Roland Benedikter & Lukas Kaelin argue that the European Union elections provide no clear signal for the future.
The elections to the European parliament in Brussels of May 22-25 coincided with the end of five difficult crisis years. Nonetheless most European nations are growing again, if only below 1% like Italy. Just two - Greece and Cyprus, currently growing at around 2% - remain under the financial rescue umbrella (the European Financial Stability Facility) after Ireland and Portugal made it back to the money markets on December 16, 2013 and May 18, 2014 respectively. The elections of the European parliament and the European commission, the government of united Europe, were the 8th in the history of the European Union since 1979, with 380 million voters in 28 member states entitled to select from 751 representatives, thereby making it the second-biggest democratic electoral process in the world after India.
The elections, won by the coalition of conservative parties of Jean-Claude Juncker with the strong influence of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel in the background, showed mixed signs for the European integration process. Populist, rightist, Europe-critic and anti-European parties stagnated in some countries (like PVV in the Netherlands) while growing in many others (like Front National in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria and Ukip in the UK). At the same time, the mobilization of public intellectuals, opinion makers and the media was unprecedented in promoting the European unification project.
Elections are crunch-times for the public and thus not only political events, but indicators of the state of integration of the European public sphere. Despite the gains of the nationalist and anti-European right, there were some encouraging signs in terms of the development of a first trans-national, truly European identity – which is the indispensable basis for greater political union in the long term. The most worrying signal of the 2014 elections though remains the low and disproportional voter turnout which is not a good indication of the greater acceptance of – and a wider insight into - the importance of the European project.
During this year’s elections, a Europe-wide art project called “Milk for Multilingualism” (image, aktionfreiekunst.com) served as a catchy representation of the unity and plurality of Europe, putting up posters in all languages of the different packages of milk across Europe. By artistic means, it points to the fragmented European public that is in a slow transition toward a stronger union – a union, however, that still lacks an emotional basis. Or as Bono from the pop group U2 put it two and a half months before the elections at the congress of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Dublin on March 7, 2014: “Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling.”
European parties from all over the political spectrum, from the far left to the extremist right, understood the message and campaigned more emotionally than ever for their purposes. As a consequence, both the election campaigns for the European parliament and the voter’s decisions this May showed some tendencies to extremes, but paradoxically also poor voter participation – with the latter a more important sign than the first. While the emotional strategy helped the populist parties, moderate voters apparently didn’t react well to it and stayed at home – which is in principle worse news for the European project than the victory of the right. Voter turnout has constantly sunken throughout the history of the European elections, from 63% in 1979 to 43% in 2009, but this May it stagnated on this low number: again only 43% showed up, thus manifesting an insufficient awareness about the importance of a united Europe in a smaller and more competitive world, a consciousness partly lost through difficult crisis years that more than anything manifested the relative isolation and non-connectedness of European nations.
Indeed, the elections once again proved that the European Union is far from where it aspires to be. There was an unmasking event during Euronews’ “First European Presidential Debate” on April 28 between the four top candidates from the left to the right, the strongest number ever seen in a European election since the end of WW2. A member from the audience asked the key question regarding the future of Europe: Who has got the power, the European parliament or the heads of nation states assembled in the European Council, i.e. the government? And: To which extent do the participants of the debate once elected to the European parliament have the power to implement the policies they are proposing, given that the true power lies with the European Council, the assembly of the heads of the single member states, rather than with the united parliament or the European Commission? Jean-Claude Juncker, the European People’s Party (EPP) candidate, answered dutifully that the real power lies with the people, the citizens, and the voters – and was interrupted by the laughs of the audience.
The picture was telling. On the one side were the leading candidates of the main parties of the European Parliament on stage, and on the other side the audience laughed at their assurance that the power of the European Union lies with the people. Among the European politicians of all parties, there was no denying that Europe is suffering from a “democracy deficit” to use a rather euphemistic term for the notorious non-balance of power in favor of unelected officials and bureaucrats. Yet, the answer of Juncker also manifested a one-sided democratic ideal widely diffused among European officials, where citizens mainly function as voters to choose their representatives only every five years in order to then step aside for a long, too long time. Thus, the democratic deficit of the European Union remains worrying – to an extent that the insight in the problems caused by voters limited influence this May was perceivable for a continent-wide public, and eventually led to a majority of people staying at home in protest and disinterest.
