Prof Thomas Christiansen, Jean Monnet Professor of European Institutional Politics, Maastricht University
29 January 2014
CIT Auditorium, Level 2, NUS Computer Centre, 2 Engineering Drive 4, Singapore 117584
The EU Centre in Singapore hosted a talk by Professor Thomas Christiansen (Jean Monnet Professor of European Institutional Politics and Co-Director of the Maastricht Centre for European Governance, Maastricht University) entitled “The Upcoming European Parliament Elections: Why is it different this time and why should we care?” on the 29 January 2014 at the CIT Auditorium, NUS Computer Centre from 11am to 12.30pm.
In his lecture, Dr Christiansen began by emphasizing the uniqueness of the EU experiment – it is one of a kind in this world, and a project of nation states delegating their powers to an international authority. Indeed, states are no longer “independent” but they are now “Europeanised” as member states of the EU. .
Dr Christiansen reminded the audience that it was only after direct elections in 1979 where the role of the European Parliament was transformed, particularly under the leadership of Simone Veil and Altiero Spinelli who worked to expand the powers of the Parliament. Their work had ensured that today’s parliament is an equal to the Council , with the power of co-legislation l, and has a distinctive voice in EU politics, including in the external relations of the Union, developing its own track record on issues such as human rights, humanitarian aid and environmental protection.
He then touched upon the complex relationship between multi-party politics and national interests in EU decision-making. In the EU, state interests are – in principle –represented through Council of Ministers and European Council (consisting of the Heads of State and Government) while sectional interests are represented by political parties in the European Parliament. The initial emergence of pro-integrationist parties led to a coalition of these parties to ask for more power for the EP, and as the EP gained more power, politics began to shift from being about the EU to policies within the EU. As such, we can see party political dynamics within the Council of Ministers and the European Commission, where different commissions and councils would be composed of either the centre-left or the centre-right, affecting the intensity and pace of integration in the EU
However, Dr Christiansen acknowledged that all is not entirely smooth sailing in the EU. Among other things, there has been a low and declining turn-out at EP elections – which have been regarded as “second-order” – even as the EP’s powers have increased. At the same time, the unelected nature of the European Commission – a technocratic and administrate rather than political body – is a factor for citizen disenchantment.
Also, some other factors that could further exacerbate this weak link between the citizens and the EU include the general lack of awareness and involvement of EU citizens, problems with indirect accountability of national representatives, and disenfranchisement of domestic political institutions. Last but not least, the recent Eurozone crisis has led elites to dominate political decision making and to make decisions outside the institutional framework of the EU, leading to the erosion of the powers of national parliaments. In fact, Dr Christiansen argued that because of the above factors and the fact the EU is not a nation state but a supranational entity, national elites will constantly have to grapple with the problem of legitimating the EU in the eyes of its citizens – something that leaders in most nation states do not have to do.
However, there is some optimism for the future of democratic governance in the EU as it enters a period where new rules govern leadership change. The Lisbon Treaty has given even more powers to the European Parliament, strengthened the role of the national parliaments, while introducing new participatory elements for citizen initiatives. Also, there is a new dynamic for leadership change, as the amendment of text in the Lisbon Treaty has given the opportunity for parties to put up leaders for elections and to expose themselves to greater scrutiny.
Nevertheless, questions do remain about how this has an impact on politics at the EU level. Here, Dr Christiansen turned to the issue of party strategy and the individual politician’s risk calculation with regards to the bid for leadership of the various EU institutions. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the proposed citizen initiatives would be effective, as there is a strict criterion to have petitions accepted by the European Parliament – so far, only one petition pertaining to animal rights has been accepted by the EP.
In conclusion, Dr Christiansen was of the opinion that the prospects for genuine party-political choice on the leadership of the EU has now improved with these reforms, and that greater transparency and public debate about the policy options facing the EU would lead to greater engagement with the EU citizens. While the new dynamics increase the complexity of leadership change, this might not be a bad thing as it could increase legitimacy in EU decision-making.