Democracy: Time to elect the EU president
11 July 2012
Why do Europeans know more about Obama and Romney than Barroso and Van Rompuy? Because they cannot elect the leaders of the EU, writes Swedish journalist Martin Ǻdahl. The best way to address this European "democratic deficit" would be to put the candidate to the electoral test.
At the height of the euro crisis, I met a high-level civil servant of the European Commission. He described his professional situation this way: since the election of François Hollande to the French presidency, the Commission has finally regained a little power.
Previously, "Merkozy," the duo formed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, systematically placed the rest of the European apparatus before a fait accompli. But with François Hollande, Germany and France quarrelled and the Commission had to be called in to mediate. This is how one of the world's three largest economies is governed in times of acute crisis.
What is diplomatically called a "democratic deficit" – the fact that we, European citizens, do not choose those that run the European Union, as well as the fact that they are not accountable to us – is now so flagrant that it is embarrassing troublesome.
The major countries – in practice, two countries – hold the levers. Decisions are made behind closed doors. Political leaders elected to national functions govern all Europeans. None of them is invested with a mandate to speak in the name of Europe.
That is why what was once wishful thinking is today becoming a demand from the people as well as a political necessity: Europe must be able to choose its leader through direct universal suffrage. The primary function of a democracy is undoubtedly the ability to sack, via the ballot box, an unwanted leader and to elect a new one instead.
Merge the “real” parliaments
Voters do not know what to do. The citizens of the Union know more about Romney, Obama, [Bill] Clinton and [John] McCain than about Barroso and Van Rompuy. We get more excited about campaigns in the United States, where we do not vote, than in European campaigns.
It is often said that greater powers should be accorded to the European Parliament. But it lacks legitimacy; it is no more than a way for voters to let off steam in between elections. There is no real alternative within the European Parliament. The parliamentary groups do not hold common election campaigns and have neither the same platforms nor clearly identifiable political lines.
Another proposal is to merge the 'real' parliaments, that is the national parliaments and to ensure that these have a permanent European Affairs Commission whose members would meet in Brussels. That would reinforce the legitimacy but it would not solve the underlying problem: how can I use my ballot to change EU policies?
This is the reason for which we must be able to directly elect those who govern us. Only then will ideas throughout Europe crystalize around the candidates and their programmes. The President of the Council would be elected, preferably in a two stage ballot in which the winner and second place candidate would confront each other in a run off for the majority of the vote.
Candidates from small countries might have an advantage
European political currents would be forced to rally behind the candidates. The person elected and who would sit at the side of Angela Merkel and François Hollande would be backed by the voices of millions of Europeans. Whatever the leader's official attributions, he or she would be authorised to speak in the name of Europe.
An often-heard falsehood claims that this will introduce more federalism and lead to a United States of Europe. Yet, someone with the confidence of the European people could decide to reduce the powers of the Union and to return some of the decision-making power back to the member states. The goal of the reform is not to determine what can or cannot be decided at the European level but how these decisions should be made.
Another error is to assert that the Germans, the French or the Italians would win all of the elections. The large nations also – unfortunately – engender hostility and rivalries. Candidates from inoffensive small countries might also find themselves at an advantage. In the large countries, one can trust that atypical, cosmopolitan people such as former German foreign minister, the Green Party's Joschka Fischer, would be as interested in Brålanda [a small town in southern Sweden] as in Berlin.
It is best if this idea is not elaborated in the upper echelons of Europe after a new series of never-ending talks in Brussels, or in the minds of leaders such as the ten foreign ministers who recently launched the idea of a presidential election as part of their project to create a hard-core of super states. Rather, the pressure in favour of a direct European ballot must come from Europe's rank and file.