Monday 1 June 2009

European elections: Voting for Europe

Plan A

When the heads of state or government signed the Treaty of Lisbon, they promised to take into account the elections to the European Parliament and to hold appropriate consultations before proposing a candidate for President of the Commission (Article 17(7) TEU).

Thinking that they were honourable ladies and gentlemen, I decided to vote for the (Euro)party launching the best candidate to head the Commission.

Long before most EU citizens were even aware of the upcoming European Parliament elections, a bunch of these heads of state or government (and national party leaders) had backed a new term for José Manuel Barroso and reduced their European level parties to impotence.

Actions speak louder than words, and our political leaders showed their disregard for one of the few concessions the Lisbon Treaty offered directly to the citizens of the European Union, and consequently for European level democracy.

In the end, only the European People’s Party (EPP) dutifully endorsed its candidate for the Commission Presidency, José Manuel Barroso backed in advance by a great portion of the electoral college of 27.

As a voter, I have been robbed of a choice.


Plan B

With Plan A on the scrap heap, the time has come to resort to a Plan B.

Despite the minimal impact of my one vote, it is still important for me. How should I decide?

I feel a moral obligation to use my limited vote in a constructive manner. The European Parliament has been growing in importance, and the Lisbon Treaty would improve its position, despite the overwhelming union of heads of state or government and their governments.

Even if I vote in a national election, my choice has European implications. I vote for an individual or a party, which will join one of the political groups in the European Parliament.


Admittedly, the EP is far from perfect. It has actively suppressed information on abuse of MEPs’ expenses and its late-coming reforms have been half-hearted. It should openly publish detailed information on expenses and audits. It should also automatically publish the meeting documents of its internal bodies (Bureau, Conference of Presidents).

But where the European Parliament has powers, it does a decent job to co-legislate and to debate, and its information is more readily available than the Council’s.

Lacking powers, the absence of accountable government with distinct government and opposition alternatives, sometimes required oversized majorities leading to fuzzy consensus, as well as the trend to agree on legislative acts between the institutions in advance tend to dampen the EP’s role as a vibrant arena.


The European Parliament should embrace real openness, transparency and accountability in its internal affairs. Hopefully the Westminster “duck-house scandal” propels the EP and national parliaments to mend their ways. The dominant political groups could do a lot to enhance the respect of their institution by embarking on a course of decisive reform.

The institutional limitations are harder to overcome, but the European Parliament is the citizens’ best hope for an effective and democratic European Union.

Luckily, the EP does not only vote on obligatory proposed laws, but it gains know-how in areas which the member states’ governments jealously guard as their prerogatives, such as foreign, security and defence policy, long term budget, economic and monetary policy, police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters and agriculture.

The European Union can debate any issue on its own initiative, and although its formal powers to propose laws are limited, it can call for legislation or action.


Four constructive choices

Despite the internal shortcomings and the external limitations, I see four constructive alternatives for the European voter. It is to vote for a candidate or party, which would join one of the responsible political groups in the EP. Inside the European Parliament, the mainstream political groups run the show, so a vote for a fringe group serves little beyond promoting protest and antics.


The centre-right Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) will probably be the largest political group in the European Parliament, even after the UK Conservatives, the Czech ODS (Topolanek) and the Polish Law and Justice Party (Kaczynskis) and a few others split to form an anti-Federalist group on the right.

One can hardly blame the EPP for fielding the only candidate to become President of the Commission.


The Socialist Group in the European Parliament (Party of European Socialists; PES) is the second largest political group in the European Parliament, a wide coalition like the EPP. It contains different centre-left shades, from ardent socialists to Labour and social democrats.

In the United Kingdom, the “duck-house scandal” threatens to cause collateral damage among honourable and hard-working Labour MEPs, which would be a pity (as long as the UK remains a member of the EU, with a probable Conservative government around the corner).


Although a coalition like the rest of the groups, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) is perhaps the most pro-European and it has a good record on openness.

For thinking British voters, left without an attractive European home when the Tories split from the mainstream right to the dubious right, the Liberal Democrats offer a sensible choice (together with the Greens and Labour).

The Greens/European Free Alliance

The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) are not alone in professing the virtues of sustainable development and the importance of environmental, cultural and democratic rights, but they have a certain credibility in this area, and are widely seen as a constructive force.

In common with ALDE, the Greens have a good record on transparency.


Vote for Europe

My vote is going to one of these four groups, which I see as responsible forces for a better Europe. I hope that increasing numbers of my fellow-Europeans decide to vote and that they, cast their votes for a responsible candidate. To reject sterile protest is a sign of civic duty and maturity.

A better Europe starts within ourselves.

Vote for Europe in the European elections.

Ralf Grahn

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