The Future of Europe: setting sail for a more democratic Union?

June 1, 2018


Althoughthe State of the Union, the speech in which the President of the European Commission outlined his vision for a European Union post-2025, was delivered in September 2017, the debate is still ongoing.

When President Juncker took the stand in September as ‘captain of a ship’ – a ship that he described as “catching the wind into its sails” – he ordered that Europeans setsail for a more united, stronger and more democratic union of values. Paraphrasing the 19thcentury American writer Mark Twain, President (or ‘Captain’) Juncker, called the European Union to “throw off the bowlines” and “sail away from the harbour” before “the next clouds appear on the horizon”.

Going beyond these sailing references, President Juncker outlined the concrete measures he intends to take to achieve a more democratic union. In his words, “[d]emocracy cannot function without compromise. Europe cannot function without compromise”.

Compromise is certainly needed for a functioning democracy. However, it is essential to have a consensus on the underlying values and principles – elements that cannot themselves be subject to compromise.  Consensus upholds commonly shared values, which according to Article 2 of the Treaty on the EU, include fundamental human rights. Specifically, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU recognizes freedom of thought (Article 10), freedom of expression and information (Article 11), freedom of assembly and association (Article 12), and the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament(Article 39). In light of the above, an EU that is “united in diversity” should accommodate divergent opinions wherever possible.

The EU is certainly not a typical international organization, which usually are a forum for inter-governmental dialogues. The has achieved a higher level of integration as Member States have deferred their legislative competence in a number of matters to EU institutions – enabling them in turn to produce laws directly applicable to MemberStates. In other words, what is decided in Brussels affects citizens across the EU and therefore it is essential that democratic principles are embodied in the European governance. The European Parliament has a specific role in this process. As the voice of 500 million citizens, it should be a forum of political debate encompassing diverging opinions. Therefore, it is puzzling that the European institutions are taking measures that aim to narrow the space for diverging views within the European Parliament.

On 4 May 2018, a new Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the statute and funding of European political parties entered into force. This Regulation revises a previous one by restricting the kinds of support that can be used for the establishment of a European political party. Individual members of national parliaments, for example, can no longer endorse a European political party.This prerogative is afforded only to national and regional parties, which must publish their endorsement on their official website for a minimum of 12 months.

As a result, a pan-European political party that intends to present candidates for the 2019 European elections will necessarily be comprised of already well-established national or regional parties. In other words, under the new Regulation, it cannot be a party of mere European citizens exercising their right to freely assemble and to present themselves for elections. To be sure, citizens do not need to be elected to have a voice in the European Union. Nevertheless, reducing a European party to an association of existing local parties may reinforce the political establishment instead of empowering citizens to take ownership of the European project.

The new Regulation not only seems to take the EU a step back, but it also seems to target particular political views. The explanatory statement to the European Commission’s proposal provides figures projecting changes in funding upon adoption of the resolution. Parties promoting state sovereignty, autonomy of regions or Christian values would receive up to 60% less funding, while parties calling for more integration or those with a secularist agenda would see theirfunding untouched or slightly increased. The numbers are, however, debatablebecause they assume the survival of all currently existing pan-European parties. In reality, in light of new rules applicable to the formation of pan-European parties, the current political landscape may change, leaving only afewparties to share the pie.

It is true that not everybody may agree with the specific values, priorities or programmes that a given party represents. However, there can be no democratic society or pluralism if minority opinions can no longer be part of a parliamentary forum. In the end, if a European party does not make it to the European Parliament, the resulting lack of representation should be the consequence of the ballots cast and not one of artificial restrictions on the party’s formation or funding restrictions imposed by the European Commission.

The idea of ‘settingsail’ for a more democratic EU can only be applauded. However, it is important to ensure that the ship stays on course. Speeches and declaration are like the wind:they give a direction. Whether or not the ship will arrive atthe destination, however,depends on the actions taken. Therefore, it is essential to consider whether or not the newly adopted European Regulation on the formation of political parties enhances representative democracy at the European level – or whether it instead leads to the exclusion of minority and dissenting opinions. For the democratic ship to stay afloat, Europe needs to ensure a true diversity of opinions within the European Parliament.