The elections to the European Parliament in May were beset with more paradoxes than they have ever been. The strongest party which will take its seats in the plenary chambers in Brussels (and, as an expensive anachronism, also in Strasbourg), albeit only for a brief period, is the Brexit Party, with 29 seats, whose programme is implicit in their name. Although EU institutions across the entire continent are challenged in terms of their public acceptance, in many countries the election has been fought with a very great deal of emotion, as if the day of reckoning is dawning, on which decisions will be All or Nothing.
Some have raised concerns about the prosperous “European Project”, which they see as in dire need of rescue from malevolent sceptics. Others have painted an image of the decline of the West, which would inevitably come about if Brussels were to be allowed to continue on its present course. Either way, the more “Europe” was discussed – even if only niggles – and the more the parties tried to explain to their constituents what their actual vision for the continent is, at the end of the day voters still voted on the basis of their national prospects. What happens in distant Brussels is something they can hardly take seriously. Conversely, people know exactly what impression parties running for election in their own countries want to convey, as their solutions to the people’s “problems”. This explains why the Greens fell short in exactly that country where the “Fridays for the Future” campaign of young climate activists started, while in other countries they clearly gained ground; why right-wing populists scored points in Italy and Hungary, but stagnated in Germany and lost ground in
Austria; why the Social Democrats triumphed in the Netherlands but faced defeat elsewhere – the list of conspicuous points goes on and on.
What has been seen as a European trend is not, therefore, something which is of uniform significance in all the EU Member States. Rather, it is a summation of the election results of all the Member States. A fundamental change in the party system, its pluralisation, the coming to the fore of protest movements, which sometimes rapidly recede, but which sometimes also become established, are things we have been seeing for some considerable time. In more than a few countries it is increasingly difficult to find stable parliamentary majorities, able to pursue a coherent governmental policy – preferably even beyond more than one legislative period.
Since time immemorial, the plethora of parties present in the European Parliament has been substantially greater than at national levels, not least because some states which otherwise apply majority voting law (such as France and the UK), allow proportional representation at the European level, while Germany does not apply the five percent threshold that applies in national elections. Historically this fragmention was not worrying because two fractions, the European People’s Party and the Social Democrats, heterogeneous as they were in themselves, did at least together constitute a majority. This is now no longer the case.
But this development is not really all that dramatic. Unlike the situation in national representations, in the European Parliament there are no government and opposition fractions confronting each other. Shifting majorities are commonplace, and the assembly’s influence continues to be severely restricted, even if nowadays it is integrated into a considerable number of areas of European legislature, undertakes supervisory and monitoring tasks, and has a significant voice in the composition of the European Commission. But overall, the role of the European Parliament is too weak to reject the accusation that the European Union is lacking in democratic legitimisation. Instead, it is displaying to all and sundry that it is not possible to practise representative democracy at the European level; that is to say, it is not possible to implement the will of the citizens in the decision-making process. This is something which only the national parliaments can do (and nowadays only with a great deal of effort).
The foundations of the EU still remain the nation states. As a supranational organisation, it cannot be further developed in the direction of a federal state without encountering problems which it is not able to solve. Whoever tries to pursue this aim will lose public support, and, above all, will waste time doing those things which, pragmatically, can be created from and by the EU.
It may be that in pursuing a more pragmatic course Europe will not become the “global player” that some would like to see, but that is not at all something for which the world is waiting, or that it needs. The actual aims of offering European citizens peace, stability, and welfare, would in no way be compromised by harking back to the original principles of the European unification process.