European governments, citizens have voted – now respect their vote!

, by Daniel Matteo

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

European governments, citizens have voted – now respect their vote!

Only two days after the European elections, the 28 heads of state and government will meet in Brussels for an informal dinner. It is not unlikely that they will also debate who should become the president of the European Commission.

After all, according to the Lisbon Treaty it is up to the European Council, the national governments, to nominate a candidate to the European Parliament. Although they need to take the elections ‘into account’, it is clear that some interpret this as ‘taking note of the elections, but going ahead and picking someone that all of the 28 governments can live with’. But this would be deeply undemocratic: in a democracy, it is the citizens who decide, directly or indirectly, who should govern them!

In a democracy, citizens are to chose their government.

The candidates for the next European Commission president understand this. But the problem is this: within the European Council, there are some who would prefer to agree on the next president in a backdoor deal – or over dinner. Herman van Rompuy has recently suggested that citizens knew that it is not the European Parliament, but the heads of state that ‘really decide’ who will become the president of the European Commission. We could not disagree more. It is doubtful that citizens are aware of the institutional intricacies of the European Union. But every citizen of a democracy has an intuitive understanding of a basic democratic principle: that it is the people who chose their government. Elections matter because they determine who should govern – and, importantly, who should step down.

Unfortunately, some governments share the president’s narrow, legalistic interpretation – one that is not in line with the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty. The German chancellor has pointed out that there is no ‘automatism’ between the European elections and who will become Commission president. Ms. Merkel is right, of course: the political groups in Parliament will now have to try and form a coalition and find a majority to support their candidate – this may or may not be a majority for the candidate of the leading party. In any case, the majority candidate should be the first to try and form a coalition and it is one of the candidates that should become the next Commission president.

But if the Chancellor is to suggest that there are other equally important factors beside the result of the elections that the 28 governments need to take into account, this should come as a surprise, especially to her electorate. After all, it is not gender, place of birth or sympathy, but the vote of German citizens that is the determining factor behind who becomes German Chancellor. And it is not the prime ministers of the 16 German Bundesländer who pick a Chancellor after the general elections, but the Bundestag, the representation of citizens. If it had been the 16 regions to decide, the Chancellor might not have found the majority to stay in power. Good for her and good for democracy.

After all, it is not gender, one’s birthplace or sympathy, but German citizens’ vote which determines who becomes German Chancellor.

United Kingdom: striking parallel with the Lisbon Treaty

A plausible objection could be that whereas Germany is a democracy, the European Union does still not have the constitution in place that would provide for a democratic link between the people and their government. Not only would this be a slap in the face for efforts to democratize the EU. It would also contradict democratic practice in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, it is the Queen that proposes a Prime Minister to the House of Commons. She has to take the general elections into account, but in a strict, legal sense, there is nothing in the letter of law that requires her to propose a majority candidate; these are striking parallels to the Lisbon Treaty.

The Queen could have proposed a Labour candidate and not Mr. Cameron after the last elections (it is therefore ironic to see that the British Prime Minister belongs to those who are sceptical towards the new selection procedure). The Queen did not, of course, because there was no majority for Labour, but more importantly because it would simply have been a scandal. The Queen would have ignored the will of the people and violated a democratic convention. In the same vein, it would be a violation of a democratic principle if the European Council ignored the will of European citizens.

Democracy goes beyond the borders of Nation-States

Van Rompuy, Merkel and Cameron are probably not the only sceptics… Why is it that some do not acknowledge this fundamental principle? Is it because they are starting to realise that the Lisbon Treaty has strengthened the voice of citizens and their representatives in the European Parliament – and they now want to claw back their power? Or is it because they do not have the foresight and courage to understand that democracy can work beyond the nation-state? Whatever their reasons, if governments decide to go against the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty in the coming weeks, they risk more resignation amongst citizens and an even lower turnout in the next elections. National governments may be causing it, but all that ordinary citizens see is that ‘Europe’ or ‘the EU’ is making a fool of them. They were told that ‘this time, it’s different’ and they watched the candidates’ TV debates – only to see that the elections were a charade?

They were told, “this time, it’s different”, they watched TV debates ebtween candidates, only to realize that elections were a joke?

At a time when trust in the European institutions is waning and the democratic model is contested by extremists in Europe and autocrats all over the world, European leaders have a unique opportunity. Only if they have the vision and courage to support a European democracy now, will they rally the support of citizens that Europe needs to be successful in the 21st century. In the coming weeks, democrats in all parties should support the European Parliament in its negotiations with the European Council, and call their government to respect their vote.

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