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Four Lessons from the European Parliamentary Election Campaigns

This week, Europeans will elect 751 members to the next European Parliament. The electoral campaign that has taken place over the last few weeks gives a succinct picture of where European integration stands today. Four points, in particular, stand out, writes Daniela Schwarzer.

First, the European Union is steadily moving toward greater politicisation, but it is far from being a trans-European democracy. According to the current EU Treaty, parliamentary election results should, for the first time, be taken into account when the heads of state and government select the next president of the European Commission. Several parties have therefore nominated top candidates. The two front-runners are the European Peoples Party’s (EPP) Jean-Claude Juncker and the Party of European Socialists and Democrats’ Martin Schulz — who are campaigning across the continent to preside over the EU’s next leadership.

This presidentialisation is good news for a slowly maturing European democracy. It broadens the democratic process and introduces more Europe into the campaigns. But it also reveals the persistent weaknesses of Europe’s democratic fabric. Despite the first trans-European television debates and cross-country campaigns of the top candidates, weak overall outreach, mixed messaging to different national publics, and the perception of little divergence between candidates are all limiting enthusiasm. Turnout rates may hit all-time lows in some countries. Some parties continue to feature national leaders on campaign posters, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, rather than Juncker.

These trends will be difficult to overcome in the short term. And yet, the historical first of trans-European electoral campaigns may have lasting effects. Building on the experience of the last few weeks, there is a chance that first actual European parties — with direct membership — may develop in time for the 2019 elections. Trans-European debates will continue to develop, benefitting from new media. Citizens’ mobility across European borders for education and work could be increased. In sum, a lot more can be done to enable Europeans to act as European citizens.

Second, the campaign highlights the ongoing power struggle between national capitals and the supranational European Parliament. While the top candidates touring Europe try to make citizens believe that voting for them means selecting the next president of Europe’s executive, there is no clear commitment by to that aim by national leaders. Very few have committed to following the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty and actually respecting the citizens’ vote.

Because of concerns over national sovereignty, in particular following Europe’s sovereign debt and banking crises, there is little appetite in most national capitals to install stronger leaders at the top of EU institutions. But instead of putting political energy into strengthening European institutions and joint decision-making in order to regain joint sovereignty, the majority of national decision-makers cling onto an illusion of sovereignty that they pretend to still have at the national level.

Third, the debates about European integration and EU membership have become more polarized than ever before. Euroskeptic, anti-establishment parties vocally capitalize on the negative public sentiment that has accumulated after years of dire economic, fiscal, and social crisis: Europe does not hold its promises and Brussels appears distant, technocratic, and illegitimate. In two countries, France and Britain, EU-sceptic parties may even finish first.

Moderate, traditionally pro-European parties have difficulties in coming to grips with the fact that being pro-European today means being constructively critical of the EU. None of the established parties has made concrete suggestions for a reform of a system that looks increasingly defunct. What the EU needs now are institutions and actors to govern its citizens democratically.

Fourth, the campaign has highlighted how isolated Britain is in the EU. The country’s mainstream political parties have decided to concentrate on national issues and have kept away from the European campaign. Neither top candidate — Juncker or Schulz — have set foot in Great Britain during the electoral campaign. More importantly, Britain’s Conservatives have left the EPP, meaning that if Juncker were to become European Commission President, British citizens would not even have had a chance to vote for him.

While the eighth direct election of the European Parliament reveals the political weaknesses of Europe, it would be wrong to conclude that the EU is not made for more democracy. The election of either Juncker or Schulz would be a success for European democracy that would likely trigger further political and institutional dynamics. But low voter turnout and the performance of fringe parties should be taken as a long overdue wake-up call for a system and a political leadership that has failed to adapt to the new challenges it is facing.

Daniela Schwarzer is the director of the Europe Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think-tank in Washington DC. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series

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