Closing the EU’s democratic deficit

Talk about the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ has been a popular debate amongst federalists for decades but, as the European Commission and Parliament have become more powerful, it has become a particularly acute problem. The Economist’s Charlemagne column devotes 1000 words to it.

The European Parliament undoubtedly has a legitimacy problem. Even though the Parliament has been transformed from talking shop to the most powerful legislature in Europe since direct elections were introduced in 1979, few people know who their MEP is and even fewer know about the pan-European political parties. In turn, the way that the Parliament works on legislation is baffling to all bar political anoraks.

The Parliament’s election system hardly helps matters. Most member states elect MEPs through the utterly impersonal closed party list system, where MEPs do not represent a local constituency and people vote for a party rather than a candidate. With closed lists the power of election lies almost exclusively in the hands of party bosses – the voters have very little scope to hire and fire their representatives.

Liberal Andrew Duff has led the charge to improve the efficiency and accountable of Parliament and is, quite rightly, one of the most respected MEPs in the House. But he has ruffled a few feathers with his latest report on the system for electing MEPs.

Mr Duff’s main proposal is to set up a new 25 MEP euro-constituency – a transnational list composed of candidates from at least nine member states and nominated by the European political parties. The idea is simple and has been discussed for years. He has also complained about the unhelpful role of national parties during European election campaigns.

Of course, Duff is right that European elections are not particularly ‘Europe’ oriented. The political parties do common manifestoes, but anybody who thinks national parties campaign on it is sadly misguided or touchingly naive. Moreover, since the College of Commissioners are appointed by the member states, the parties cannot seek a mandate to govern.

The question is whether the ‘democratic deficit’ exists because there isn’t a European polity, or because we don’t have transnational lists and strong pan-European parties. I suspect that it’s a bit of both.

There are obvious flaws to the Duff proposal. For example, it would create two classes of MEP, and a transnational list would probably favour candidates from the larger member states. But, on balance, there’s no harm in innovation. It’s certainly an idea worth experimenting with.

But it’s not the only avenue of reform. I would like to see MEPs elected through open-list systems – where people pick their favoured candidates from the list – which are much more effective and democratic. The evidence from the likes of Finland, Malta and Northern Ireland indicates that allowing voters to actually vote for a candidate leads to livelier campaigning, genuine accountability and higher turnout and voter engagement.

I would also like to see members of the European Commission being selected from the elected Parliament. Electorates have to be given the chance to ‘kick the bastards out’ and they need to have the opportunity to vote for individual candidates not party lists.

However, while there is a clear need to reform the way our MEPs are elected, let’s not overegg the pudding. Yes, turnout for European elections has fallen from 63% in 1979 to 43% in 2009, which hardly paints a picture of a healthy democracy, but this figure needs to be taken in context. Turnout for national elections has also been in decline, and the 43% figure is about the same as turnout for local elections and, indeed, for elections to the US Congress, the most powerful legislature in the world.

Unfortunately, I am sceptical about the chances of Mr Duff’s report surviving the plenary vote. There is nothing more frightening to a politician than the thought of losing their seat, and so I suspect that even Duff’s relatively modest ideas will look far too much like radical reform or turkey’s voting for Christmas.

But reform is needed. With a Parliament representing 27 nations and 500m people the lines of accountability are likely to be weaker than for national or municipal elections, but increasingly powerful EU institutions demand the most democratic control possible. Without it the Parliament will remain important, opaque and unloved.