The European parliamentary elections, long seen as merely a test run for “real” — that is, national — elections later in the year, have been getting an unusual amount of attention this spring. Explicitly anti-European Union forces across the continent could win up to a third of the seats, a possibility that has pro-Europeans officials frantic that the far right, long thought of as the barbarians outside the union’s gates, could now be in a place to demolish it from within.
Notwithstanding this danger, the European Parliament has always been a disappointing institution. It is composed of 751 members from all 28 member countries, but the members represent transnational parties, the idea being that they stand for the interests of the European people as a whole.
Sadly, the European Parliament has never fulfilled its promise to bolster the European Union’s legitimacy as a democratic institution. Rather than a beacon of European democracy, it has turned into a rather dissuasive example of citizen representation gone awry. It should be disbanded, and replaced with a different body, one made up of national representatives who could better balance the interests of each member state with the needs of the European Union. Call it the European Senate.
The Parliament has been around in some form since almost the dawn of the European Union, but it was only in 1979 that European voters were given the right to elect its members. The idea, to bring citizens closer to the lawmaking process, was well intended. But, the European Parliament has not fulfilled that potential. Turnout at European elections has steadily declined, from 62 percent in 1979 to 43 percent in 2014. In Poland, to pick just one example, only 22.7 percent of the citizens thought it worthwhile to cast their votes in the 2014 elections.
This year may see a rise in those numbers, but not in the way the pro-integrationists would like. The wave of support for anti-union parties is driven by their explicit promise to prune back the power vested in Brussels — a dangerous overreaction. But while pro-union forces should push back, they should also learn from their own mistakes.
One important lesson is that Europeans do not understand what their own Parliament does. In a 2018 poll, 45 percent said they believed the Parliament has “no real impact” and “does not change much.”
This is an epic misconception. The Parliament exerts enormous influence on the everyday lives of Europeans — it has a say in everything from limiting the energy consumption of vacuum cleaners to setting the number of working hours a week. It develops standards for data protection and for rural development. And it is, as the Euroskeptics rightly charge, overwhelmingly pro-Europe, regularly pushing for deeper integration among the member states.
And that’s the real problem. A core part of the European Union treaty is a concept known as subsidiarity — simply, that the union has some powers, but not all of them, and it is up to the Parliament to decide how to balance between them.
The European Parliament never delivered on this task. Instead of acting as an opposition to the European Commission, the union’s governing body — which, by its nature, is pro-integration — Parliament has in practice pursued the same approach.
During my time as a correspondent in Brussels covering the European Union, one member from the Green Party told me, “The longer some colleagues serve in this house, the less they regard themselves as representatives of the citizens in Parliament but as representatives of the Parliament toward the citizens.”
The second problem with the European Parliament is that “the European people” it claims to represent does not exist. The “demos” in democracy is a public that knows its representatives and is able to hold them to account. This is hardly the case in a 28-nation bloc divided by 24 languages and various political cultures.
Consider this example: The German pro-business Liberal Party, for instance, has just announced it wants to form a European parliamentary group with the French En Marche movement, led by President Emmanuel Macron. That’s a bit confusing, as the Liberals oppose key En Marche demands, such as joint sovereign “Eurobonds” and a European welfare fund. As a result, neither German Liberal voters nor French En Marche supporters know before the election what policies they will actually have voted for.
Where does the solution lie? With national parliaments. At present, they deal far too little with Europe-level legislation. In Berlin, lawmakers often complain that they are being caught off-guard by directives from Brussels. They could do a better job of keeping up to speed, true. But there’s little incentive for them to do so. As a result, the European Union has grown steadily more powerful, without the national parliaments — or their voters — acting as a check.
There’s a simple fix here. Dissolve the European Parliament and replace it with a Senate composed of members sent by national parties, chosen during their national election campaigns. Technically, those lawmakers would be members of their respective national parliaments. But their job would be to act as a check and balance against the European Commission.
A European Senate would be a parliament of parliaments, a place where different national positions clash. Unlike members of the current Parliament, they would be directly responsible to their national parties, and through them to their citizens. If they propose or oppose legislation, they will have to explain themselves back home — no more blaming Brussels.
This is what a real European democracy would look like — while also returning power to the member states. A European Senate would bring Europe back home to the people.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.