Certain themes pop up again and again when talking to people on the street who stand against the European Union. A democratic disconnect. Lack of trust in the institutions. Backroom deals. And, above all, broken promises.
The European Commission has long been an easy target for eurosceptics and democratising eurofederalists alike. Although Parliament’s scrutiny powers have steadily increased, the Commission is still too unaccountable. Its members aren’t directly elected, while its president is anointed in a shady conclave of initiates, rather than being chosen by European voters.
The 2014 election was supposed to go a long way in addressing all of this. Most European Parliament groups put forward leading candidates to spearhead their campaigns. A series of debates were organised, pitting the Spitzenkandidaten against each other. Their names and likenesses appeared in party posters and political broadcasts. They spoke in rallies with the national parties. The message was clear: it’s your vote, it’s your decision.
At the end of the count, it was the European People Party’s Jean-Claude Juncker who came out on top. And yet, even before his victory was even announced, before polling stations had even closed, David Cameron and Viktor Orbán were already plotting to undermine his candidacy. Their motives were cloaked in talk of national interests and legal prerogatives, but that didn’t make the message any less clear: it’s your vote, it’s their decision.
That two politicians with such a chequered past are behind this conspiracy only serves to rub salt in the wound. In 2011, Cameron and his party pulled out all the stops to defend the monstrosity known as first-past-the-post (FPTP), a long-standing but appallingly undemocratic electoral system. Under FPTP, it’s not uncommon for 50–70% of votes to be wasted. It closes the door on small parties and leaves it wide open to gerrymandering. There are often big differences between a party’s share of the vote and its share of seats. And, perhaps worst of all, over 80% of all constituencies end up becoming safe seats whose voters are taken for granted by politicians. Given the opportunity to make up for this a year later, when reform of the unelected House of Lords was on the table, the Conservatives didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory either.
Orbán, meanwhile, is a character straight out of Orwell’s Animal Farm. The young anti-Communist activist who energised the crowds on Heroes’ Square, calling for democracy and the end of Soviet influence in Hungary, was already long gone by the time Orbán first became Prime Minister in 1998. One of his first moves was a brazen attempt to reduce parliamentary scrutiny of the government and replace the heads of key institutions with partisan figures. His plans were eventually foiled by the Hungarian Constitutional Court and his government voted out of office in 2002, but that only stoked his appetite for vengeance when Fidesz was swept back into power in 2010. So the Constitution was the problem? Then the Constitution must be revamped. Judges and watchdogs opposed his plans? Then judges and watchdogs must be replaced. The press kept the government on its toes? Then the press must be swept off its feet. 25 years after Heroes’ Square, Orbán has become the very thing he sought to destroy, and Hungarians find themselves looking from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it’s impossible to say which is which.
Various alternative names have been floated for the top job, ranging from Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt and IMF boss Christine Lagarde to Poland’s Donald Tusk and former WTO Director—General Pascal Lamy. Surely, at least some of them would be competent managers. But that’s wholly beside the point, because this was a choice for European voters to make, and none of these candidates got the backing of the European demos.
This is no time for division, whether you voted for Juncker, for Schulz, for Verhofstadt, for Keller or for Tsipras. This is the time to stand together and for all European parties to solemnly vow that they will under no circumstances endorse a candidate who isn’t a Spitzenkandidat. United the European Parliament stands, divided it falls.
This is no time to send an angry little tweet or submit a bitter Facebook post. This is the time to take half an hour to defend your vote, your voice and your democracy by writing to your MEPs and telling them in no uncertain terms that you expect them to vote against any candidate who didn’t garner the support of the people in the last European election.
Tarry not, for the longer we wait, the easier it’ll be for the conclave to unite behind its own candidate and establish a fait accompli. You need to seize the initiative. You need to make sure the EU Council gets the message loud and clear: it’s not about their backroom deals and horse-trading. It’s not about picking the candidate who dances best to their tune. And it’s definitely not about the narrow party interests of Fidesz or the Conservatives. Hell, no! It’s not about them. It’s about YOU.