Dissertation on European Union (EU)
The European Unions’ powers a constraint on nation state powers EU decisions under the intergovernmental regime are not taken on behalf of the European people, but on behalf of the peoples of Europe. The peoples of Europe are represented by ministers of their governments, who--at least in principle--are subject to the political scrutiny and control of the national parliament representing the people in a particular member -state.
The proper level of political control and political representation is the national level, and a European Parliament, in any traditional meaning of the term, is an anomaly. However, once EU decisions are taken under its supranational regime--i.e. when individual member - states have no veto power --indirect political control and representation via the national parliaments cannot be effective anymore. Therefore, the EU has constrained the nation state powers in decisions related to economical and political factors.
If decisions are taken at the supranational level, both political control and political representation must happen at that level as well. It is in this respect that the European Parliament has a unique function that cannot be fulfilled by national parliaments. While it might appear good for the Union as a whole, this function certainly does limit the decision making power of the member states.
It is a basic assumption of any modern concept of political representation that the interest of the one nation should prevail over local or regional interests. Translated to the European Union this requires that European interests should prevail over national interests. (3) If the process of political representation in the European Union is no more than a mechanism to put national interests on the European agenda, a truly European system of political representation does not exist.
An important criterion to assess the quality of representative democracy in the European Union is therefore the extent to which supranational or at least cross-national political views and interests take precedence over purely national interests. A first indication of the extent to which a truly European system of political representation exists (or is at least developing) can be found in the role conceptions of MEPs. (7)
In a truly European system of political representation we would expect them to give precedence to a common European interest rather than to national or other partial interests. This focus of representation is certainly not the most conspicuous trademark of most MEPs. Only a minority considers it important to represent ‘all people in Europe’. (1) The MEPs from all countries but one think it more important to represent the people in their country. For most MEPs, representing the national interest is more important than representing the general European interest.
However, these role conceptions are not evenly distributed among the representatives of the different member-states. Representatives from the newer member-countries, and those from smaller and less powerful member-countries, are inclined to see themselves representing national interests rather than a European interest. This seems to suggest that a European focus of representation among MEPs takes time to develop. (12)
However, what is perhaps more important is the extent to which a truly European party system is developing. Not individual members of parliament but political parties are the key actors on the elite side of the process of political representation in Europe, and party government has become the dominant doctrine of democratic government.
According to this doctrine, cohesive political parties with different policy platforms compete for the support of the voters. As long as voters vote for the party that is closest to their own policy preferences, they will elect a parliament that more or less accurately reflects their policy preferences. An additional requirement of party government is that the government is formed and controlled by a majority in parliament.
It is hard to think of a democratic political system that would not meet these basic principles. Therefore, an important test of the development of a truly European system of political representation is the extent to which a European party system is developing that links the policy views of the European people to those expressed in the European Parliament. (4)
A truly European system of political representation involving transnational political parties competing for the votes of a single European electorate might be more feasible than is often suggested--although such a system does not now exist. (2) The basic left-right ideology shared by most European countries is, at the European level, aggregated into party groups that are no less distinct and cohesive than their constituent national parties. Voters throughout Europe seem to be aware of the main differences between parties and to consider them when making up their minds at election time.
Despite all its formal deficiencies, the European system of political representation is not in such bad shape as long as we apply it to the basic left-right dimension capable of reflecting the cleavage structure of most European countries. However, none of the above is true once we come to issues related to the European project as such. (5)
On these issues the major party groups are hardly distinct, differences of opinion between members of these groups are more related to their national background than to their party affiliation, voters have a problem recognizing what the views of the party groups are, and hardly take these issues into account when deciding what party to vote for. Therefore, it is anything but surprising that we found little congruence between voters and representatives on these issues.
Of course, these findings are grist to the mill of those who perceive a failure of the European system of political representation. They tend to argue for reshuffling the European party system into a system that would allow the voters to express their opinion on the future development of the European Union. This would be possible if different parties represented different positions on the simple continuum of anti- Europe--status quo--further integration (11).
The development of such a party system is most unlikely. Moreover, the validity of the argument is disputable. The basic problem is that there are at least three different kinds of European issues, none of which lends itself easily as a basis for reshuffling the European party system (6).
The first kind of European issues refers to the delicate balance of national sovereignty and European integration. According to many observers, this is the dimension on which a truly European party system should be based. However, if political representation should take place at the same level where decisions are taken, it makes little sense to base a system of representation, and therefore a party system, on issues that are decided at a different level.
Formal decisions on a further transfer of sovereignty from the national to the European level are subject to the intergovernmental regime of European decision-making. They need the consent of national governments and are, at least in principle, under the control of national parliaments and national electorates.
Therefore, the interesting paradox is that what usually are called European issues are basically national issues. As far as the existing party system fails to offer a meaningful choice to the voters, this is a problem at the national rather than the European level. (12)
A second kind of European issues refers to the division of power between different institutions of the European Union, given a certain competence of the Union. The basic issue for the European Parliament, and therefore a possible issue in European Parliament elections, is the accountability of the Commission and the Council of Ministers to the European Parliament. However, this is hardly an issue that lends itself to politicizing within the European Parliament.