Democracy deficits indeed remain the heaviest burden for Europe’s future, and the 2014 elections have only confirmed this. As European public policy researcher Thomas Benedikter of the European Academy Bolzano rightly put it:
“The European Union is not democratic enough - not only with regard to its daily policy decisions but mainly and foremost in its basic institutional architecture. An eloquent example was the stabilization policy towards the euro-crisis countries since 2010, which was enforced on the European parliament against the resistance of broad sections of the populations affected. The European Central Bank ECB, a bank, influences the economic and financial policies of the member countries heavily without being democratically legitimated.”
Further, the European parliament as at yet is not empowered by a majority to install a government, as usual in parliamentary democracies. “Usually, parliaments elect (or select) governments”, Benedikter states, “unless the latter are directly elected by the voters. But according to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 which regulates the cooperation between the European institutions, the European parliament has only the right to confirm the European Commission, while the European Council, i.e. the assembly of the head of states, designates its members. The European parliament can only block their proposal, however it can’t make its own choice. Second, the fundamental task of a parliament, specifically legislation, in Brussels is not primarily an issue of the parliament, but of the Commission (Article 289.1 of the European Union Treaty). The parliament can only accept or reject the Commission's law proposals. No wonder that the lobby machinery in Brussels besieges mainly the Commission, not the European parliament; and it is no coincidence that most European citizens' initiatives are directed to the Commission, not to the European parliament.” Thus in the present state of the European Union the parliament is (still) not the sovereign.
Last but not least, as Benedikter states, “the European parliament does not operate according to the classical scheme government versus opposition, but it’s superimposed on a wide range of transverse interests: national interests, lobby interests, party interests.” The decisions of the European parliament express not the will of a clear governmental majority, but rather those of changing and insecure coalitions between parties and lobbyists often blurring the lines between governing majority and the minority in opposition. In today’s European Union, there is no clear separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
People’s increased knowledge and a new wave of impatience with the European unification process manifested in this election, however, is an encouraging sign. What will decide about the European future is whether the increasing awareness that jointly elected European institutions like the parliament have to be strengthened against the assembly of the head of states and the European Commission in order to strengthen democracy is translated into civil participation or into apathy and resignation. This issue will in the long term also decide about the legitimacy of the European government.
The solution: Europe must overcome traditional national thinking
In order to proceed toward a joint political strategy both inside and the outside, the future lies in a common European government that is worthy of the name. As Kurt Biedenkopf, the former Prime Minister of Saxony and co-architect of German unification, told us in a long conversation, Europe is trying to realize the principle of “unity in diversity” by implementing three different levels of government destined to cooperate in non-hierarchical ways: the European Union government, the single nation-state governments and the local governments of transnational regions.
Strategists like Biedenkopf are well aware that such an experiment is novel in human history and Europe currently seems to be the only continent that is attempting such a complex arrangement. Most other global powers, like America and China, are sceptic that such an arrangement will ever work in practice because it is too complicated in their view and may bear too many administrative costs due to its multi-level architecture. This is one reason why Europe today is probably the world's least understood continent.
Nevertheless, the experiment of multi-level and multi-polar government could make sense beyond Europe’s borders because "unity in diversity" could inevitably become the necessary arrangement of the upcoming world community, especially if conflicts have to be avoided on an always smaller and more populous globe.
A European Public in the Making
What are the tentative teachings of the May 2014 European elections?
Rather than the sheer numbers and percentages of the vote, and irrespective of the winners and losers, given the lack of power of the parliament the event of the elections was more important than its outcome. Not single candidates, but the elections themselves were the star. Despite all disillusion, these European elections have also given rise to some novelties that point to the emergence of a first “real” European public since WWII beyond national fragmentation, even though the main areas of debate remained tied to national frameworks.
