With the Lisbon Treaty in the doldrums, the next five years for the European Union look set to begin under the auspices of the unreformed Nice Treaty. The European elections in June 2009 will take place without the timid Lisbon Treaty reforms, although few have spoken out against a ‘more democratic’ EU.
Can anything be done to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the European Union, even marginally?
Since the Maastricht Treaty every person holding the nationality of a member state is an EU citizen, according to Article 17(1) of the Treaty Establishing the European Community (TEC).
The European Parliament is elected by direct universal suffrage, as provided for in Article 190(1) TEC.
These provisions offer an objective base for some citizens’ influence in EU governance, although the European Union falls far short of a functioning democracy.
The limited powers of the European Parliament and the slow emergence of a ‘European consciousness’ have resulted in the low intensity of European election campaigns and low participation. The electoral campaigns have been fought primarily on national issues, not pan-European ones.
Article 191 TEC offers a germ ‘to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union’ in the form of political parties at European level.
In practice, the European level parties are still in their infancy. Funding for European parties (and foundations) has recently been provided, but they still resemble loose coalitions of national parties more than effective shapers of pan-European programmes.
There are, however, some promising signs. In the 2004 elections the European Green Party campaigned on a common programme, and the Party of European Socialists has conducted a long public web based consultation for its 2009 election manifesto.
The European elections 2009 offer the European parties an opportunity to inform the public about the political choices facing the European Union, but their success is still dependent on the contributions of the national parties, which – in general – have done little to enhance the knowledge of the public or the participation of their activists at the European level.
In addition to programmes, politics is about personalities, and democracy is about the citizens’ power to elect the office holders and to set the course for government.
The real President, since the Rome Treaties, is the President of the (EEC/EC) Commission, and the Commission still forms the executive in its areas of competence, as far as the European Union can be said to have an operative government (although the superimposed European Council has increasingly morphed into a ‘transitional government’ with a distinctly intergovernmental flavour).
Neither is democratically accountable in a satisfactory way.
The President of the Commission and the Commission are appointed by the Council by a qualified majority, but the preceding nomination of Commission President and the list of the Commission as a block are subject to votes of approval by the European Parliament, pursuant to Article 214 TEC.
Even without the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament has the possibility to make the European election results count, when it approves or rejects the person nominated by the heads of state or government.
Gianni Bonvicini, in his article ‘Elezione “diretta” del Presidente della Commissione europea?’, notes that the conservative European People’s Party has nominated Manuel Barroso for a second term. Bonvicini suggests that the Socialists field Pascal Lamy or Giuliano Amato, and that the European liberals put forward their own candidate.
In Bonvicini’s view this would lead to two positive outcomes. It would give weight to the Commission President and it would give a minimum of power and credibility to the European level parties.
In my view, it would enhance the credibility of the European election campaign if the European Council states well in advance that it intends to be bound by the election result, by nominating the candidate of the largest group as President of the European Commission.
This could be one small but important result of the French Council Presidency, at the December 2008 European Council.