Europe’s Political Transcendence

This month, European citizens will head to the polls to select the 751 members of the European Parliament to represent 507 million people. The way the election campaign has unfolded marks a small but significant step in the emergence of the first transnational political space in European – indeed, world – history.

To be sure, the European Parliament elections have been bringing smaller shares of voters to the polls: 43% in 2009, compared to almost 60% in 1978-1994. Nonetheless, the participation rate over the last decade is comparable to average turnout in American congressional elections. Given the perceived remoteness of the European parliament and widespread frustration with the European Union’s bureaucracy, the level of participation and the movement toward transnational politics is remarkable.

The transnational nature of the election is stronger this time because the major pan-European political parties have, for the first time, nominated specific candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, and the candidates are campaigning, including in televised debates. The European Council, as mandated by the Lisbon Treaty, will have to take into account the election results in selecting the candidate to put forward for parliamentary endorsement.

The campaign for the Commission’s presidency may turn out to be as significant as the final selection. The first debate, held late last month, included Jean-Claude Juncker of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Green Party’s Ska Keller, Martin Schultz of the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and Guy Verhofstadt of the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats. Alexis Tsipras, representing the Party of the European Left, is expected to participate in the final debate this month.

All of the candidates spoke flawless English – though the debate was translated into 16 languages. Given the United Kingdom’s reservations about European integration, it is somewhat ironic that English is playing such a critical role in facilitating the creation of a transnational political space.

The debate attracted significant social-media attention, with tens of thousands of tweets on the subject reflecting the passion that some Europeans – especially the younger generation – feel about Europe’s political evolution. More generally, while public interest in the campaign remains far below that seen in national political contests, it has become stronger than in recent pan-European elections, despite the rise of nationalism and Euro-skepticism.

In this context, it would be strange if the European Council tried to nominate the Commission president without regard for the public’s response to the campaign. And yet there is a risk that the selection process becomes no more than an exercise in political horse-trading, with Council members awarding leadership positions, including seats on the Commission, purely on the basis of national political considerations. Such an approach would deal a powerful blow to the citizens who took their European ballot seriously – and to the credibility of the EU as a whole.

Could this really happen? Or has the transnational European space – however young – already grown to the point that it cannot be ignored?

Much will depend on the election results. First and foremost, the participation rate will be critical. If it were to fall below the 43% attained in 2009, the Council could more plausibly argue that the preferences of a decreasingly interested public can be largely ignored. A substantial increase, however – say, toward the 45-47% range – would make it much more difficult to ignore the outcome of the campaign.

The relative performance of the pan-European parties will also matter. If, for example, the Socialists won 215 seats, compared to 185 for the EPP, the substantial difference would make their leader, Martin Schultz, a very strong contender, even though no party came close to an absolute majority of 376 seats.

If the outcome turns out to be closer, with a difference of only five or ten seats between the two top parties, it could be argued that neither of the leading candidates had “won.” This would give the Council more space to consider an “outside” candidate (for example, Pascal Lamy, who is closer to the center left, or Christine Lagarde, who is closer to the center right, both of whom are extremely experienced European policymakers whose names have already been raised in the media).

To bolster the legitimacy of such a move, the Council would have to select the candidate more closely associated with the party that gained more votes, however narrow the margin. Moreover, an outside candidate must be likely to generate backing by a sufficiently large coalition in the parliament. Alternatively, with neither of the larger parties able to declare real victory, they could decide as a compromise to indicate preference for one of the other leaders who had campaigned – perhaps Verhofstadt, the liberal centrist.

As Jean Pisani-Ferry has explained, despite the European Parliament’s substantial – and increasing – power, it cannot be the central actor in Europe’s economic-policy debates in the short term. Real decision-making power will remain largely national.

But, given the parliament’s position at the center of a nascent transnational European space that could, over time, transform Europe’s politics and help the continent overcome resurgent and dangerous chauvinism, this first European election with a transnational flavor should not be ignored. When they meet on May 28, European leaders would do well to encourage the strength of European institutions by choosing both competence and legitimacy.