The development of a transnational party system in the EU has been a common claim of those citizens, scholars and politicians worried about the so-called democratic deficit. Thus the current round of hearings in the Constitutional Affairs Committee is the latest chapter in a long story in which this demand has been an important satellite of a broader debate. As an answer to these concerns, the Regulation (EC) No 2004/2003 was approved in 2003 to set out the basis for a European party system, defining the conditions, the process and the funding of possible parties (ten, to date). Moving in this direction, federalist groups (UEF-JEF) and some politicians (e.g. Jo Leinen) have proposed that PPEL could pick a “top candidate” for the Commission’s Presidency before the European election. Moreover, Andrew Duff (MEP for the East of England) submitted in 2007 a report on the creation of transnational lists for a section of the EP, a proposal that has grown popular since then. All these movements are the expression of a particular way of understanding the EU and its constitutional agenda which might not be the best or the most democratic one.
This background is scrutinized in a recent study by the European Democracy Observatory (EUDO), published by the European Parliament, which lays out the path to the forthcoming debate. Although the report undoubtedly advances in the same direction as the former proposals and completely shares with them the diagnosis of the problem, it has some caveats that happily break the federalist consensus on this issue.
In a first approach to the matter, this focus on political parties as one of the main ways to fix the democratic deficit is striking, as they are the least valued political institutions in almost every European country (the situation is diverse, though). If there is a general crisis of representation through political parties, why should we insist on that path? If we want to build a more accountable and transparent Union, why are we going to use a tool which is dramatically loosing accountability and is characterized by its opacity?
It is said that political parties are the key intermediaries between citizens and the state. This may be true at a national level, but why should it be acceptable for the EU, which is neither a nation nor a state? In this issue, as in many others, Euro-federalism has borrowed too many concepts and political tools from the nation-state. All the proposals for a transnational party system seem to be built on the axis Commission-European Parliament. A less corporative and therefore more competitive EP, composed by transnational, solid and ideologically homogeneous parties, would interact with the EC (whose president would have been selected by European parties before the election) following a government-opposition rationale. In the end, these proposals intend to complete the everlasting evolution of the EP, paradoxically turning what is by nature a supranational chamber into a more national-like legislature. This could jeopardize the singularity of the EP which, despite all the moaning about its performance, has more chances than government-oriented national parliaments to accomplish an effective representation of citizens.
Besides that, the EU does not (and cannot at the current constitutional stage) work as a national state: where would the European Council stand in the political scene described above? A politicized Commission and strong pan-European parties would create a disfunctional political mirage and the public will get frustrated when acknowledging that the EU does not work according to a government-opposition game.
In addition to these both practical and theoretical flaws, an excessive focus on PPEL could sadly oversimplify the debate on Euro-democracy, which is actually richer and far more imaginative than that. At this very moment, Euro-federalism is fully engaged in the promotion of the European Citizens Initiative, a potentially powerful tool related to direct democracy. To what extent is it compatible with the growth of PPEL? According to the authors of the EUDO report, pan-European parties could coordinate the recollection of signatures for a Citizens Initiative, but it is not a necessary (nor, perhaps, a desirable) interaction. The EU has a vibrant and resilient network of associations which will be able to fully develop this new democratic tool, and it will be more useful as long as it remains independent from political parties.
Furthermore, the success of strong European parties could close forever the unfortunately weak debate on political representation and the effectiveness of electoral constituencies. A transnational party system will not automatically solve the mess caused by 27 different electoral laws, and a party-centered approach to the problem will surely avoid the core issue of electoral connection and effective representation in the EP. How can the link between MEPs and their constituents work when they are elected by closed national lists, as in Spain, or in huge regional constituencies, as in the UK, France or Italy? An urgent debate must be held on these issues, because they are the real cause of the gap between MEPs and voters. A debate delayed, if not neutralized, by the prominence of the PPEL issue.
It is true, though, that the champions of a transnational party system as an effective way to a more democratic Europe have furnished the debate with some appealing and valuable arguments, based on a clever political rationale. Introducing some elements of electoral competition at the European level will surely improve the turnout at elections for the EP. In particular, picking a top candidate for the EC presidency in advance would help to personalize the election (and as a not less important side-effect it would progress in the quest of a more accountable EC), although it is not clear if the EU is really prepared for a more presidential system. Moreover, voting for a transnational list would be, if successful, a big step towards real political integration and would help to create a full European citizenship. Finally, it might also focus the electoral debate on the topics which really belong to the European field, usually outshone by petty national quarrels.
In the next two months the European Parliament will take on the matter. If MEPs assume the critical, nuanced and broad approach of the preparatory report by EUDO, the debate will be worth watching. But if they just keep a restricted party-based vision of the future of Euro-democracy, it will be (yet) another lost opportunity for drawing up a comprehensive democratic agenda. The upcoming debate should take advantage of the singularities of the European system of governance rather than sticking to national analogies. The nature itself of the European Parliament (transnational, limited in its competences, not directly tied to an executive) brings the possibility of developing a new way of political representation on a new level of political action, because the EU is not (and should not be) a large-scale version of national democracies. Only if the debate over PPEL and political representation in the EU becomes independent of traditional rationales will it meet the innovative and original spirit which is the core of European integration.