Mind the Gap

How to Close the EU's Democratic Deficit

Jean-Claude Juncker, candidate to become president of the European Commission, embraces German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Courtesy Reuters)

The European Union’s democratic deficit has rarely been on clearer display than on May 26, the day after polls closed for elections to the European Parliament. Despite the fact that forces hostile to the EU had made enormous gains, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced that the pro-austerity status quo had “won once again.” In a narrow sense, Barroso was correct: pro-Europeans did manage to win more than three-quarters of the seats in the parliament, the EU’s only directly elected body. In four of the union’s six largest member states -- Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain -- the country’s ruling party topped the poll. And the motley crew of europhobes who were elected to the next parliament are united only in their disunity.

However, elections are only partly about math. They are also about mood and momentum. And for Brussels backers the inescapable fact is that Europeans are turning against the project that was founded in their name. The victory of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Great Britain and of the far-right National Front in France -- and the strong showing for anti-EU parties in Austria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, and the Netherlands -- is proof that euroskepticism is no longer a British disease but is a continent-wide malaise. It also has momentum on its side. Most media reported the election results as if they were a natural disaster -- an unexpected political earthquake in a region not known for ideological fault lines. But it has been possible to sense the tremors for almost ten years -- since voters in France and the Netherlands, two of the EU’s six founding states, roundly rejected a constitution for the union in 2005. 

So what should the EU do to reverse the euroskeptic surge and win back the confidence of its citizens? Better public relations would be a start. In the past, European institutions have been as lousy at paying attention to Europeans as they have been communicating with them -- which explains why two-thirds of respondents in a recent Pew poll said that the union did not understand their needs and just under three-quarters said that their voices didn’t count in Brussels. EU officials need to learn to accept criticism, admit mistakes, and hold an honest debate with opponents.

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