Opinion & Analysis

We’re sleepwalking into the European elections… and we need to wake up now

The European Parliament (EP) elections are just around the corner but it seems that political leaders and prospective MEPs are hardly mobilising around the core themes that should define the campaign. Apart from the two rather generic matters of competitiveness and overregulation, the arguably more important issues of migration and enlargement are being swept and kept under the carpet. Given the crucial enlargement decisions that need to be made in the next legislature, further changes to the EU institutions and the decision-making process will be required… but there doesn’t seem to be any real willingness to advance these debates, especially with citizens themselves.

According to the Spring 2023 Eurobarometer, voters’ interest in EU elections remains limited. Overall, only half of polled individuals believe voting in European elections matters, compared to two-thirds for national elections. This already highlights a key challenge for European democracy, namely making sure citizens actually care enough to go and vote.

The writing is on the wall

The latest polls indicate a big (and to be expected) change in the EP’s composition. The Eurosceptic Identity and Democracy (ID) group is likely to become the third largest group, after the EPP and S&D, and ahead of Renew (the liberals), with the Greens only coming in sixth place. It means that the ID and ECR fractions would take over a quarter of EP seats, which would then paralyse the legislative process.

The current European Commission had great ambitions for EU reform. The Conference on the Future of Europe was a great initiative but was never really taken seriously by the Member States, and it seems to be already forgotten. Its final report, published in May 2022, only two months after the start of the war in Ukraine, is very much focused on more Europe, more EU competences, more harmonisation, Treaty changes and other legislative alignments… in effect, very inward looking. Only two of the 49 recommendations focused on external affairs.

But more Europe for foreign and security policy, and more competences in the social or health domains for example, require Treaty changes. This is a long-term effort, whereas so much else can be done much faster.

For European citizens, the most important change at EU level lies elsewhere, in promoting accountability and transparency, and in tackling corruption within the EU institutions. This all formed some of the recommendations in the 2023 Franco-German report, which also focused on issues that should be tackled before the 2024 EP elections. They included, for example, the strengthened and more stringent use of the rule of law conditionality mechanism, the creation of a dedicated Office for Transparency and Probity, and more systematic and coordinated use of participatory democracy tools. As far as this author is aware, we have not seen any declarations or actions on these or related items.

The Commission has indicated it will bring out its own report on possible reforms even though increasing accountability and transparency may not necessarily be in its own interests as it could rather end up reducing its powers.

What can and should be done now

In CEPS’ own report, ‘The Radicality of Sunlight’, we highlighted a series of reforms that can be done rapidly, with limited costs. These include, for example, immediate compliance with EU Ombudsman recommendations, access to EU documents, and the establishment of a user-friendly document register. It also advocates establishing a pan-European lobby register via an ‘EU Lobby Act’, which would include national lobbying on EU matters, alongside better protection for whistleblowers and the creation of an EU ethics body to provide truly independent oversight. Finally, it calls for improved transparency in EU decision-making, especially in trilogue negotiations.

On the accountability side, two other initiatives could be taken to enhance citizens’ involvement in EU affairs, again without Treaty changes. The first concerns the strengthening of the links between national parliaments and the EP though joint legislative initiatives, or by introducing a ‘Green Card’ system. This would bolster the legitimacy of EU initiatives.

The second would be to enhance existing participatory democracy tools. The European Citizens Initiatives (ECI), the collecting of one million signatures to request an EU legislative act on a specific policy area established under the Lisbon Treaty, has remained a dead letter. Only 10 petitions reached the threshold, and none led to any meaningful change, legislative or otherwise. To fill the gap, the EU institutions could establish a European Citizens Standing Assembly, building on existing Citizens Panels at national and European level, facilitating bottom-up participation.

One year after Qatargate, not much has been done to better protect our democracy, apart from some lofty declarations. Gaps remain in the integrity rules and enforcement leaves much to be desired. At a minimum, MEPs’ declarations of interests should be rigorously enforced. Unfortunately, the proposed EU ethics body has been scaled down to a mere advisory body with no powers of investigation.

The Commission should be proud of its achievements during the last four years. Take the renewed enlargement ambitions, the severe sanctions against Russia, the response to Covid-19 (including NextGenerationEU), the digital and Green Deal packages, and the new Migration Pact, to name but a few.

However, all these strategically crucial moves and heavy legislative files will probably not attract public praise – or even recognition – if they’re not accompanied by measures that respond to more immediate concerns, particularly accountability and transparency in EU decision-making, and the integrity of the EU institutions.

The EU needs to demonstrate it cares for and respects its voters. Right now, it appears as distant and byzantine to Europeans as it always has done. That gap needs to be closed – or we could very well be waking up to a nightmare scenario come Monday 10 June.

About the author

Karel Lannoo has been Chief Executive of CEPS since 2000, Europe’s leading independent European think tank, ranked among the top ten think tanks in the world. He has published several books on capital markets, MiFID, and the financial crisis, the most recent of which is The Great Financial Plumbing, From Northern Rock to Banking Union, 2015. He is also the author of many op-eds and articles published by CEPS or in international newspapers and reviews. Karel is a regular speaker in hearings for national and international institutions (the European Commission, European Parliament, etc.) and at international conferences and executive learning courses.

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