Europe's para-democratic madness

Europeans’ dissatisfaction with the EU's political parties and direction will only be exacerbated by the upcoming European Parliament elections, which will emphasise exactly what's wrong with Europe.

Malta must be an exceptionally well-governed country. In the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, only 53 per cent of Maltese said they tended not to trust their political parties. ‘Only’ 53 per cent, you may ask? Well, believe it or not, this result makes Malta the country with the least aversion to political parties in Europe.

The ‘no trust’ vote in their political parties was far worse in other European countries. In Germany, 73 per cent tended not to trust their parties. In France the respective value was 89 per cent, in Britain 85 per cent, and Greece topped the list at 94 per cent. The EU average was 82 per cent for ‘no trust’.

These figures are an alarming indictment on the state of democracy in Europe. They are made even worse by the fact that in the same survey only 26 per cent of all Europeans stated that things in the EU were going in the right direction. Taken together, it is a resounding no confidence vote in European politics.

This year’s elections to the European Parliament, which will be held between May 22 and 25, are likely to increase this dissatisfaction. Far from being a celebration of democracy -- the European elections are actually the second-largest democratic elections in the world after India -- they will only emphasise what is wrong with Europe.

For the first time, the political parties are going to nominate Europe-wide leading candidates for the election. These candidates are also vying for the succession of José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission since 2004. After changes to European treaty law, the new head of the EU’s executive now has to be elected by the European Parliament on the recommendation of the European Council, but also reflecting the result of the European elections. If this procedure sounds like para-democratic madness, that is because it probably is.

In all likelihood, only the European People’s Party, which unites most of the European centre-right parties, and the Social Democrats have a chance of providing the next Commission president, the head of the EU’s government. So who are their charismatic candidates?

The Social Democrats have nominated the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. The German instantly rose to fame more than a decade ago when then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi insulted him in parliament, saying he would make a good concentration camp guard in a movie. Before that incident, only political insiders had ever heard the name of Herr Schulz.

In case they did hear from Schulz afterwards, there was little for which he deserved to be remembered. Apart from his time in local politics in the small town of Würselen, Schulz’s political career took place in the European Parliament, in which he has served since 1994. He has become known as a tireless defender of the EU, European integration and the Euro, especially in his native Germany.

Schulz’s defence of the EU usually comes together with his rejection of liberal economic policies. For example, he just criticised the idea of a free-trade agreement between the US and the EU as this might weaken European science and culture. “It just cannot be that internet giants like Amazon dictate global reading tastes,” Schulz proclaimed. He certainly knows what he is talking about: Before becoming a professional politician, he was a small book trader.

The European People’s Party yet has to decide on its leading candidate for the elections. But at the party convention this weekend, the frontrunner for the position was former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. Having lost office at the elections last year after 19 years in the job, he needs a new job if he does not want to continue as opposition leader in one of Europe’s smallest countries.

When he was still in power, Juncker was one of Europe’s best connected leaders. A wheeler and dealer in eurozone matters, Juncker was as pro-European and pro-integrationist as politicians come. During the euro crisis, he played a crucial role in the EU’s crisis management as he headed the group of euro member countries.

Juncker also earned a reputation as one of the least honest political leaders, who even liked to boast about his uncanny ways of shaping the political agenda. His most famous quote dates back to the 1990s: “We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step-by-step until there is no turning back.”

Everything went well for Juncker until he had to resign over a rather bizarre affair involving Luxembourg’s secret service. Until then, the world did not even know that Luxembourg had one. Ever since, Juncker has been trying to find a way back to the great European stage, which he probably misses more than he is missed. Not even widespread rumours about Juncker’s alleged alcoholism could derail his personal campaign. If the European People’s Party now chooses Juncker to be their lead candidate, it only shows their lack of alternatives.

So in May, Europeans will face a real choice in the elections. On the one hand, the Social Democrat, pro-EU, pro-integrationist Martin Schulz. On the other, the Christian Democrat, pro-EU, pro-integrationist Jean-Claude Juncker. There really is not much between the political philosophies of the two candidates. Perhaps they should both become presidents?

Well, even this scenario is possible. It could well be that the two main political blocs in Europe will in the end agree on a power-sharing deal. Schulz could then indeed become head of the European Commission, while Juncker could replace the Belgian Herman van Rompuy as head of the European Council, the body comprising the heads of government and state of the EU members.

To the European public that will be called to the polls in May, such party-political manoeuvres ahead of the elections are only suited to increase the distrust in European institutions. Not only that the competencies of the European Parliament are limited in any case. There is not much to choose between two equally uninspiring candidates, who might both end up with political positions in any case.

For Europe’s ability to face the next stages in its evolving economic crisis, these governance issues are a great burden. A European Union that is losing the trust of its peoples will struggle to implement any measures for which more political capital is required.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative (www.nzinitiative.org.nz).

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