Is there a parallel between the recent Eurovision Song Contest and this week’s European elections? EU-enthusiasts certainly hope so. The Song Contest’s “vote for tolerance and diversity” was an indication, they say, that we Europeans love each other really (except for the Russians, obvs). If our 28 electorates would only approach the EU elections in the same positive and high-minded spirit, just think what a Schulz or a Juncker might achieve as Commission President.
Funnily enough, eurosceptics also think there is a parallel. Thanks, they reply, but if the Eurovision Song Contest is really your idea of participatory democracy then you can stick it. After all, the song entry that topped many national phone-ins was secretly voted down by technocratic juries in favour of the “correct choice”. When we express a preference for metaphorical buxom Poles, they ask, is it really democratic to give us an Austrian fella in a dress?
There is a serious point trying to get out here. Protest parties across the EU complain that we are heading towards an age of “liberal totalitarianism”: Europe may have buried the old totalitarianisms of the Left and the Right, but here is a new and subtler form of social control. The Song Contest was just the latest incidence: a system established with a laudable aim (preventing voters from allotting points along national lines) is now restricting our choices for a whole range of other reasons.
Seen from this angle, the EU elections are an altogether more serious example of liberal democracy being traduced in order to constrain our political choices. Electorates are being asked to vote for a “top candidate” whom (with the exception of the Green party’s duo) they did not have a proper chance to pre-select, under a system that they did not ask for, and from a range of personalities who profess almost identikit views. There is a real sense that, just by casting a vote for a mainstream party, we will end up legitimising a liberal politburo.
But is this such a new predicament? In many ways this is just the latest iteration of the old problem of “government by the people, for the people” – the tricky task of ensuring that policies reflect the wishes of the people (“by”), but are also in their best interests (“for”). Or, in the lingo, it is about reconciling responsiveness to voters with policy-innovation and risk-taking (ie, giving voters solutions which they did not know they wanted).
Critics would suggest that the EU has so far failed at both. It has concentrated arrogantly on defining the best interests of the people, with the result that its policies are neither by nor for citizens. Renationalisation is seen as the best corrective: repatriating European power and politics would not only bring political choices closer to citizens, it is claimed, it would also encourage states to compete for innovative policies and put an end to the Brussels one-size-fits-all approach.
Under present circumstances, the case seems almost open-and-shut. But can a counter-argument be made? Might a more Brussels-heavy system like the one associated with the top candidates actually tick our two boxes? Well, yes actually.
When it comes to the first imperative, ensuring government by the people, it is worth remembering that the EU is not a simple hierarchy of powers that has Brussels at the top, then the national level, then the local. The European Union, like the US, was created by its member states and it is the member states that remain squarely at the top of the hierarchy. That means that “repatriation” does not equal “localism”.
Shifting powers back from the European to the national level does not automatically decentralise power and bring decisions closer to voters. This strengthening of the states would instead re-centralise power. And the current myths about “Brussels diktats” only permit governments and parliaments to abdicate their responsibility for EU affairs – hardly conducive to proper accountability.
As for the question of government “for the people”, healthy competition between European states for innovative policies occurs only under certain conditions. You need a strong Brussels to provide a safety-net for states taking policy risks, not to mention a robust system of free movement so that high-flyers can vote with their feet, and an overarching system that allows policy innovations to spread between very different states.
Oh, and you also need a political system where the figures in Brussels enjoy a high profile. After all, if there is no kudos attached to gaining a post in Brussels, then there is one less incentive for national politicians to compete and excel. Central Europe is a good example. The region may not have provided one of the “top candidates” in this European election, but the prospect of gaining a prestigious post in Brussels is certainly encouraging them to think of innovative policies back home.
So, will today’s top-candidate system improve responsiveness and innovation? Hell no – it’s a mess. But it is still worth engaging with the idea so that, at the time of the next elections, we are one step further on – further towards an EU system where our politicians take proper blame and credit for policies; further towards a system where European politicians compete with each other to create world-beating local models, rather than engaging in some glum “global race” with China and India setting the pace.
In short, don’t let a technocratic jury in the European Council spoil your vote this weekend.