Sunday 3 June 2012

Europe's soul is distinctly parliamentary

The European Council has stumbled from summit to summit over the course of this crisis, and the European Parliament, despite being the most democratically legitimate EU institution, has not been the site of the central debates about how to fix the Eurozone. Nosemonkey has just written a great article on the need for more democratic legitimacy in the EU, and the ability to finally make a decision. However, I disagree with him - and the German Christian Democrats - that a directly elected president is the answer. I don't think a presidency could work in practice because Europe's soul is distinctly parliamentary.

Out of the 27 (and soon to be 28) Member States, all but France and Romania are either parliamentary republics, or constitutional monarchies with a parliamentary system. Even France and Romania are only semi-presidential. Parliamentarianism is part of the political culture of the Member States, and part of European political culture generally. In the EU system, the European Parliament elects the Commission and the Commission President - who is nominated by the European Council on the basis of which Group in the Parliament won the election, which is reminiscent of the role of the monarch in many European constitutional monarchies.

Of course, the declining election turnout for the Parliament has caused a crisis of legitimacy for the institution. Without a clear platform for electing an executive, and because European elections are second-order elections, voters have few clear political options on the European stage. Europarty primaries and common campaigns centred around a Commission presidential candidate (read: prime ministerial) might eventually change that, but it's a long hard slog and is unlikely to give the boost in legitimacy needed overnight. In contrast to this, an elected president, usually seen as a directly elected European Council president or a combination of this role and the Commission President, is a relatively simple institutional tweak, a small treaty change, and it would establish a clear leadership position for election.

I don't think it would work culturally or institutionally.

Culturally, a presidential system would present too clear of a binary choice in a continent used to coalition-building on the national level. I don't necessarily just mean the Member States used to coalition government (though many of them are), since even in parliamentary systems where there is a single-party government, parties tend to be broad churches. It also provides for a strong government, which I  believe is culturally embedded across the continent, but not government that is simply built around one person, despite the growing presidentialisation of the parliamentary system (France is a bit of an exception here, although with a strong president, there is a strong executive). Parliaments provide a space for ideological debate between political factions, and a government based on a coalition of support across a majority of society as represented in parliament. While a directly elected president may have a strong mandate on paper, I think that this would be culturally undermined by the suspicion that the presidency's interests and loyalties are too narrow, and not sufficiently representative.

A presidency would also be quite weak institutionally, since he or she would sit in the European Council as head of an institution in which he or she had no power base. Sure, whoever is elected would have greater legitimacy than the national leaders in the context of the European Council, but those leaders represent important and valid electoral interests, and will not - and should not - simply bow to a European President. The president would also lack a power base in the European Parliament, and could be politically different to the Parliament's majority. It's hard enough for cohabitation to work in France or the US without trying at the same time to build up a profile and confidence in an elected EU president. Without a natural power base around which to build coalitions or majorities for proposals, the presidency would likely dash electoral hopes raised in the election due to the inability to honour his or her manifesto. This goes back to my point about the culture for strong government: weak elected governments rarely win a second term, institutionally weak systems are rarely respected. And who would vote for an institution that cannot deliver? Is that not the argument for the declining European election turnout?

I have the personal bias of believing in parliamentarianism, but it seems to me to be the only system that could possibly work on the European level. There needs to be a broad coalition which a majority can not just buy into at the time of a momentary choice between two candidates, but generally as well. This is best done by a parliamentary coalition comprising of a majority of opinions, not a single individual. The Commission could evolve into a cabinet with a Prime Minister figure at its head.

A lot of time and effort would need to be made to even attempt to deliver this, but a presidential system is the same old attitude of tinkering with the institutional set-up when you get down to it: real work needs to be done at the local level, and only political movements - parties - running for election on common platforms can provide the incentive and promise realistic results in order to sustain this work. Which is why I believe a working Europe could only ever be a parliamentary one.


  1. Presidents are directly elected in far more than just two countries: Finland, Ireland, most of Central-Europe states. I'm not so sure that direct presidential elections only take place in a minority of states, and the fact that the president has a lot (France), few (Poland) or no powers (Finland) doesn't have much influence on the reelection of the incumbent. It's not proven.

    I think intelligent peoples get intelligent politicians, and that they know they have to elect somebody who promises only what he/she can fulfil. Will Europeans elect Che Guevara as 1st European president? I don't think so.

    The key question is how to make the Commission democratic with a Parliament that is only interested in micro-management issues and that doesn't want to assume its responsibilities. The current MEPs give me reasons to doubt that the European Parliament really wants to assert its authority. They have a comfortable situation now, I don't think they want to have any responsibility over the decisions of the Commission ever.

  2. I meant directly elected presidents in presidential or semi-presidential democracies as opposed to parliamentary democracies. I support directly elected presidents, but as ceremonial heads of state (like the Irish and German presidents). Presidential democracies and parliamentary democracies are two different models of government, and that's what I was refering to when I said (semi-)presidential democracies are in the minority among Member States (and have a lot in common with the parliamentary ones too).

    "I think intelligent peoples get intelligent politicians, and that they know they have to elect somebody who promises only what he/she can fulfil. Will Europeans elect Che Guevara as 1st European president? I don't think so."

