For an organization that is so often called out because of its democratic deficit, it is astonishing how the European Union missed out on yet another opportunity to get closer to its citizens. On 17th January a new president of the European Parliament was elected, and Antonio Tajani took over from Martin Schulz. What I would like to point the attention to is, how many Europeans knew the election was taking place? Or how many Europeans knew who the candidates for the new EP president were? Be honest – is your hand up?
The elections of European leaders have been criticised for years as not democratic enough. It all probably culminated in Nigel Farage blatantly asking the newly elected President of the European Council »Who are you?« The same could probably be asked about the new President of the European Parliament. Namely, the EP President is elected every 2,5 years by the Members of the EP who don’t consult the citizens and there is little or no public campaign.
Why does this matter, you ask? Because the EP is not only the EU institution with the fastest growing powers, but it is also the only institution that represents the will of the people and the only one that is elected directly by the people. While the Commission’s job is to represent the Union as a whole, and the Council’s priorities are the national interests, the citizens are represented in the European Parliament. So how come the citizens are not involved in the election of the president of the institution that is supposed to represent them directly? To make things even more bizarre, the deal between the two biggest European parties (European People’s Party and Socialists & Democrats) which allowed each of them to choose their own president every other term, was not even a secret one. The 2017 election broke the deal though, as the parties couldn’t unite on a candidate.
Still not convinced this matters? Let’s have a quick look at the powers and the influence that the EP President has. As I already said, the EP’s powers grew enormously in the last years. So much actually, that now the EP has the same power as the Council when it comes to approving laws in majority of issues, including the European budget. And remember the tiny matter called Brexit? Yes, the EP will also have a final say in approving the deal between the EU and the UK. While the EP President himself cannot, of course, pass or derail laws, he does set the agenda, talk to the Council and represent the Parliament internationally. That means that indirectly the EP President can influence greatly the direction in which the EP’s work will go.
But the election of presidents of national parliaments is almost always an internal matter as well, one might say. That is absolutely true and a perfectly valid argument. However, the national settings are usually much smaller and this person will often be at least remotely familiar to you. But how many of us are familiar with an Italian politician that has been a Member of the EP for 18 years? How much do we know about his track record? Will our national media pay attention to his work? The answers to these questions are probably nothing or no. In an organization where the citizens already feel distant from its core, the EU shouldn’t be asking the citizens to do extensive research on their own of who the candidates for high positions are, what are their political beliefs and what is their track record. This information should be presented to us.
Presidents of parliaments are almost never elected directly by the people, and I am not asking the Union to introduce this new feature into its treaties. However, a more public campaign, a bigger coverage of this campaign in the national media, and a proper platform for the candidates to present themselves to European citizens, could do a great deal in bringing the EP as an institution closer to those it represents. Even an e-mail, urging their MEP to vote for a specific candidate, could give citizens the feeling they had a voice in electing the new EP president. I’ll talk to you again in 2,5 years to see if the lesson was finally learned.