There is a huge divide in Europe between its citizens and the people who make decisions. The bridging of this divide is crucial to the future of the European project.
Turnout in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979 averaged 62% across the EU. In Italy it was as high as 85%. By 2009, average turnout had plummeted to 43%, with a steady decline at every election in between. UK turnout has remained consistently low, at 32% in 1979 and 34% in 2009.
The growing gulf between the public and the only democratically elected representatives in the structure of the EU may seem unfair given the corresponding increase in the Parliament’s powers from 1979 to 2009. Merely a consultative assembly in 1979, the European Parliament now has co-decision making responsibilities with the Council of Ministers in many areas of EU policy, including the setting of the EU budget.
The disconnect is in part because of the public perception that MEPs do not hold the bulk of power in the European Union, which many see as resting with Member States and the European Commission. It is also hard for people to see how their vote makes a difference. In elections to the House of Commons there is a transparent link that everyone understands between your vote and the make-up of the government. In European elections the link between your vote and the ‘government’ of Europe is opaque.
Below I have laid out five proposals that I believe may go some way to addressing the democratic deficit:
Give the European Parliament the power to adopt legislative proposals
Although the Lisbon Treaty gave the Parliament co-decision making responsibility in many areas of EU policy, the power to introduce legislation lies solely with the European Commission, with Parliament only having the ability to request that the European Commission brings forward proposals for MEPs to consider. Allowing MEPs to bring in legislation themselves would bring the European Parliament in line with national Parliaments in EU Member States and associate MEPs with the most common function understood of Members of Parliament – making laws.
Make the European Central Bank accountable to MEPs
The role of the ECB has increased exponentially since the start of the economic crisis in 2008 and following December’s European Council summit it is likely to take responsibility for the supervision of 6,000 banks across the eurozone, with the power to revoke their banking licenses, issue fines and remove members of their board. Despite this huge increase in the power of the ECB, there is virtually no democratic accountability. The Governor of the ECB visits the Parliament on a quarterly basis to answer questions, but is not bound to do so. MEPs can submit written questions to the bank for answers, but cannot call members of the board to answer questions in Parliament or influence the appointment of board members – as shown this month by the appointment of Yves Mersch to the bank’s executive board despite a vote against his appointment in the European Parliament.
The European Parliament should have the power of the UK Treasury Selection Committee to compel the Governor, board members and senior bank staff to answer questions at the Economic & Monetary Affairs Committee. As in Sweden, the Parliament should be able to dismiss executives of the bank for misconduct. Finally, appointments to the bank’s executive board should require the approval of Parliament after hearings in the ECON committee, similar to the US Senate.
Strengthen democratic oversight of the European Commission
Akin to the US Senate confirmation process, MEPs should have the power to confirm (or not) individual commissioners put forward by each Member State to briefs in the European Commission. Currently, although MEPs do question commissioners, if they don’t think one is suitable, they only have the nuclear option of rejecting the entire commission. However in reality a no vote by the European Parliament on the appointment of a commissioner would make it very difficult for him/her to take up their post. This should be formalised.
Directly elect the President of the European Commission
The European Commission is the most powerful international administration in the world. The Commission has the exclusive right to propose policy, agrees international trade deals on behalf of the EU, has extensive power in competition policy (including a veto on mergers) and ensures compliance with EU law by Member States. The Commission is often described as the ‘civil service’ of the EU, but that understates the power the Commission has. A directly elected President of the European Commission, elected at the same time as MEPs, would address a democratic black hole at the heart of the EU. Critics suggest this would politicise the Commission, but the Commission is already intensely political. Democratically electing its head would give citizens a voice at the top table in Europe and perhaps provide an answer to Kissinger’s famous question: “Who do I call when I want to talk to Europe?”
Reform the way MEPs are elected
I haven’t met anyone who thinks the way we elect MEPs works. In the North West, we have eight MEPs (including two excellent Labour ones) representing a region of over 7 million people spanning 5,500 square miles. As the EU grows, the number we have diminishes. We should look again at the electoral system to improve the link between MEPs and their constituents.
I’m not saying these measures would boost turnout in European elections by themselves. Clearly there are a range of issues that need to be addressed, but increasing democracy in the institutions of Europe and strengthening the role of our elected representatives is a good place to start.
What do you think? Tweet your ideas to @kevpeel using the hashtag #eureform.