Monday, June 08, 2009

Democracy Part XV: The European Parliament Elections and Downdraft Federalism

Over the last twenty or so years it has become almost established dogma among European intellectual circles to point to and decry the "democratic deficit" in the construction and operation of the institutions of the European Union. See, e.g., Fritz W. Scharpf, 'Economic Integration, Democracy and the Welfare State', 4(1) Journal of European Public Policy 18-36 (1997), Andrew Moravscik, 'In Defence of the "Democratic Deficit": Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union', 40(4) Journal of Common Market Studies 603-24 (2002); M. Höreth, 'No way out for the beast? The unsolved legitimacy problem of European governance', (2) Journal of European Public Policy 249-68 (1999), The EU Constitution: The Best Way Forward?, 105-145 (Deirdre Curtin, Alfred E. Kellerman, Steven Blockmans, eds., The Hague: Asser Press, 2006).

Like the child in the fairy tale, many European Union scholars protest the ‘Emperor has no clothes’. Though the EU dresses itself up in the rhetoric of democracy—a fundamental requisite for Member States—it is covered at best by only the scantiest democratic fig leaf. So far, however, the Union’s failure to acquire the trappings of democratic decency has been of little political consequence. This fact should give commentators pause for thought. It suggests either the European ruling elites are cynically testing how far they can get away with their deception, or that current denunciations of a democratic deficit are oversimplified.

A number of European analysts now take the latter view, and have become more circumspect about just calling for more democracy. We agree with them. Talk of a democratic deficit begs various questions that are rarely asked: namely, why is democracy valuable, will Europe gain from using it as opposed to other forms of decision-making, what form must it take to achieve these results—deliberative, majoritarian, consociational, a mix of all three, or something quite different from these—and how, if at all, can it be implemented in the European context? This essay represents a modest attempt to address them

Richard Bellamy and Dario Castiglione, "The Uses of Democracy," in Democracy in the European Union: Integration through Deliberation? 65 (Erik Oddvar Eriksen and John Erik Fossum, eds., London: Routledge, 2000). This democratoc deficit has been especially pointed in discussions about the European Parliament. For example, "Right Honourable Shirley Williamsattributes the European Parliament's failure to '[attract] few well known national politicians' to the fact that [the European Parliament's] powers have been so limited and its coverage so slight.' Thus, perhaps, if the Parliament was accorded increased power, it might be expected to attract a new breed of politician with whom the people may more readily identify." Joelle Anne Schmitz, "Institutional Redress of the Democratic Deficit: Redefinition Within a Democracy-Efficiency Continuum," in Redefining Europe 109, 121-122 (Joseph Drew, ed., Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005). See also Berthold Rittberger, Building Europe's Parliament: Democratic Representation beyond the Nation State, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) at Section 1.3 (Democratoc Theory and the Empowerment of the European Parliament).

However, the recent elections to the European Parliament suggest the ways in which the European Union has managed to buttress democracy, at least in a novel way. Voters Steer Europe to the Right, BBC News OnLine, June 8, 2009. It seems that the institutions of the European Union, and especially its Parliament, might best serve democracy by providing a site for the playing out of democratic politics outside of Member States without direct political effect within the Member States. The E.U. Parliament, it seems, now serves as a proxy for Parliamentary politics within EU Member States where political lines can be tried, positions taken and proxy elections analyzed. The object, of course, is to provide a relatively safe venue for rehearsal of national political campaigns. "Voters have been choosing representatives mainly from their own national parties, many of which then join EU-wide groupings with similarly-minded parties from other countries." Id.

In that process, there is a lamentation of the steady drop in voter turnout for these elections. "Provisional figures released by the EU suggested turnout was at an all-time low in some countries, including France, where it dropped to 40.5%. Lowest turnout was seen in Slovakia (19.6%) and Lithuania (20.9%), while the highest figures came from Luxembourg (91%) and and Belgium (85.9%) - both countries where voting is compulsory. Overall turnout has fallen at each European election in the last 30 years, from a high of nearly 62% in 1979." Id. But this suggests first that there is some sort of correlation between the number of voters and the strength of the democratic system. That is not necessarily true. Voters choose both by choosing among candidates offered up to them and also by choosing to vote for none of the proffered candidates. Elites have learned who to exploit the former, but are troubled by the latter (as a sign of dissatisfaction with their overall governance). To some extent, the low voter turnout can suggest many things, only one of which is voter dissatisfaction with the institutional organization of the EU. Second, it also rests on the false assumption that EU voting is most meaningful when measured against the percentage size of participating voters, rather than as a focus group evidencing preferences among the most motivated voters. Indeed, smaller and more motivated voting groups might well provide greater information for national political elections than the more amorphous polling results generated my larger turnouts.

In this case, the election results suggests some comfort for the French and German governments, and trouble for others in upcoming national elections. To that extent, the EU Parliamentary elections proved invaluable. It also suggested a political turn, at least among motivated voters at the European level, of a swing to the right. "Centre-right parties have done well in elections to the European Parliament at the expense of the left. Far-right and anti-immigration parties also made gains, as turnout figures plunged to 43% - the lowest since direct elections began 30 years ago. " Voters Steer Europe to the Right, BBC News OnLine, supra.

