In the month of June 1979, for the first time in history, citizens from nine different countries elected 410 MEPs (Member of the European Parliament) who had the role to represent European citizens as a whole. The turnout was around 62%, a result destined to remain the highest ever. The communist group took 44 seats, socialists won with 113seats, and there were no populist or far right parties. The EU was not even born, and many believes that a European party system was just at the beginning of a big development. Lot of things have changed from 1979. But not so much as it could be expected for the European elections. The questions we need to reflect on are why European elections did not become the most important political appointment for half a billion people and for the European union itself and, in addition, what we should expect from the election of the IX legislature this May.
To answer these questions, we should start by saying that a political system is composed by three basic elements: an institutional framework, a party system and an electoral law with the aim to regulate how people elect their representatives. The ensemble of these three components tell us if a democratic system is of “good quality” or not, and also, the status of European politics. However, during these years, the European elections have been protagonist of an unusual trend. The increase of EU population, due to the enlargement process, has not corresponded with an increase in turnout rate, and so the European party influence inside the European parliament. Actually, if we take a look, in 1989, ten years later after the first EU elections, we had twelve member State, but a decrease in voting of 4%. Later on, just before the beginning of the new millennium, half of the European voters (49,5%) went to the polls to express their vote. EU member States were not the only thing that have changed along these years. The European party system itself has grown, but we not so much to create an European public opinion and, as a consequence, a solid pan-European party system. In the meanwhile, a disorganized framework did not helped EU to be transparent, accountable and well-known for institutions roles and competences.
Actually, the elections for the European parliament haven’t been “European” until 2004. Before the Council decision 2002/772/EC, a consequence of the inability to find an accordance within EP and EU Council, as provided by the Treaty of Maastricht, there were no procedural guidelines for member States. It means that MEPs from one country were entirely in national parties’ hands (and logics). So, how can we call the EP elections “European” if MEPs are elected, enrolled and loyal to their national parties that compete in their own national arenas? Clearly, they identify their electorate only in their country, even if the Treaties says that members of the EP represent «European citizens». Surely the complexity to regulate an electoral procedure for 500milion people from 28 countries is huge, and the EU is still the most advanced institution in the world as far as the right to vote and to be voted is concerned. But along many changes and improvements we still miss an electoral law which has the double aim to discipline how EU citizens will choose their representatives and, maybe what is the most important goal, to legitimize European political parties to be the main actor of the European politics. Unfortunately, the European party system is not able to represent Eu citizens for two kind of reasons: A) euro-parties are still less essential than European parliamentary groups inside the EP; B) there is a high component of national interests inside them. The first argument is just the outcome of EU history. In fact, parliamentary groups were born approximately in conjunction with the CA (Common Assembly). Even if they had not a lot of influence on a chamber without any power, they placed themselves in the core of one of the most important institution for the European integration process. In this way, EP groups were institutionalised, organized and able to discipline MEPs. On the opposite, European parties arose only from 1979 in a very narrow place. They are not essential for the EP elections because they have no power to control agendas, finance campaigns and even choose candidates. Actually, Euro-parties are not even obliged to run for the EP elections in order to be recognized. Furthermore, a nationalist trend, present inside euro-parties, has never been solved. In fact, as long as MEPs will depend only on national political arenas, the European parliament will be anything but a supranational institution. So, if we want to follow Sartori’s definition, euro-parties are not what they seem like. In fact, they do not act as a ‘party’, they do not control activities of their members, they do not take binding decisions for national parties, they do not form an agenda with priorities. Basically, the European party system is the only one in the world where a party in public office has more power than a party in central office (Katz and Mair 1995). This means that MEPs loyalty is addressed firstly to national parties, and secondly to EP groups. With this distribution of power, euro-parties do not decide anything about themselves, neither the so called spitzenkandidaten. Furthermore, national party leaders are also head of States or PM, so in euro-parties informal meetings often priorities and agenda instructed by the most powerful national party, which is accountable only to its citizens, prevail. Paradoxically, we can affirm that at the moment an intergovernmental thinking is present in the supranational EU party system.
This problem has two main consequences: a) Nation States hold the power to choose EU agenda and main goals, even in institutions where citizens should decide for themselves; b) instead of talking about a democratic deficit (Moravcsik 2008) inside the EU, we should face a representative lack in EU institutions. Neither from 2004, when the framework around EU elections took a step on, none of these problems have been solved. Ten years later, an attempt to solve part of the issue related to representativeness was individuated in the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten system. The system entails that each euro-party, or better their members, selects a candidate to become the “lead candidate” that, in case of a positive outcome of the European elections, will became the President of the European Commission. This innovation, strongly supported by the EPP party by the way, was one of the most important from the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty. Giving the chance to establish an in-direct relationship of accountability from European citizens and the most important institutions in the EU via euro-parties is a big step towards a more democratic division of power in the European framework.
Unfortunately, it did not work. First of all, the introduction of that system corresponded to the lowest turnout of the European elections, so identifying a lead candidate did not help the electorate to be more conscious of EU politics. Moreover, the procedure suffered of the same nationalist trend: the candidate proposed by the more powerful national party is the favourite, and often the only one, so a competition did not exist at all. Once leaders of bigger national parties found an agreement on the candidate, the democratic procedure for internal elections is concluded. However, how candidates are elected, by the way, is not the core of the problem. The trouble is that this procedure does not give direct power to the EP, or the majority of it, to nominate the President of the European Commission, because it is up to the European Council. In fact, the EP coalition who wins the elections, or the biggest group, propose a name that can also be rejected by the EU Council. It is clear, so, that EU politics consist of national interests held by national governments. This framework has enormous consequences on the party system, as we saw, because, instead of representing citizens’ political identities, political parties tend to politicize the institutions rather than issues. This imply that, at the European level, there is not only the classic party division (from left to right), but we have also the pro or against European integration division, which nowadays has reached more relevance than the first one. As Bartolini (2011) argued, politicizing institutions means that we are also questioning the legitimization of them, so the cleavage consists in the ones who will defend institutions and the ones who blame them. Even if in term of consensus it is a solid choice, as we can notice, engaging the cleavage on institutions has nothing to do with politics. In fact, we need to politicize European agenda and involve a debate on what kind of policies euro-parties are able to offer for the European citizens deducing national interests from Eu competences and roles.
The European election campaign for May 2019 is ready to start, but many of the problems mentioned above are still present. The desirable scenario will be the one where political parties do not distribute themselves only in the pro or against EU integration spectrum (the vertical one), but also taking place in the classic division (the horizontal one) without national influences because the EP most of all, but the whole European institutions, have to govern the European citizens and if we will not have a party system that will be able to distinguish these two political level, we will never make a step on in the European integration process towards a federal union.