The European Parliament (EP) now has legislative powers over the vast majority of EU policies, from regulating working hours to vetoing EU trade agreements. However, while the use of ‘co-decision’, under which MEPs have equal status with national ministers to pass EU legislation, has more than doubled during the last two decades (from 27% to 62%), turnout in European elections has fallen from 57% to 43%. Many individual MEPs work hard and conscientiously for their constituents. However, voters’ declining engagement would suggest that, despite its ever-increasing powers under successive EU treaties, the EP has failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy.
The common view that voter apathy is largely due to a lack of awareness or public ignorance is simplistic. Data from the European Commission’s Eurobarometer public opinion surveys shows that, across the EU, there is no correlation between interest in EU affairs or awareness of the EP and voter turnout. For example, in Romania and Slovakia, 81% and 79% of people respectively say they are aware of the European Parliament, but only 28% and 20% turned out to vote in 2009. In the Netherlands, 61% say they are interested in European affairs – the highest in the EU – yet the turnout of voters at 36% is one of the lowest.
At root, the EP’s failure to connect with voters across Europe is a consequence of the lack of a European ‘demos’. The EP’s brand of supranational democracy has been constructed from the top down, which is illustrated by the high degree of consensus between the main party groupings. Despite representing national parties of different political traditions, the established centre – right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre – left Socialist and Democrat (S&D) party families voted the same way 74% of the time in the 2009 – 14 parliament, with a heavy bias for “more Europe”. This denies voters a genuine choice, thoroughly undermining the very objective the EP is trying to achieve.
The concept of ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ or lead candidates for European Commission President nominated by the various political families in the EP is likely to be counterproductive due to the fragmented political landscape across Europe and the poor quality of the candidates. Instead of repeating the same mistake of addressing the EP’s failure to connect with voters by increasing MEPs’ power, boosting the role of national parliaments in EU decision making would return democratic accountability closer to voters.