the EU itself .
If there was democracy in the EU ,then countries would be able to vote to be in or out of the EU , and also leave the EU if citizens preferred it . Also why can only Eurozone countries use the Euro , the US dollar is used in many places , just shows the control freeks that are in the EU.
If the EU wants permanent confrontation , then it should continue with its current ways , and not change outdated treaties and legislation . And the confrontation could become violent and destroy economies unless politicians listen
the EU is not a country, and the commission is not a government
National leaders have always appointed the president and the 27 other commissioners, and will not want to be dictated to by the EP, which most regard as a nuisance. The Lisbon treaty mischievously muddied the process: it says leaders should propose a president “taking into account” the election result; then the candidate “shall be elected” by the EP. The dispute over who chooses, and controls, the commission president may cause more gridlock in Brussels than rowdy Eurosceptics ever could.
The EU needs better commissioners, but an election of the president would narrow the field. Sitting prime ministers would not risk their national jobs for a European contest; the choice would come down to jobless politicos or Brussels insiders. And voters are bound to be disappointed. The commission president does not decide issues they most care about. Voting against austerity in the EP would not change the fact that creditors set the conditions for bail-outs.
the European Union was born in sin: a project devised by and for the elites, lacking democratic legitimacy. All attempts to make good the “democratic deficit”, a term coined in the 1970s, have failed. Direct elections to the European Parliament (EP)? Turnout has fallen ever since they were instituted in 1979. Give the assembly real power? The parliament has never had more clout, yet trust in the EU is at an all-time low.
There is I think another way in which National Parliaments could be given more say in a manner which could counterbalance the European Parliament and give a sense that European Union institutions were responsive to Member State idiosyncrasies. An interplay between National Parliaments and the European Parliaments would enliven the democracy of the European Union and inject new meaning into the elections for the European Parliament.
Member states should be given an opt out from legislation where opposition in the member state is at a higher level than the support for the legislation in question registered by the vote in its favour at the European Parliament. In short, it would not be sufficient for a member state to vote against the legislation, to opt out.
Where support at the European Parliament level was strong – which is to say significantly above the 50% support necessary for the legislation to pass, then, it would be difficult for a member state to opt out. On the other hand, where support for legislation in the European Parliament was weak, then it would be relatively easy for a member state to opt out.
Sir Robert says “The issues that matter to most voters – employment, social security, education, health, taxes – are handled at national level.” I am sure this is broadly correct, and that consequently, for the most part national parliaments would not waste their time attempting to opt out of legislation which, however tiresome it may sometimes appear, is broadly uncontroversial and in the mutual interest of the community. However there are issues, such as the right of prisoners to vote, where the UK population does appear somewhat exercised by the imposition of European Law and where the UK Parliament might just take a contrary view. Should the UK Parliament gain an opt out on the basis I suggest, no great harm would be done to the general function of the European Union and a sense that member state parliaments can challenge the view from the centre would counter the falsehood that the European Union is undemocratic steam roller.
Of course it follows that if such an opt out was considered damaging to the wider interests of the European Union that the matter could be challenged and a further European Parliament vote taken in an attempt to trump the opt out.
The reason for a low turnout is that people do not have a good choice of people to vote for . Also politicians no longer represent the people who elect them , but their political parties ideas , this is unacceptable .
The biggest problem across the world are so called career politicians the vast majority of whom have never help down a job in their lives , and get massive handouts when they leave office .