What the European Parliament Election 2014 means for democracy in the EU?

Op-Ed for Friends of Europe titled ‘This time was not different, but next time it will be’

Published on May 28, 2014

This time is different: act, react, impact’. Measured against this slogan, the European Parliamentary elections did not live up to the expectations it sets.

The action has been limited: less than one out of two citizens cast a vote. The reaction has been conventional: the elections have been, once more, a referendum on current national governments. As for the impact, while for the first time a quarter of the newly elected are anti-EU and anti-establishment, they are unlikely – due to their multifarious nature and internal divisions – to make a difference.

Despite their clear fiasco in turning these elections into something different, the EU political leaders seem – with the exception of France – to be gratified with such results. Indeed it could have been a lot worse. Notwithstanding the protest vote, the EU parliament is set to remain in the hands of the established political families, who – with 588 out of 751 MEPs – are set to be overall supportive of the EU project.

Yet despite this feeling of business-as-usual, the results of these elections suggest that the EU political system is undergoing significant changes whose full effects will be felt only some years from now.

The first ‘stress test’ for the newly-elected Parliament is the role that it will (or not) play in the selection of the next Commission President. These elections were set to pass down history as the first real attempt to link citizens’ vote – through the choice of a lead candidate by each political family – to the next Commission President. Yet at the time of writing, amid the vague language of the Treaty on this point, too many EU leaders seem ready to disregard this process. EU citizens, at least the few who bothered to vote, will perceive – and rightly so – any departure from the Spitzenkandidat process as a betrayal. By confirming that back-door deals prime over open and transparent processes, this will contribute to a widespread sense of powerlessness among citizens, thus further detaching them from the EU project.

But there is a less immediate yet more critical test ahead for the new EU Parliament. As a result of increased heterogeneity among its representatives, the new assembly is expected to work differently than in the past. The established political families will be forced to embark more often on coalition building in order to circumvent the obstructionism expected from the anti-EU representatives. While the mainstream political groups might be tempted, in the name of political correctness, to marginalize these voices, they should rather seize this opportunity to engage with them, address their discontent and possibly question some of their own pro-integration biases.

The coexistence within the same parliamentary assembly of more rather than less voices is the best proof of the democratic nature of the EU.

It would however be a mistake to continue focusing on the European Parliament as the new source of democratic legitimacy of the European Union. Today, as reflected in the Lisbon Treaty, representative and participatory democracies are expected to progressively blend.

In these newly created circumstances, EU citizens should not abandon faith in Europe, but rather exercise oversight on their elected representatives, and meaningfully contribute to these representatives’ work. In turn, our newly elected MEPs are expected to create – by relying on social media and other participatory channels – conditions that ensure that civic input may contribute and shape the fabrics of EU policymaking. The next steps will be to work for the establishment of a EU public sphere through the creation of cross-European parties who would compete on EU elections detached from local and national elections.

It is against this backdrop that the recently launched eLabEurope, a civic start up, promotes civic engagement, evidence-based advocacy and accountability in Europe through an unconventional mixing and matching of academic research, educational programmes and advocacy in the public interest. Its objective is to fill the gap between academic thinking and action by creating synergies between scholars and policymakers to engage underrepresented citizens and civil society organisations within the nascent EU public sphere.

The 2014 European Parliament’s elections remind us that the fate and integrity of the European integration process depends more on the diffusion of grassroots movements like eLabEurope than on institutional design, political horse-trading and business-as-usual.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris, Global Clinical Professor at New York University School of Law and Founder of eLabEurope. He is also member of the “40 UNDER 40” – European Young Leaders programme.