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It’s not about them, it’s about YOU

, by Alistair Spearing

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Over 100 million Europeans voted for parties with Spitzenkandidaten in Sunday’s elections, but David Cameron and Viktor Orbán are working behind the scenes to sabotage our democratic choice. Their contempt for European voters is breathtaking.


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.

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  • On 29 May 2014 at 12:59, by Richard Replying to: It’s not about them, it’s about YOU

    OK. First, it’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of voters did not enter the ballot box thinking about the European Commission. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that anyone but a handful of people went in saying to themselves “hmm, I must vote for the European People’s Party candidate - I want Mr Juncker as Commission President!”. In fact, we need to remember that these candidates were all selected by what is now an outgoing and obsolete Parliament.

    In the recent elections people didnt vote for Schulz, or Verhofstadt or Juncker. They voted for their MEP and that vote was very often based upon national priorities or simply a protest vote against a national party (or in the case of Germany, voting for Angela Merkel, who appeared on all of the election advertisements)

    Moreover, it is time to remove the rose-tinted glasses and see that the European institutions, including the Parliament, are just as prone to horse-trading and backroom deals as anywhere else; you only need to see how the European Parliament President is selected: basically, the two biggest parties have a cosy arrangement to parachute in one of their own and take turns at the job.

    When you think about it - it would be truly bizarre to claim that the candidates named (who are all federalists) in any way reflect a European demos. How could that reflect the vote seen in France or the UK, or in the abysmal turnouts in some countries - like Poland with 22% or Hungary with 13%! These candidates all want “more Europe”. The electorate obviously want anything but “more Europe”

    As to the British electoral system...that is a matter for the British. You don’t like it. Well, we do; the referendum towards the alternative system firmly rejected doing so. The UK has a very long record of a stable and effective democracy. Why change what works? As a UK citizen I often look upon election results in other countries with bewilderment, as various minority parties and outright eccentrics gain seats in Parliament even though no one would wish to have their parties actual govern. Elections are often followed by months of haggling, horse-trading and deals behind closed doors to form often precarious and unstable coalitions that become paralysed or collapse in moments of crisis.

    As to the House of Lords: it is an advisory chamber. The elected chamber, the Commons, always has the final say. However, there are advantages: the Lords comprises members of very long experience in dealing with the scrutiny of legislation. Moreover, the Lords do not constantly have to think about the next election. This means they can resist populist measures - their main function is to be able to tell the elected chamber “think again!”. They do not need to worry about being popular or unpopular.

  • On 9 June 2014 at 22:24, by Alexander Peters Replying to: It’s not about them, it’s about YOU


    Now it is official: British hostility to Europe is not driven by a concern for „democracy“. Democracy, Mr. Cameron was offered: For the first time in EU history the head of government – the President of the commission - was to assume office as leader of a majority in parliament, in very much the same way a British Prime Minister assumes office as leader of a majority in the House of Commons. - Surely, Mr. Cameron would welcome such adoption of British-style parliamentary democracy by Europe?

    No, this „democrat“ had a fit instead: The candidate supported by a majority of elected MEPs – Jean-Claude Juncker - becoming President of the commission?! Outrageous! Give the presidency to an unelected non-entity as hitherto, an angry Cameron told fellow leaders, or face UK withdrawal from the EU!

    This behaviour reveals the true nature of the British – of the Thatcher-Cameron-Farage – game. British Europhobes both attack the EU as undemocratic AND strive to keep it so, as their intention is is not to make the EU more democratic, but to destroy it. The prospect of a more democratic Europe is a threat to them, as such a Europe would rob their wrecking-campaign of its most effective propaganda-weapon. British Anti-Europeanism is not about democracy – it is about rabid nationalism.

    Furthermore, it is about stealthily promoting a neoliberal agenda for which – especially after Lehmann – there are no democratic majorities in Europe. Cameron and his media allies talk about the EU´s horrible lack of democracy and the necessity for „reform“ - but the reforms they promote are not about improving democracy, but about satisfying City of London greed. While employees` rights, financial market regulation and environmental standards for most Europeans are something desirable, they figure in Cameron´s world of distortion as instances of a Brussels „yoke“ we all yearn to throw of.

    Cameron wants to withold the democratic legitimacy and the social policy dimension from the EU, whithout which it cannot overcome its alienation from voters. On Juncker, therefore, the European Parliament must not give an inch to its foes. MEPs must not be afraid of a prolonged struggle: the longer this conflict lasts, the more it will rub in, WHO the true anti-democrats are. Nor must they be afraid of British exit: such exit would only be the legal divorce from a spouse, who has been living estranged for years. To Britain now no EU is acceptable, except one in the form of that solely economic EFTA, which the EU was never meant to be. Britain cannot be kept in the EU, unless the EU gives up the political ideal, which inspired it since its foundation in 1956, unless it ceases to be itself. That must not be.

    When, in 17th century England, Stuart Kings meddled with Parliament, Westminster MPs made political mincemeat of them. - Strasbourg MEPs should make the same of David Cameron.

  • On 21 June 2014 at 17:24, by Alexander Peters Replying to: It’s not about them, it’s about YOU

    Dear Mr. Iwantout,

    thank you for your straightforward and kind reply!

    Yes, I do agree with you – though mournfully - that under current circumstances Britain´s exit from the EU may be the only solution. It will be sad to part from “this precious stone set in the silver sea”. A Europe without Britain - that will be a rainbow with one of the bright household colours missing. A strong, united Europe including Britain would, of course, be more glorious than one without. However, that seems not to be on offer. Cameron-Britain leaves the Continent only with the choice between UK exit and an EU reduced to the confederate disunity irrelevance of, say, the Arab League or the CIS. - The choice should be “exit”, then.

    European nation-states have a uniquely long and proud past behind them, but no more future in front of them. Due to demographics, they no longer belong to the first rank of states and will soon find it difficult to hold on to Security Council seats or G7 membership. If they do not join forces NOW to meet the challenges from the US (NSA), Russia (Ukraine) or the emerging population-billionaires India and China, they will become the globe´s new banana republics – will become weak, pseudo-sovereign states, ruled and exploited by Non-European masters. Our freedom and heritage (both, shared values AND cultural diversity) can only be preserved by a politically united Europe.

    It is therefore vital that the present “intergovernmental” EU, which conflicts with democratic principle, turns every issue into an endless crisis and drives its citizens mad, is replaced by a parliamentary European Republic, which meets the demands of democracy, gets things done and inspires confidence. Whether such a republic extends to all the EU´s present 28 members, is, by contrast, only secondary: The 1956 Europe of the six founders, was really only a rump – but that rump was successful, made progress and proved irresistible to neighbours – among them sceptical Britain. The current EU of 28, by contrast, looks grand on the map, but is paralysed by internal squabbling and in danger of falling apart.

    Britain has already been granted numerous concessions – rebates, opt-outs - to accomodate her within the EU. But while these concessions already severely disfigure the EU´s architecture - e.g. the split between Eurozone and EU proper caused by the Sterling opt-out – they seem to have done nothing to reduce British hostility. At this juncture, Europe should therefore not contemplate any more concessions, but the simpler, stronger, more democratic EU, which UK exit would make possible: No more “no” to real parliamentary democracy or to common social, fiscal, defence and energy policies.

    Europe must show, what it can do – and if it succeeds, maybe even Britain will one day want to join it again.

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