The internal effects of these external dry runs at national politics was swiftly evident in Spain, where the conservative Popular Party sought a non confience vote against the Socialist government on the basis of its poor showing in the EU Parliamentary elections. "La secretaria general del PP, María Dolores de Cospedal, reclamó al presidente José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero que se someta a la confianza del Parlamento tras la derrota del PSOE, por dos escaños, en las elecciones al Parlamento Europeo del domingo. "Hoy hay motivos más que suficientes para que el presidente [del Gobierno] presente una moción de confianza", declaró." El PP exige a Zapatero que se someta a la confianza del Parlamento: Duran i Lleida anima a Rajoy a presentar una moción de censura, aunque anuncia que CiU se abstendría, El País (Madrid), June 8, 2009 ("The secretary general of the PP, María Dolores de Cospedal, called the president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to submit to a vote of confidence hin the Spanish Parliament after the defeat of the PSOE, which lost two seats in the European Parliament elections on Sunday. "Today there are more than enough reasons for the president [of government] to present a motion of confidence," she said.").

It has also already had effects in the U.K. as well. There, the effect appears to be to accelerate the implosion of the Labour Government currently headed by Gordon Brown. That government, already reeling from a number of internal political and economic assaults, appears substantially weaker now. And politicians are exploiting the "shadow election" effects of the E.U. Parliamentary votes to move forward on internal political efforts. "Jane Kennedy has quit the Government after Gordon Brown led Labour to its worst ever election results, deepening the Prime Minister's leadership crisis. The farming minister is the eighth minister to quit in less than a week. She quit hours before Mr Brown's make-or-break meeting with Labour MPs on Monday night." James Kirkup, Gordon Brown loses minister Jane Kennedy after elections disaster, The Daily Telegraph, June 8, 2009 ("Labour MPs are reeling from their worst electoral showing for nearly 100 years after finishing third in vote share behind the Tories and Ukip in elections to the European Parliament." Id.).

That is also important both at a policy level, but perhaps more important in considering decisions to move forward with projects like that of the European Constitution. "Launching the Conservatives campaign for the forthcoming European Parliament elections, the Conservative leader called on the Prime Minister to abandon his opposition to a referendum. The issue is expected to be crucial in the run-up to polling day on June 4." Robert Winnett, David Cameron demands referendum on new EU constitution from Gordon Brown, The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) April 27, 2009. With the the U.K. Labour Party losses, this issue is bound to get greater attention in the internal politics of the U.K. And it is likely to affect the determination to go forward with a second referendum on the Constitution in Ireland, especially with regional media eager to intensify scrutiny of the issues. "The European Union is waiting for Ireland to ratify the constitution before it can be introduced. Ireland rejected the treaty in a referendum last year and is now planning to hold a second referendum later this year. The Daily Telegraph has campaigned for the Government to hold a referendum." Id.

But the great marker of voter dissatisfaction is the turn to fringe parties. "Fringe groups appear to have benefited, with far-right and anti-immigrant parties picking up seats in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary. The British National Party won two seats - its first ever in a nationwide election." Voters Steer Europe to the Right, BBC News OnLine, supra. This turn suggests a large dynamic element in local elections that may be upcoming within Member States, especially in those states in which the party in power is facing strong challengers.

In a sense, then, the E.U. Parliamentary elections have evidenced a great commitment to democracy and democratic ideals. It just hasn't evidenced that sort of democracy envisioned by a portion of the European elite, well represented within social, academic and media circles. Instead, the elections show the way in which downdraft federalism can work within a federal organization that does not privilege the general government. The elections reaffirm both the importance of the electorate in the political framework of Europe. But it also suggests the effects of a federal system that retains both a measure of intergovernmentalism and a commitment to the preservaiton of effective power at the level of the Member States, rather than at the E.U. level. See, Larry Catá Backer, "The Extra-National State: American Confederate Federalism and the European Union", 7 Columbia Journal of European Law 173 (2001). The E.U. retains its sui generis framework. And it appears effectively utilized by the democratic elements of its societies. "It is widely believed that the European Union (EU) suffers from a democratic deficit. This raises a fundamental question: can democracy ever be applied to decision-making bodies beyond the nation-state?" Erik Oddvar Eriksen and John Erik Fossum, Democracy in the European Union, in Democracy in the European Union: Integration through Deliberation? i (Erik Oddvar Eriksen and John Erik Fossum, eds., London: Routledge, 2000). Yet they also note that "precisely how we conceive of democracy is essential to how we understand the nature of the democratic deficit." Id., at i. The E.U. Parliamentary elections provide evidence of the vitality of the construction of a Member State oriented democratic model. For those who favor a greater movement of power up from the Member States, the election results, and the mechanics it illuminates is no cause to cheer. Yet it also has deepened the operation of downdraft federalism within the political cultures and functioning of the Member States.

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