It is the worst of times and the best of times for the European Union (EU). Support for European integration is at an all-time low. The continent’s economic recovery has been tepid at best. An entire generation in southern Europe has been scarred by youth unemployment rates ranging from 30 to 50 percent. Far-right and anti-EU parties are enjoying unprecedented levels of support in France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Internationally, the EU has proved powerless to prevent Russian aggression in Ukraine. Internally, the EU has seemed equally incapable of arresting Hungary’s slide toward autocracy or halting the United Kingdom’s discussions about a possible exit. In short, the EU has rarely seemed feebler or less popular.
At the same time, however, the EU has managed to steer its way through the euro crisis, the greatest test in its six-decade history, while preserving the common currency and stabilizing the continent’s financial sector. Far from tearing the EU apart, as many had predicted, the crisis has enhanced Brussels’ authority over national economies in ways that would have been unimaginable five years ago. Internationally, Brussels has been leading ongoing negotiations with the United States over a remarkably ambitious trade deal. And demonstrators in Kiev’s Euromaidan reminded the world of the continued allure of EU membership. Finally, despite recent decreases in public support for the EU, the most recent Eurobarometer survey shows that a majority -- 53 percent -- of European citizens remain confident about its future.
These narratives may appear contradictory. In truth, they represent two sides of the same coin. The lesson in this tale of two Europes is that greater power creates greater expectations. Over the past several years, EU member states have entrusted ever more policy responsibilities to the EU -- from managing their currency to monitoring their budgets, from ensuring the stability of their neighborhoods to protecting the fundamental rights of European citizens. Consequently, the European public expects more from the EU -- and holds it responsible for policy outcomes to a far greater extent than ever before. And, it just so happens, many Europeans object to some aspect of Brussels’ crisis management: austerity has been profoundly unpopular among southern Europeans, and bailouts are equally disliked in the north.
Europe’s conflicting narratives will come to a head on May 25, when Europeans elect a new European Parliament. The election will feature low voter turnout and strong results for extremist parties that are opposed to the EU. At the same time, EU politicians are promising that this election will usher in a bright new era of pan-European politics, in which a parliamentary vote, rather than secret negotiations, will finally determine the president of the European Commission -- the EU’s executive.
It is not yet clear which of the two Europes will emerge stronger on May 25 and for the foreseeable future thereafter. Much will depend on whether the mainstream members of the European Parliament are able to subdue national governments skeptical of their broader ambitions. A major battle is brewing that will pit the European Parliament against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her colleagues in Europe’s national capitals. The winner of that fight will earn the right to shape the EU political system for years to come.
CRISIS, RECOVERY, RESPONSIBILITY
Europe’s recent economic crisis, the worst in living memory, revealed the incompleteness of the structures that had been created to govern the continent’s common currency. Banking and financial regulations were too lax, the possibility of organizing bailouts or fiscal transfers was preemptively ruled out, and fiscal supervision was ineffective. Meanwhile, European policymakers did nothing to discourage mounting and destabilizing structural imbalances between states. As the crisis came to a head, EU governments faced a choice: cut their losses and unwind their monetary union or press ahead with further integration. They chose the latter.
As a result, the EU has expanded its authority. The European Commission has been granted enhanced power to supervise national budgets, a new Fiscal Compact Treaty has committed national governments to fiscal discipline, and Brussels now helps oversee a common bailout fund of 500 billion euros. The EU has also taken major steps toward establishing a banking union, with a common banking supervisor and, most recently, a common mechanism for dissolving failed banks and common minimum rules on deposit insurance. When Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, promised in July 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, including having the central bank purchase the bonds of distressed countries, he underscored the EU’s commitment to protecting member states from bankruptcy.
But the expansion of the EU’s authority has raised new questions about the design of its institutions. The EU’s creators intended for its institutions to be independent and technocratic, but explicitly not democratic. They had a vision of a technocratic EU complementing the actions of democratic member states. That vision was viable so long as decisions made in Brussels were largely confined to obscure areas of market regulation. But this weak system of democratic accountability has become obsolete. Now that the EU has substantial influence over national budgets and an increasingly visible role in policies that shape the lives of ordinary citizens, it has no choice but to forge closer ties with the public.
THIS TIME IT’S DIFFERENT?
European parliamentary elections have traditionally been sleepy affairs. Voters, quite rightly, have never perceived them as an opportunity to hold EU officials accountable for past policies or to voice support for different ones. The votes played no role in deciding the composition of the European Commission, and the partisan makeup of the European Parliament never affected the direction of EU policy in a way that voters could observe.
