FRANKFURT – European elections seem to follow an all-too-familiar pattern; when the European Union’s citizens are called upon to express what they think, they simply do not show up. Despite the Spitzenkandidat experiment, under which European top-runners were supposed to compete for the most important EU job – the presidency of the European Commission – voters did not feel mobilized.
This should come as no surprise. According to the most recent EU-wide opinion poll, 58% of EU citizens do not believe that they can influence EU decision-making. Similarly, the marked gains made by far-right political parties in the just-completed European Parliament election were no great shock. These groups have been able to capitalize on the economic and social pain felt in many EU member states, especially given that the majority of Europeans are unconvinced that the worst is over.
Moreover, right-wing populist parties took advantage of growing public frustration with the EU itself. Many European citizens oppose the idea of “more Europe,” the mantra of EU traditionalists in the two major party families, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats.
The influence of widening disparities between the EU’s affluent “North” and the stumbling “South,” with France in the middle (but heading south), was also evident. And the massive prosperity gap between “old” and “new” EU member states continues to determine voting patterns.
So what happens next? Unfortunately, the European Parliament election results have made us none the wiser. As in the past, the top EU jobs will be distributed as part of a package deal, negotiated behind closed doors by the member states’ national leaders. Whether the conservative EPP-backed Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, will get the job for which he has long been running remains uncertain.
Indeed, there is a clear risk that EU leaders, fearing change, will maintain their business-as-usual attitude more broadly. For example, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to launch a comprehensive reform agenda has not been well received, mostly owing to the perception of Cameron as a Euroskeptic troublemaker.
What is certain is that the outcome of the European Parliament election is bad news for supporters of deeper EU integration, which would require shifting more power from the member states to the supranational level, and for supporters of further EU enlargement. There will be neither a new and leaner European Treaty nor a conclusion of accession negotiations with Turkey, let alone an offer of membership talks with Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova.
Supporters of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) also should prepare for bad news. Statements by new MEPs, EU officials, and national governments indicate that so many items have already been removed from the negotiation agenda, or declared non-negotiable, that it is difficult to see how such an ambitious free-trade agreement can be reached at all.
Nonetheless, there remains a way forward. Europe needs, and its people are demanding, more public control and accountability. The paramount task is to concentrate on a broad, and long-overdue, reform agenda that includes solutions that are both simple to achieve and do not require changes to the European treaties.
This means establishing a better balance between EU and national responsibilities; fully respecting the subsidiarity principle (according to which the EU should act only if a problem cannot be resolved at the local, regional, or national levels); improving the efficiency of spending and channeling it toward growth and job creation; reducing bureaucracy through better legislation; easing regulatory and administrative burdens; and enhancing transparency in every aspect of EU decision-making – from the Commission to the European Parliament.
The same goes for the economic reform agenda. The goals upon which the EU was founded include not only peace in Europe, but also the promotion of the welfare and prosperity of all of Europe’s citizens. And here, the EU confronts a huge delivery gap. Though the EU has given itself an ambitious competitiveness agenda, it has not seriously – or even coherently – sought to follow through on it.
Moreover, the EU is confronted with formidable foreign-policy challenges. The EU’s ambition to become a global player on an equal footing with existing and rising powers is neither understood by EU citizens nor viewed as credible in policy terms, as demonstrated by the reemergence of the United States as a decisive European player. The EU will need to align better its internal and external policies and cannot concentrate solely on the former.
Europe’s agenda for the next five years must aim high, particularly on reform and delivery. That would go a long way toward assuaging EU citizens, including those in the United Kingdom. Rather than reflexively bashing Cameron for his calls to reform so that the UK does not leave the Union, EU leaders need to win Britons’ hearts and minds.
Instead, Europe’s heavyweight national leaders – including Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – are engaged in the usual horse-trading over who gets which EU positions. The much wiser approach would be to agree on policy priorities first and jobs later. It is always better to find the right person for a job than to find the right job for a person.