    I'm not entirely sure what you mean by this? My point was that a directly elected executive president without a power base in the Council or Parliament would be unable to carry out his/her programme as elected. People would change their expectations and voting patterns in line with the realities of the post, I agree, but it would be along the lines of disillusionment compared to the original promise of the post, and with increasingly less connection with the post (in a similar way that the Parliament's election turnout has declined).

    A parliament becomes accountable and repsonsible when it is held to account at the ballot box. If electoral performance was linked to the Europarties policy and electing a Commission, then the EP and MEPs would act more responsibly - because they would be held accountable.

  3. I absolutely agree that the way to democratize the EU is by strengthening the European Parliament. Some months ago, I wrote a similar blogpost about the idea of a directly elected Commission President (here, in German): There is no use in giving so much electoral legitimacy to a person who, later on, will lack the correspondent institutional power. The point is even stronger with the Council President. Right now, Herman Van Rompuy doesn't even have voting rights in the European Council...

    So parliamentarism is the right way, and actually I'm rather optimistic that in 2014 the presentation of candidates for the Commission presidency will gain some media attention and eventually increase the turnout. And hopefully, some day there will be a real opposition in the EP (I also wrote about this some time ago).

  4. @Eurocentric
    You know that politologists consider France as a parliamentary regime: the French government stems from the Parliament, and a president is only powerful insofar as the Prime minister allows him to, which was often not the case, be it in times of cohabitation or not(Mitterrand / Rocard, Giscard / Chirac)..

    What I meant is exactly the contrary: people will be able to anticipate the true powers linked to this post. And don't underestimate the powers of a Commission president: the Commission president has legislative, executive, judiciary powers, as well as foreign relation responsibilities. He can be the keystone of the system.
    We shouldn't consider Barroso, Ashton and Van Rompuy as references. They don't represent what can be done at these positions, that's what History tells.

    Actually, it makes no difference to me if the president is elected directly or indirectly. I just tend not to trust MEPs and European parties to assume their responsibilities. We'll see what the EPP does in 2014. I'm not very optimistic.

    Anyways, I find the traditional opposition between parlamentarism and presidentialism outdated. All parliamentary regimes have strong presidential features, and the reciprocal is also true. The practice in Germany or Great Britain shows that there is very little difference with the French system. The German chancellor is as much a monarch as the French president, at least the current one :)

    The most important is democratic legitimacy and efficiency.

    The strength of the extremes makes it impossible to have a true opposition for now. Have you seen the first predictions for 2014 :,_2014#Polls
    Once more, we'll certainly have a Great coalition for 5 years... unfortunately.

  5. @Julien: Thanks for the link, didn't know these polls. It's interesting to see how the EPP is paying for its crisis management - interpreting this optimistically, this Europe-wide trend could be an indicator that there is some kind of a European public sphere emerging... In the past, we saw that European crises just harmed the governing parties in every European country, which, overall, meant that they didn't have much effect on the pan-European party relations. This time, however, the predominance of the EPP in all European institutions apparently makes them take most of the blame.

    In any case, you are right: I don't think either that we are going to have a true opposition after 2014. This has also to do with the fact that the members of the Commission are still nominated by the national governments, so that normally all big parties are represented among them. This means that if the EPP, PES, or ELDR decided to go into the opposition, it would have to vote against a Commission which partly consists of their own party members... But still, I'd be happy seeing them do this.

  6. @Julien

    Interesting points. I still think that the parliamentary model means that the executive is built on a broader coalition, and it does foster a different political culture (particularly regarding pluralism - presidentialism doesn't exclude pluralism in party politics, but it does encourage a two-party approach).

    As far as the Commission in general goes, a parliamentary model should eventually lead to separating the Commission from the Member States, since a parliamentary coalition would need to be represented in the Commission (I don't think there have been any Green Commissioners yet, but a PES-Green coalition in parliament might want a Commission that reflected this more). Under the current system the Commission President elect can turn down Member State nominees, though s/he would need a clear political mandate and coalition to demand candidates of a different political colours to the MS governments.

    1. I think the bipartisan bias is rather a consequence of first-past-the-post voting (UK).
      And in generally, I think politics and elections in general tend to reinforce this trend, because politics is about simplifying collective choices by making people vote on clear alternatives. Now Tunisian "left-wing" voters have realised the strength of Ennahda last year, I'm not sure they will continue to spread their votes between a wide range of political parties.
      But it is also true that presidential elections tend to reinforce this bipolarisation of politics, even in countries with "weak" presidents (Poland).

      A PES-Green coalition is easy to imagine for now, they would have to open up to other parties, but why not. Sorry to come back to France in all my post, but French presidents are more or less free to appoint anyone they want in their governments, and nevertheless they always appoint members of other parties and the civil society in major ministries in order not to seem sectarian, even when their party has the absolute majority in the Parliament.

      I don't think Europeans would vote for a politician who would commit to be the president of PES exclusively, this politician wouldn't stand the chance. I trust Europeans in this respect :)

      Finally, if you want to support an ICE in order to force europarties to have candidates for commission president, I'm all yours !