The European Parliament is now trying to change this by turning the elections into a contest for the presidency of the European Commission. Historically, commission presidents have been selected through back-room negotiations between governments. But, in the name of increasing public engagement and enhancing EU democracy, the parliament has decided to reinterpret an ambiguous stipulation in the Lisbon Treaty, which declares that the European Council shall “take into account” the results of the European parliamentary elections when determining the commission president. The parties in parliament have thus nominated candidates for the presidency and have agreed among themselves that they will only support the candidate whose party prevails in the election. In effect, they have decided to transform the commission’s presidency into a prime ministerial role, which serves at the pleasure of a parliamentary majority.
Europe’s first continent-wide election is now well under way, complete with campaign managers, buses festooned with party logos, and live Twitter feeds from the campaign trail. The leading candidates, including the German social democrat Martin Schulz and the center-right European People’s Party’s Jean Claude Juncker, who hails from Luxembourg, recently held the first EU presidential debate. Some have suggested that Europe is now entering a new era of truly pan-European democratic politics that will attract voters’ interest and engagement.
But contrary to these cheerleaders’ claims, the parliament’s attempt to turn the selection of the commission president into a partisan contest has proved deeply problematic. First, the campaigns have been lackluster by the standards of any national election. Even as the Eurovision song contest was broadcast on the continent’s leading networks, the presidential debates were relegated to minor channels or, in some cases, not broadcast at all. The candidates have neither captured much attention nor inspired much enthusiasm.
For those voters who are paying attention, the campaign risks giving the misleading impression that they are electing a leader who will shift the partisan orientation of the EU’s executive branch. In fact, as long as individual member states appoint the 27 other commissioners who run the EU’s executive alongside the commission president, the commission will remain a multi-party body that seeks broad cross-party consensus and does not simply cater to the parliamentary majority on the left or right. In that sense, even if it does succeed, the parliament’s drive to inject more politics into the commission entails significant risks. For decades, the commission has played a crucial role as a referee in disputes between member states and in enforcing European law. If its presidency is politicized, that could easily undermine its credibility as a neutral arbiter.
More generally, it’s not clear whether further empowering the European Parliament is a wise way to address Europe’s so-called “democratic deficit.” Successive increases in the parliament’s authority over the last three decades suggest otherwise. Rather than solve the EU’s democratic malaise, handing power to the European Parliament has led to steadily falling turnout at elections, and to a voting public that increasingly focuses on national issues when they go to the polls.
THE LOOMING BATTLE
Nevertheless, the parliament is pressing ahead. And that has set the stage for a major battle with the leaders of the member states -- including, most notably, Merkel -- who have voiced their opposition to the parliament’s plans. National governments are wary of setting a precedent for what would likely become far more intense campaigning for the commission presidency in the future. Moreover, the appointment of Schulz or Juncker would cause significant domestic problems for some governments. This is particularly so in the United Kingdom, where both candidates are viewed as European federalists -- committed to an expansion of EU powers -- by many members of the ruling (and euro-skeptic) Conservative Party.
If, on the other hand, member states select another candidate as head of the commission, the newly elected parliament will be anxious to flex its muscles in response. It is all too likely that it would refuse to confirm the new commission, leading to a prolonged and damaging stand-off between the parliament and the council. If voters see EU politicians mired in self-serving inter-institutional battles, they will only grow more disenchanted with European politics, thus widening the EU’s democratic deficit.
The outcome will, as ever, be a messy compromise, probably involving not only the presidency of the commission but also candidates for other senior EU jobs that are up for grabs. (Although the strength of opposition to the two leading presidential candidates does make it seem unlikely that either of them will ultimately be selected.) Whatever transpires, it looks as though we are set for a bitter conflict in Brussels that could last well into autumn.
BEYOND THE ELECTIONS
Europe’s national governments are finally reaping the bitter harvest of a decades-long strategy of retrenchment and deflection. They have regularly sought to shift blame for unpopular policies to Brussels, in hopes of shielding themselves from public ire. But treating Brussels as their whipping boy hasn’t worked. Instead, this strategy has left both levels of government in disrepute.
Meanwhile, whenever the delegation of new powers to the EU raised questions about democratic accountability, member states responded by further empowering the European Parliament. This has clearly not solved Europe's democratic problem, but it has made the European Parliament very powerful. If national governments are now concerned by the fact that the parliament is pushing its weight around, they have only themselves to blame.
EU leaders must recognize that Europe faces a broad crisis of declining trust in politics, which is as much a problem for national governments as it is for the EU. Polls show that public trust in EU institutions has reached an all-time low, but they also reveal that public trust in national parties, parliaments, and governments has sunk to even greater depths in most member states.