There are still another two weeks before the politicians are to be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, but the omens do not look good for the European Parliament elections.
The contest between the Spitzenkandidaten for the European Commission presidency has yet to set the Parliament’s electoral contest alight, as its proponents claimed it would. Whether that is because the concept is flawed, or the candidates are inadequate, or whether all the blame should be attributed to the indifference of Europe’s broadcasters, need not be determined yet. There will be plenty of time in the aftermath of the elections to pick over the entrails of these sacrifices.
Although politicians will proclaim the contrary, voters are not being offered clear choices. As we discuss elsewhere in this edition, the election manifestos put out by Europe-wide parties are bland and uninspiring. Because they have to command consensus among the various national delegations, they will not command attention from ordinary voters. The nature of EU legislative business is that it is often highly technical and complex. It is off-putting, at least to those who are not readers of European Voice.
Among the things that should be being talked about more is the nature of European democracy: not least, how to improve the European Parliament. That is not easy for many MEPs because they are reluctant to admit that the Parliament is failing. Whatever its theoretical and legal legitimacy, the Parliament does not enjoy the levels of respect and engagement that most national legislatures do.
A manifesto published last week by Thomas Piketty and other French intellectuals devoted considerable space to the idea of a parliament for the eurozone. The implication is that the European Parliament itself is not up to the task. Their recommendation is another chamber made up of delegates from national parliaments – an idea previously rejected (unsurprisingly) by most MEPs. You do not have to agree with the proposed remedy, to recognise a growing opinion that the Parliament is part of the EU’s problems. When French socialists voice the same disquiets as Germany’s constitutional court, there is more than an image problem
Yet the election debates in most countries have not confronted the need to reform Parliament. Many Eurosceptics would prefer to abolish the Parliament altogether. Their opponents, those who are ready to defend the EU, feel an obligation to defend also its main institutions, at least for the duration of the campaigns.
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The quandary that Piketty and others are trying to address is how to integrate national parliaments into the EU’s decision-making – this is as much about the inadequacies of the Council of Ministers as about the failings of Parliament. They are not the first to make the attempt. It was much discussed in the drafting of the EU’s constitutional convention of 2002-03. But that does not meant that the question has been settled or can now be ignored.
Perhaps the omens are wrong. Perhaps the gods can be appeased. If the turnout in this month’s European elections rises above 66%, if the Spitzenkandidaten contest does kick-start Europe-wide political debate, then perhaps doubts about the Parliament will recede.
But if turnout remains low and debate stays stuck in its national silos, then the demands for change will grow louder. Two weeks of prayer may not be enough to avert disaster.