Is a change in culture imminent?

The elections to the European Parliament at the end of May 2014 could determine the future direction of Europe.

picture-alliance/dpa - European  election
picture-alliance/dpa - European election picture-alliance/dpa - European election

At the end of May 2014, the citizens of the European Union (EU) will be choosing their representatives in the European Parliament (EP) in a direct election for the eighth time. Since it was first directly elected in 1979, the parliament’s role and influence have grown considerably; today, its members are one of the two cornerstones of EU legislation, without whose vote most of the EU’s legislative acts, its budget, the admission of new members or international treaties cannot enter into force. For some time now the European Parliament has used the slogan “Act React Impact” to 
advertise the election in an attempt to make it quite clear that it has evolved to become an influential representative of the people. The outcome of the 2014 election is therefore more important than ever before, though it remains to be seen whether the electorate will actually take advantage of their right to vote: in the past, European election turnout rates have been well below those of national elections.

This disparity stems from a number of 
peculiarities of the European Parliament. Measured against its importance, it leads something of a shadowy existence. Its debates rarely influence the public discussion of Europe, and most people are not aware of the role its members play in shaping policy. From time to time, the European Parliament draws attention to itself when it refuses to ratify a treaty (such as the Open Skies Treaty on transatlantic aerial surveillance in 2007 or the ACTA anti-piracy treaty in 2012), or when it vetoes the EU budget, as it last did in 2013. Unlike national parliaments, however, the European Parliament does not have the right to submit its own draft laws, nor does it have budgetary sovereignty. Its majority also constitutes no government, for the European Commission – despite its increasing poli­ticization – is still a public authority with the privilege of legislative initiative, and the parliament lacks the simplifying division 
into governing party and opposition party.

It is not easy for the 375 million or so eligible voters to understand the European Parliament. If it were not for the eight groupings at present, of which seven have joined forces to form recognized political groups, there would be more than 150 separate parties in the European Parliament, leading to total bewilderment. The political groups roughly correspond to the major parties in most of the member states, though this is not immedi­ately obvious from their names. This looks set to change this year: for the first time, party groupings use Europe-wide top candidates in their election campaigning. In the case of the Social Democrats, this will be Martin Schulz from Germany, the European Parliament’s current president. Luxembourg’s longstanding head of government Jean-Claude Juncker will run for the European People’s Party, while the top candidates for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) will be the former Belgian head of government Guy Verhofstadt and 
Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the 
Euro. The Greens will be pinning their hopes on the German Ska Keller and the Frenchman José Bové. This personalization is the result of the Treaty of Lisbon, which dictates that heads of government should base their proposals for the future president of the European Commission on the results of European parliamentary elections.

The German parties will predominantly be entering the election campaign with a clear pro-European message. Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, Greens and Lib­erals alike will be calling in their manifestos for a continuation of the current process of integration and for a strong European Union, with steps towards “more Europe” remaining an option. The differences between them concern individual questions of economic and social policy, the fight against unemployment in Europe and issues such as justice or the degree of regulation at the European 
level. By contrast, the Left party is emphasizing its rejection of the euro bailout policy, while Alternative for Germany stresses its rejection of the common currency and argues for the EU to be reduced to a common market.

A total of 751 seats are up for grabs in the election. In line with the Treaty of Lisbon this is somewhat fewer than before so that the EU’s enlargement does not destroy the character of a “working parliament”. Consequently, there will be 96 members from Germany – three fewer than at present. Because the election is held on the basis of national election laws, the election procedure and the date of the election will differ from one member state to another. The “degressive proportionality” of the allocation of seats will have a more serious impact on the parliament’s acceptance. It gives preference to the representation of smaller EU states and thus corresponds to the weighting of votes in the Council of the European Union. As a result, there is one member for roughly every 850,000 inhabitants in France, Germany and Italy, two in Denmark, Finland and Ireland, four in Estonia, and ten in Luxembourg and Malta. While the minimum number of seats is unlikely to be controversial from a democratic perspective, the inequality in terms of weighting of votes does appear problematic.

This will not be the central issue during the European election campaign, however. Of greater importance will be the different interpretations of the financial and debt 
crisis in the EU and the entitlements and targets determined on its basis. Furthermore, a new line of conflict has appeared over the question of immigration and internal migration in the EU and is polarizing public opinion. Eurosceptic and populist right-wing movements and parties have emerged and grown in size almost everywhere, and are already helping to shape many debates. The scale of the crisis and the simplistic explanations provided by many critics of Europe will trigger a change in culture within the next European Parliament; there is much to suggest that more critics will be taking up seats during the next legislative period than ever before.

This poses a new challenge to the work of the European Parliament: it will become more difficult to achieve a majority, and will perhaps force even closer cooperation between the major groups, the European People’s Party and the Social Democrats. The future parliament is unlikely to be able to continue presenting itself as the guardian of the European idea vis-à-vis the interests of individual member states. Too many of its members clearly want less Europe rather than more and instead of wanting greater powers at the European level would prefer to curb these in favour of national policy and parliaments. Advocates of integration will have to come up with better arguments. If this means that the parliament becomes a place of lively debate where the expectations and concerns of Europe’s citizens can be addressed, this need not constitute a disadvantage for Europe. ▪

European expert Josef Janning is a Mercator fellow at the think tank of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.