Opinion: A Victory for European Democracy

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The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France: For the first time, voters have decided on one of the most important posts in the European Union. Zoom
AFP

The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France: For the first time, voters have decided on one of the most important posts in the European Union.

Although voter turnout was down in many places and right-wing populists scored significant gains, this weekend's European Parliament election was historically important. It has shifted the balance of power in Europe in favor of voters.

For the first time in the European Union's history, the major parties in the European Parliament launched top candidates who campaigned for the job of European Commission president and gave stump speeches across much of Europe in an experiment that affected more than 400 million voters.

The aim of creating the leading candidates was to establish a central feature in what are essentially national elections and also the personalization of the campaign and the intensification of the election on television. The hope had been that voter participation would increase enough on Sunday to hold the right-wing populists at bay in most countries.

The experiment didn't work as many had hoped it would.

Jean-Claude Juncker campaigned on behalf of the conservative Christian Democrats and Martin Schulz for the center-left Social Democrats. Both candidates took on the task of creating a truly European election to the point of exhaustion. Throughout, they had to tackle a number of small and large adversities that at times put them under great strain.

Voters Settle Scores

Despite their efforts, the two didn't manage to increase voter turnout dramatically. They had more success in doing so in countries where the economy is doing relatively well, like Germany. In countries like France, Italy, Britain, Austria and Greece, however, their campaigns didn't succeed in a drowning out domestic debates and sensitivities. Instead, voters in those countries on the left and on the right settled scores with their own governments. For them, anti-EU parties were a means to an end, and national considerations outweighed European issues. As happened in the past, the vote was used to punish national parties.

On this issue, the experiment of fielding leading candidates was a failure. The election was, however, still a historically important one.

It may not be the case in Germany, but it will make waves in domestic politics in some member states and rock the current situation. Above all, the balance of power has shifted in Europe -- providing quite a bit more to the European Parliament and the voters.

The two leading candidates, with their personalization of the election, have created some facts that will be hard to change. It is very hard to imagine that the leaders of the EU member states would be able to prevent election victor Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next president of the European Commission if a majority in parliament backs him. The traditional "grand coalition" in the European Parliament between the conservative Christian Democrats (the European People's Party) and the center-left Social Democrats (Socialists and Democrats) will this time be led by the conservatives and is likely to achieve that needed majority. What that ultimately means is that leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel, who has said the winner wouldn't automatically become the EU Commission president, will have to yield to the wishes of voters. Although the leaders will still be free to choose other important EU posts, including the other members of the Commission, a very important one has likely now been turned over to the discretion of voters. That's how things should be and it is a positive development.

Although the experiment with the leading candidates didn't work out as well as people had hoped, it still proved to be a worthwhile endeavor. Even if voter turnout wasn't as great as it could have been, this election has still made Europe more democratic.

European Election Results in Germany

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1. Eu
broremann 05/26/2014
the question is shall we tear up the rulebook and start afresh as an economic trade zone only
2. European democracy
pa.savage@talktalk.net 05/26/2014
The Spiegel article on this subjects suggests that the way people across Europe voted was a comment on national policies and not the EU. I would disagree. In the UK the voters voted against an arrogant, un democratic, corrupt and wasteful EU and their policies. The national elections will be very different. Although I believe {as do many others} that Britain should be at the heart of the EU, we are so sick of THIS EU we would vote to leave. It neads to be overhauled to reflect what it's citizens want and no what the elite think we want.
3. Outweighed European issues?
disillusioned101 05/26/2014
That comment is typical of the circle the wagons and ignore the wishes of the electorate brigade that got the EU into the mess it is now in. I confess that I voted for UKIP. Not because I necessarily want the UK to leave the EU but because not of the mainstream political parties are willing to offer the kind of Europe I want to be part of. Increasing the power of the parliament does not reduce the democratic deficit, it increases it. We are asked to vote for parties with no idea what policies will result from that party winning the election. Rather we end up with a body that passes legislation that all countries must adopt even if the national government would never have been able to introduce that legislation on its own initiative without becoming un electable. A classic case in point is the plan to make the eCall tracking system compulsory in all cars from 2016. Why have they made it compulsory? because they have been trying to get people to adopt if voluntarily for years with no effect. Does this tell you something about the European Federalists view of the people of Europe (we are all too stupid to know what is in our best interest) What business is this of the European Union? The only things that could really get me to support Europe now would be the removal of the term ever closer union from the treaties and potical ambitions of the project, abolition of the European Parliement (It destroys democratic accountability) and a rolling back of the powers of the commission to those areas where pan european action actually benefits the people of Europe i.e. representing all member countries at trade an diplomatic negotiations, environmental protection, security and so on. As for the budget I would not want to see the economic cohesion work of Europe stop. I think this is worthwhile to assist countries in the Europe to develop.
4. An alternative view
idbeckett 05/26/2014
As you reported yourselves, none of the spitzenkandidaten campaigned in the UK and none of them were supported by any of the main stream parties. It is difficult to suggest therefore that they have any degree of legitimacy in the UK. Undoubtedly some people voted on national issues but according to analysts the majority were voting on the EU and uncontrolled immigration. It is revealing that the party that campaigned on a staunch pro EU pro free movement platform was virtually wiped out (Lib Dems) while the Eurosceptic UKIP won the election by some margin. Already the main parties are debating how they need to change their stances in order to address and reverse the UKIP advance. It is this need that will impact on the EU, the main UK parties will need to move in a Eurosceptic direction to recapture votes. The imposition of a fervent federalist as the new Commission President will just increase the pressure on both the Conservatives and Labour. In reality I have absolutely no objection to this, it can only work to hasten the day that the UK finally leaves the EU.
5.
from_the_UK 05/26/2014
the sentiments expressed in this article are exactly the reason that the UK euro election was won by a eurosceptic party - fielding two presidential candidates who are members of the euro elite, and have no connection whatsoever with the euro electorate [at least in the UK, and I suspect elsewhere]. Euro politicians are living in an alternative universe in which decisions and choices can be made by this elite, who give the impression of acting based on a 'euro agenda' which is largely disconnected from, and seems to completely disregard what actual europeans think or feel about the conduct of european governance. The result is a great deal of anger, as expressed [in the UK] by the success of UKIP, which has been able present the EU as interfering in the goverment of the UK. The suggestion that having presidential candidates who have are part this closed elite makes the euro elections more democratic is farcical - what is needed are some answers the questions people are actually asking .
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