Giles Merritt is Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe
Here's a sharp knife to cut through the tangled knot of Europe's politics ‒ let's hold all national parliamentary elections on the same day as voting for the European Parliament.
Last week's Italian election results look like being indigestible for weeks to come, perhaps months. Meanwhile, Europe can look forward to five more national polls ‒ Hungary, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Sweden ‒ before the autumn. Next year there are six ‒ Estonia, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Poland ‒ as well as the mid-year European elections.
The disruptive effects of national elections on EU unity are generally seen as an unavoidable part of democracy in Europe; regrettable but inevitable. No one would dispute that, but do they have to be scattered across the political calendar? Is it so difficult to agree on the same five-year term for member states' parliaments?
Two clear problems threaten the whole project of European integration
Flexibility could be built into any coordinated new system to accommodate political hiccups that would provoke fresh and unscheduled elections. There will be screams of protest against scrapping hallowed national parliamentary traditions, but the case for streamlining democracy in Europe is far more compelling.
Two clear problems threaten the whole project of European integration. The first is the seemingly inexorable rise of Eurosceptic populism, and the second is the series of deadlocks over how to make the EU more democratic. Rationalising national elections could provide the answer to both.
It's conceivable that the Eurosceptic messages of the populists in different countries might combine into a pan-European rejection of the EU and its values. But it's far more likely that the contradictory nature of these solidly national parties' conflicting aims will be laid bare. That would reveal overnight the inconsistencies of competing national brands of Euroscepticism, while also forcing mainstream parties to state unambiguously their positions on EU solidarity issues.
The most immediate effect of holding all parliamentary elections at the same time is that before even a single vote is cast it will revolutionise media coverage. Press reporting would compare and contrast national debates, with the first beneficiaries being candidate MEPs seeking a European Parliament seat. Declining public interest saw the EP's 2014 voter turnout plummet to only 42% from 62% in 1979, a reflection of dwindling support for the EU itself. Creating a single European election day would certainly galvanise more excitement than the idea of a making a handful of EP seats 'trans-national'.
The second effect would be to end the impasse over how the EU's top jobs should be democratised. There will clearly be no change next year to the present highly unsatisfactory spitzenkandidat system, in which the next president of the European Commission will be the candidate of whichever EP grouping wins the most seats. But it's also plain that there must be a meaningful EU-wide debate on a new method for 2024.
The present system is not genuinely democratic, and is increasingly criticised
The present system is not genuinely democratic, and is increasingly criticised for being yet another facet of the EU's backstairs approach to decision-making. There is mounting support instead for the direct election of a 'European president' by all voters throughout the EU. The idea of merging the roles of the Commission and European Council presidents has been advocated by Jean-Claude Juncker, and is said to be gaining ground.
EU member governments have been very wary of strengthening the Union's powers, even by making it more democratically accountable. But their reluctance is tempered by their need to resist the Eurosceptics now challenging the mainstream political parties. 'Old Guard' voices in all 27 countries will decry the idea of streamlining national elections into same day voting, but may well agree that we Europeans can't go on as we are.
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