How European is the European Parliament?

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This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)

Every five years, all EU citizens elect the European Parliament. Though are these really European elections or rather 28 split-off national ones? And furthermore, how do the elected representatives actually work together?

From 28 national elections to one European Parliament

Every five years since 1979, the European Parliament gets elected directly by all EU citizens eligible to vote. Though the election process is not a central or unitary one directed by Brussels but each of the 28 member states organises its own. This is why – apart from some fundamental principles – there are no such things as uniformed rules according to which the elections take part. On the ballot paper itself you do not tick boxes where it says the names of the European parties but those of your national ones. Afterwards, the seats assigned to every country get distributed amongst the elected national parties according to the voting figures. Germany for example has 96 seats; these, once the counting of the votes is completed, get assigned proportionally to the national parties. Say the conservatives (CDU/CSU) get 40% of the votes, they would also get 40% of the German seats within the European Parliament.

Next to this organisational orientation towards the member states, there is also on the level of content a clear focus on the national politicians, the national parties and the nationally relevant topics. So instead of voting correspondingly to their judgement towards a national party upon its European statements and policies, most voters, according to scientific researches, want to openly show their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the national politics to their national government. Paradoxically and unfortunately, actual European politics or the party political differences only play a marginal role in the run-up to the European elections.

And then there is the problem concerning the very low turnout: At the most recent elections in 2014, only 43% of the EU citizens cast their vote, which basically means that not even every second person exercised their democratic right to vote. Still, many complain about the European Union being undemocratic and so far away from its citizens. Though when it comes to actually electing the European Parliament, the only direct democratic legitimised institution on a European level, most people´s longing for democracy vanishes into thin air. For me, it is more than obvious: Who does not vote is not entitled to complain about the EU´s politics. And who deliberately does not use his or her right to participate democratically, must not complain afterwards about the undoubtedly existing democratic deficits the EU is facing.

Turnout in European Parliament elections (1979-2014)

How 28 national party systems turn into European political groups

Once elected into the European parliament, the representatives form transnational fractions according to their fundamental political convictions – which is basically the same as we have it in our national parliaments. There is, for example, the so-called S&D fraction that unites all European social democrats, just as there is the EPP fraction that gathers all more conservatively oriented parties. In total, there are eight fractions in the current European Parliament along with 18 independent representatives.

Source: (modified)

Coalition possibilities? “Big Coalition”!

After the elections, there comes the time of finding the right coalition. Though in the European Union, different from most member state´s national processes, no government is dependent from a parliamentary majority. Certainly, before getting appointed, the commissioners of the EU need to get accredited by the parliament´s delegates. However, the fractions do not need to form a long-term coalition in order to guarantee a working government majority. Needless to say, the fractions do, indeed, need to ensure an easy obtainable majority for their day-to-day business. Hence, it is necessary to have a so-to-say-coalition which exists more in practice than on paper.

Nun gäbe es theoretisch verschiedene Optionen zur Bildung einer Koalition im Parlament. Wenn man jedoch weiß, dass drei der acht Fraktionen offen EU-kritisch bis EU-feindlich eingestellt sind, dann schrumpft der Spielraum für mögliche Koalitionen erheblich. Da auch die extreme Linke im Parlament, zu der auch die deutschen Abgeordneten der Linkspartei gehören, alles andere als EU-freundlich eingestellt ist, bleibt faktisch nur ein Minimum an Koalitionsoptionen.

Out of the eight existing fractions, unfortunately only four are worth considering when it comes to being a fully pro-European one. Namely:

  • S&D (Social Democrats)
  • G/EFA (Green)
  • ALDE (Liberals)
  • EPP (Conservatives)

Those four fractions together make up 524 representatives; for a majority at least 376 are needed. As a consequence, this means that without the two biggest fractions in the parliament – EPP (216 delegates) and S&D (189 delegates) – no pro-European majority is possible. The “Big Coalition” between EPP and S&D – potentially complemented by other pro-European parties – hence, is literally the only realistically possible coalition in the European Parliament.

S&D and EVP 4ever?

This “Big Coalition” is not something new, but indeed influential during the European Parliament was the first time directly elected in 1979. You can surely see this far-reaching cooperation between the two biggest fractions (social democrats + conservatives) as something positive, consensus-oriented within the European politics. Though you could also criticise that the voters do not have any pro-European alternative to this “Big Coalition”. Furthermore, you could also criticise that all this agreement and unity amongst the centre parties in the end contributes to a strengthening of the edges, hence, to the raise of EU-sceptical forces. After all, a well-functioning parliament is always also characterised by the interplay between the government majority and the opposition, for this signifies alternatives and controls the governmental work.

How should an alternative european electoral system that will also generate stable majorities beyond the “Big Coalition” within the parliament thus look like? And how does public perzeption have to change to make the European Parliament to a place, were elected representatives compete with each other about the implementation of their policies? These questiones I will attempt to answer in my next article.

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