Ever since the first footsteps towards cooperation on the European continent after World War II, a chamber has been in place which represented the citizens of the member states participating in the European integration project. However, only since 1979 this chamber has been directly elected by the citizens of the EU member states. This novelty was intended as a celebration of democratic input in the EU decision making process and at least for these first elections, this seemed to be the case. A vast majority of 62% of the citizens of Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the UK, Denmark and Ireland went to the poll to cast a vote for their favorite representative for the European Parliament (EP). During the most recent EP elections, to the contrary, less than half of the citizens participated in EP elections (43%).
It is a remarkable observation that turnout levels have been steadily decreasing over the past three decades, but it is even more puzzling that this decrease has taken place while the competences and importance of the EP in the EU decision-making process has only risen during the same time period. With every new treaty the EP received competences for a wider range of policy domains and the EP came on a more equal footing with the Council of Ministers, which represents the interests of the different member states (while the EP represents the interests of EU citizens as a whole). The question that rises is thus why more citizens voted for a chamber of representatives with little policy influence, than for a Parliament with relevant competences.
We might gain insight into this question by having a look at different reasons why citizens tend to vote. Casting a vote indicates that citizens recognize the legitimacy of the institution they are voting for and that they believe that this vote is meaningful: votes are believed to be reflected in the composition of the EP, and the EP and its members are believed to be able to reach their goals in the EU. This way of thinking about legitimacy is reflected in the theoretical approach of input legitimacy. Here it is seen as indispensable that citizens feel represented in the EU institutions. From this point of view, it is highly problematic that decreasing amounts of citizens participate in EP elections. Moreover, developments such as rising Euroscepticism picturing the EU as an undemocratic cumbersome bureaucratic creature and the rejection of new EU treaties in referenda indicate that the decreasing turnout at EP elections must be seen as a problem for the democratic nature of the EU. The EU tries to keep on moving forward, but is increasingly inhibited by its citizens.
This sense of urgency seems to have gained ground among the members of the European Parliament and its party groups. The aspiration is that the next parliament will be elected again by more than 43% of EU citizens and to accomplish this, politicians at the EU-level aim to give European Parliament elections a European flavor again. The most eye-catching initiative in this regard is the nomination of a Candidate European Commission President by each European party. The idea is that in this way, citizens will know that if they vote for a socialist party or candidate in May, they also support Martin Schulz as the new President of the European Commission, or that they express support for Jean-Claude Juncker when they vote for a Christian democrat party, for instance. This initiative should not just give the EP elections a more European flavor, it should also increase the feeling among citizens that their vote counts and impacts the decisions made at the EU-level. The initiative highlights that the most recent Lisbon Treaty included the novelty that the outcome of the EP elections should be taken into account when the candidate for the Presidency of the new European Commission is selected. By voting for the European Parliament, citizens could thus also have an influence of another EU institution: the European Commission.
As often is the case with new treaties, however, much depends on the interpretation and implementation by the practitioners involved. The EP, on its side, tries to take full advantage of this new rule in the Lisbon Treaty by presenting European Commission President candidates. This even opens more options, such as the broadcasting in all EU member states of a debate between all these candidates in the running up to the elections. This could have major implications for the development of a European public sphere. But the result of this initiative could also turn out to be pernicious. Herman Van Rompuy, for instance, plays an important role as the President of the European Council in the selection of the new President of the European Commission. His reading of the Lisbon Treaty, in contrast to the interpretation of the EP, is that the outcome of EP elections should indeed be taken into account, but that it is still the members of the European Council (i.e. the heads of states and governments of the member states) who select and propose a candidate. From this point of view, he repeatedly warned the public and the EP that the Treaty should be respected and that it is all but certain that the candidate nominated by the winning European party will also be nominated by the European Council. Imagine the European Liberals markedly win the EP elections in May, but that their candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, is not even considered as the successor of Barroso. This would turn the attempt to transform EP elections into actual European elections – where citizens have the feeling to have input in EU decision making – into an additional ground for disillusion with the democratic functioning of the EU.
We can thus conclude that from the viewpoint of the democratic nature of the EU, the upcoming EP elections and the politics at play in its aftermath play a crucial role in revitalizing the essential link between the citizens and the EU institutions. Citizens should have the feeling they are represented in the EU institutions and that their vote counts.
Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, KU Leuven