First, European-wide candidates and debates tried to appeal to a continental public. For the first time, Europe in its entirety was addressed by the candidates. Candidates for parliament running Europe-wide were a step towards building a trans-national consciousness. It was a step in the right direction, even though the elections were overshadowed by the success of Anti-Europeans.
Second, the fact that for the first time in history, at least the head of the European Commission was elected by the joint voters beyond national borders underscored that the democratization issue is now part of the debate and the next step to address. It might not have been the ideal form of political participation, yet the identification with candidates on a continental rather than national level introduced a new dimension to the European election process.
An insecure and disputed iconology
Yet, we should not overestimate the trend toward European unity, as celebrated emotionally at least by the media in this May 22-25, 2014 elections. The main debates, issues, and politicians still widely clung to national rationales. In too many debates a united Europe still often appeared as a danger for single nations, something to be held in check, or – at most – something to be cared about through reason. Paradigmatically, the social democrats of Austria (SPÖ) with their slogan “Austria at Heart, Europe in the Mind” embodied an important portion of skepticism hardly appropriate to create a greater whole.
So what will the next few years bring? And how will the European Union evolve within the five years the new European parliament 2014-2019?
First, five years of charge are a time far too long for such a weak institution, to keep the parliament present in the European public sphere, and to foster debate and civic participation. In order to promote the emergence of a truly European public and to strengthen influence and credibility, the European parliament should be the most publicly present parliament of all on the continent. Thus, there should be new avenues for political participation beyond the elections every five years; avenues that increase the publicity and accountability of the work of the European parliament. In the ideal case, the parliament should be elected every three years, not only every five years.
Second, Europe needs a joint cultural dimension, including a trans-national civil religion of secular traits as the indispensable prerequisite of more convinced political and social unification. Bono is right: Europe must become a feeling in order to overcome national skepticisms.
But despite all - often contradictory - emotions involved, the May 2014 elections have once again proven that this is still not the case. The main forms of representation of European identity are not politics, but remain sports and popular culture. Especially soccer, through events like the UEFA Champions League and the Europe League, provides a representation of European commonality. The European Song Contest (ESC), a yearly event of continent-wide votes for the best song, provides a unique amount of attention to the multitude and unity of Europe, with each country submits a song and the transnational audience voting from each country jointly determines the winner. The vote of the different countries is televised by connecting the studios of the national broadcasts of all nations of Europe. Thus paradigmatically producing a European audience – an imagined community from which the media coverage of European political elections still falls considerably short.
The 59th song contest took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 6-10, 2014, i.e. just a few weeks before the elections. Emblematically, the winner was the “bearded maid” and drag queen Conchita Wurst. The victory was heavily contested by parts of the European public and by Russia, where nationalist politicians claimed that “now the world has seen the true face of Europe”. (S)he, the gender-neutral art figure strategically composed of the two words “Conchita”, which according to herself means “assembled” or “conglomerate”, and “Wurst”, which means “it doesn’t matter”, ironically resembles the way Europe is slowly transforming “from a thought into a feeling”. It is a feeling in its present stage not shared by all. And an iconology still much too controversial and extravagant to pave the way for a new phase of stable and enduring European identity and integration.
Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., is Research Scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Full Academic Fellow of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Washington DC, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation Boston and Full member of the Club of Rome. Previously, he served as Research Affiliate 2009-13 at the Europe Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. He is co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers on the ethics of Neurowarfare (February 2013 and April 2014) and of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker’s Report to the Club of Rome 2003: “Limits to Privatization”. His latest book is “China’s Road Ahead: Problems, Questions, Perspectives” with Springer New York, February 2014.
Lukas Kaelin, Dr., is Research Fellow at the University of Vienna. He was Visiting Professor at the Ateneo de Manila University from 2006-2008 and Visiting Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies of Stanford University in 2012-13. He published in Foreign Affairs with Roland Benedikter. His primary research interest “Redefining the Public Sphere” focuses on the current transformation and manifold contentions of the public sphere in view of media development, the shortcomings of the liberal concept of the public sphere and shifts in public-private differentiation.