1989 Generation Initiative

This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable ‘Representing Citizens’ at the cycle’s Launch Conference. By Martin Garrigue, External Content Officer.

No Taxation but Representation: EU Institutions must reform themselves before populists do it for them

From west to east, from the Brexit heartlands in the East Midlands, to the far-left strongholds in the Athenian suburbs, one theme has remained constant in European populism: a deep, unabashed rejection of the European institutional process. Be it the nationalist UKIP or the radical left SYRIZA, eurosceptic movements have seized on the perceived technocratic nature of the EU as one of its major problems. The monopoly of the Commission over agenda-setting, the perceived domination of elites in unaccountable committees and agencies, the distance between EU politicians in Brussels and the reality on the ground are all institutional shortcomings which populist movements have been all too happy to criticise. These shortcomings, in turn, must be urgently addressed by European leaders before the likes of Marine Le Pen and Beppe Grillo pull the rug from under them.

The populist rejection of European institutions is multi-faceted, occurring not least because of the perceived ‘globalist’ bias of its key actors. At heart however, the populist message is overwhelmingly one of rejection of representative democracy. Already at national level, populists denounce the failings of pluralist systems of government, deemed as corrupt and unfairly protective of minority groups, and juxtapose it with ‘real’ democracy, symbolised by the promise of the use and abuse of referenda in the event of populist parties seizing power. In all its complexity, European institutions seemingly crystallise these tensions: a complex equilibrium between member-states and supranational institutions, the EU embodies a form of representative democracy on steroids, whereby citizens can claim at best indirect accountability through the actions of their sole government in a policy field congested by 27 other member-states and all their constituencies.

P&I Representing Citizens roundtable

If populist parties are to succeed, the risk of falling into what Madison dubbed the “tyranny of the majority” is very real. The threat must be taken all the more seriously by European leaders, happy to perpetuate the current system in the belief that the European Union is nothing more than a regulatory body. True, the fact that the European Union is anything but a federal government, its budget sitting at a measly 1 per cent of GDP, with no taxation power, has allowed many to brush off the need for additional representation. But the EU, small as it is, cannot ignore that it now has a direct or indirect role in every aspect of national politics all the way down to defence: as such, it must become accountable to citizens as much as national governments, its processes reflecting this new reality.

Representation through parliamentarisation

There is no need, to this end, to reinvent the wheel; the 1989 Generation Initiative recognises that, to increase citizen-representation, the onus of efforts should be placed on propping up the European Parliament. To date, the European Parliament’s weak position at the end of the pecking order in the European legislative process has been one of the many reasons for which voters have become disaffected of European politics. As the closest interface of European voters with European elections, the European Parliament represents the best means towards allaying the concerns of voters attracted towards euroscepticism. Nevertheless, voters do not turn out for its elections, jettisoning the legitimacy of the institution.

To this end, the first essential reform is thus to increase the representativeness of the Parliament. Particularly, the electoral system must be reformed to incentivise local representation. Currently, while there is a requirement to adopt a form of Proportional Representation, the nitty-gritty of electoral rules, including important decisions over constituency borders, are left at the discretion of member states; a uniform, open-list Proportional Representation system with small constituencies represents the way forward. Linking European Parliament seats with small territorial units might break the link between European elections and domestic politics which has much contributed to make these elections second-order. It would also foster better contacts between MEPs and citizens, fostering a heightened sense of inclusion and personal efficacy.

Next to increasing representativeness, an increase in the powers of the Parliament is necessary in such a way that the EU takes the path of parliamentarisation. With a few exceptions (notably France), strong parliamentary systems characterize European polities: by seeing EU adopt the most popular form of representation voters’ identification with its institutions will increase. The Spitzenkandidaten system, through which the European Parliament selects the President of the Commission after each election, has been a welcome start, but it is insufficient; for a truly politically accountable figure responding to the Parliament to emerge, a bold initiative must be taken to create a European President, for example by fusing the offices of the Commission President and the Council President. The powers of the Parliament must also be formally increased by giving it a right of legislative initiative like in normal parliamentary systems; though up to now the Commission has rarely refused to table a proposal after a motion from the Parliament requesting it to, formalizing the Parliament’s right to do so would go a long way towards reassuring voters on the power of their vote.

Boosting transparency, accountability and visibility across the board

Beyond the Parliament, reforms must be undertaken to boost transparency and clarity. The tendency towards ‘closed-door’ proceedings, including in the Council itself, must be stopped: citizens have the right to know the voting record of the representatives in the Council, and committees under them must not operate any differently from parliamentary committees in at the national level in transparency terms. The use of qualified majority voting must also be incentivised; the ‘norm of consensus’ is merely unanimity in masking, impeding swift decisions and favouring the status quo. Overall, there is a need to extend the use of the Ordinary Legislative Procedure further and eliminate multiple decision-making procedures which further cloud accountability.

All these reforms, finally, cannot have a meaningful impact if voters are not even made aware of them in the first place. The 2014 Spitzenkandidaten reform, introduced with great praise, barely influenced voter turnout due in part to lack of awareness of its implications by voters. Voters need to be made sensitive to politics at the European level. The history and functioning of European institutions, at the lowest stage, should become mandatory teaching in national curriculums, so that citizens learn about Europe early in life. More widely, awareness campaigns demonstrating the role and achievements of the Union should be undertaken, notably in the form of wider European public diplomacy. Engagement, most importantly, must be reformed in its practice: plain language should be used in EU institutional communications, and the EU’s communication strategy on social media must be modernised, aiming in particular at responding to fake news. In this way, citizens will begin to become more aware of European politics and take them and their own representation in them seriously, as they do at the national level.

The challenge of populism has become one which has moved from focusing on the outcomes of the European political cycle to its very process itself. If the challenge is to be met, the last illusions of the European Union as a regulatory, technocratic body must be shed: only through increased transparency, accessibility and politicisation of ‘Europe’ can the concerns of voters over the Union can be responded to, and representation be made to mean something.

Photo by Mihai Simionia


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