Efforts to strengthen the European Parliament are unproblematic within the Parliament, but produce conflicts between the Parliament as an institution and other institutions of the European Union. On this issue differences between party groups will be secondary to the institutional interests of the Parliament as such. (1) And issues on which political parties do not compete and do not want to can hardly be a basis for the formation of a party system.
A third kind of European issues refers to substantive policy issues decided at the European level. Once the Union has the competence to pursue its own policies in a particular area, the question remains what the content of that policy should be. Suddenly, the relevant conflict dimensions do not necessarily differ from those at the national level. In a healthy and stable democracy, the political debate and political conflicts will usually refer to substantive policy issues within the constraints of a constitutional order (3).
The constitutional order itself should not be a matter of permanent dispute. If the unification of Europe is at all viable, major political disputes must gradually shift from constitutional to substantive policy issues. In that process the European issue dimension might gradually be absorbed by the left-right dimension as other conflict dimensions have been in the past (10). The more the debate concentrates on European policy rather than on European integration in abstracto, the more the two dimensions will be intertwined. (10)
From this perspective, the relative consensus among political elites about the future of Europe is not a problem. It is rather a condition for further development of the European Union as a democratic political system. We see no reason why, at least in the long run, the basic structure of the party system at the European level should differ from that at the national level.
Quite the contrary: “one of the main reasons to consider the development of a European system of political representation feasible at all is the existence of common roots in the party systems of the member-states.” (7) Therefore, it is our contention that many of the arguments on which the notion of a crisis of political representation in the European Union is based are disputable.
That an effective system of political representation in Europe is feasible does not imply that such a system already exists. We will discuss the democratic quality of the EU political system, and strategies for its reform, at the end of this conclusion. But first we will turn to our findings on the legitimacy of the European Union.
If elections are decided according to the rules of the responsible party model but the outcome of the elections would have no effect on the composition of government or on public policy, we would at least hesitate to speak of an effective system of political representation. It is hardly a matter of dispute that in a representative democracy elections decide, directly or indirectly, which parliamentary majority should form a government and what kind of policies the government should pursue.
In the European Union none of this applies. A European government with any similarity to national governments does not exist. The composition of the European Commission is independent of the outcome of European Parliament elections but depends on the nominations of the national governments. Nor does the composition of the Council depend on the outcome of European Parliament elections, but on that of national elections. (9)
Because there is no European government based on the consent of a majority of members of the European Parliament, there is no clear pattern of government and opposition parties. Therefore, the European political system does not meet the minimal definition of a representative democracy, offering the voters the possibility to throw the rascals out.
“Thus the elections cannot fulfill either of the two main functions of general elections--the choice of a government or the formation of public policy” (6). How serious a problem this is a matter of perspective. From the federal perspective on the European Union the argument is pretty straightforward.
If the European Union can be considered a separate political entity, it should--ceteris paribus--meet the democratic standards that apply to a state. From this view the democratic deficit is obvious: elections are not clearly translated into political power, the EP is too weak, the Commission is not elected, and the Council of Ministers and European Council are not properly controlled or accountable (4).
However, if one does not share this view and wants to see the Union as no more than a co-operation of sovereign states, one would not identify a failure of democracy at the European level. From this perspective a possible democratic deficit is located at the national level and consists of a lack of domestic control over the EU (11).
But even if one refuses to recognize the European Union as a separate polity, it is not so easy to brush aside complaints about the failure of democracy at the European level. Nobody can get around the fact that there is a directly-elected European parliament. And the least these elections suggest is that the votes of the people make a difference. If they do not, or if people think they do not, this might be detrimental to the legitimacy, not only of the European Parliament, but of the whole European project.
A clear relevance of European elections for the allocation of power and thereby for the direction of European policy-making would not leave the voters unaffected. Essentially the same argument was used by the researches who pleaded for a radical change in the European political system (8).
They discussed two possible alternatives to strengthen the relationship between the outcome of the elections and the allocation of power in the European Union. The first possibility is the introduction of a parliamentary system. This implies that the Commission should be based on the confidence of the majority of members of the European Parliament.
The Commission would become responsible to the Parliament, and the Union would come to resemble a parliamentary system of government. European elections would gain in significance since they would help determine the political color of the Union executive. The members of the Commission would share a similar political tendency, allowing electors who disliked its orientation over the last five years to vote through the European Parliament elections for a Commission of a different political orientation (5). This, he expects, would lead to an increase in interest and voter turnout.
An alternative proposal is the introduction of a presidential system. It entails directly electing the European Commission as a whole, using a two-ballot system. The introduction of a presidential system “would probably serve to encourage bipolarity in a multiparty system, a realignment of the Community party system which would clarify the basis of electoral choice and hence make democratic accountability easier”. (10)
It is apparent from this research that the EU has constrained the nation state powers in decisions related to economical and political factors. While this is a sign of a strong centralized power as represented by the EU itself, the member states might not actually appreciate the fact that their decision making power is so much inhibited.
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