Barroso’s quiet democratic revolution

Nieuws | de redactie
6 december 2012 | Heightened debate in the EU is not a sign of crisis. On the contrary: “contestation and polarisation of opinion are crucial conditions for the emergence of a public sphere”, says the new Maastricht professor Michael Shackleton.

Discussion on the Greek debt situation might just be a good thing. That’s a conclusion one can draw from Shackleton’s inaugural address as Special Professor in European Institutions at the University of Maastricht. Shackleton: “There is no need to fear challenges from society to the EU’s institutional framework: they are not indicators by themselves that the system is dysfunctional.”

More likely to vote

“The Lisbon Treaty saw the addition of a small but significant phrase.  As before, the European Council is called upon to propose a candidate for President of the Commission but in future it has to do so, ‘taking into account the elections to the European Parliament’.” The role for the European Parliament has increased, it is now to be seen how assertive the EP will act.

In the European Parliament people recognize that choosing a Commission President, may be a way in which the decline in average turnout – that has marked each successive election since 1979 – can be reversed.  A survey carried out for the Parliament earlier this year found that 54% across the EU would be more likely to vote at the 2014 elections if the European party alliances put up candidates for Commission President.

Obliged to present their visions

“The proposed change is designed to alter the dynamics of European elections”, professor Shackleton said in his inaugural address. “The candidates for Commission President would be obliged to present their visions of Europe in advance of the elections, rather than to present them afterwards in the weeks leading up to their election by the Parliament. I doubt whether many people in this room read – and if they read it, can remember – the programme presented by President Barroso in the summer of 2009 when he sought re-election in the Parliament.” 

“In 2014 his successor will have to present an equivalent document to the general public across the whole European Union in advance of the Parliament elections, will be obliged to defend it in the face of competing programmes of other candidates and will find her or himself reminded of what they wrote during their five year period of office.  The accountability of the Commission President could therefore be significantly reinforced, making it more difficult to argue that Europe is run by unelected bureaucrats.”

A research agenda for the coming years

Is there a European public sphere? Michael Shackleton thinks there is, albeit a different kind of public sphere than in the European member states. “If you observe empirically the extent to which national media refer to what other countries say with regard to European issues, the degree to which foreigners are perceived as legitimate participants in national debates of common European concern and whether issues are addressed as concerning Europeans as a whole, rather than individual countries, you will find reasonable evidence to conclude that particularly for issues that are highly sensitive politically, and in most of mainland Europe, the criteria of relevance are converging and thereby contributing to the development of a European public space. The UK however remains an exception.”

Shackleton: “The Barroso proposal provides an ideal testing ground for many of the ideas that are discussed in the academic literature.  It provides a fertile research agenda for students here at Maastricht over the next couple of years to see if we can indeed witness the development of a stronger European public space.  A few questions from such an agenda will suffice to make the point:

  • How will national parties across the EU respond to the candidates put forward by the European parties?  What, for example, will the British Labour party say if a German PES candidate for Commission President argues for a financial transaction tax?  Will it ignore her or him or modify its own position?  
  • What attention will national media pay to the different candidates, especially when in most countries they will be “foreigners”?     Will there be debates between the candidates designed to bring out their different conceptions of the future of Europe? 
  • Will the candidates themselves be willing to profile themselves in a way that shows up their differences?  Or will they be bound by rather bland manifestoes drawn up by the European parties?  And how will they relate to the MEP candidates of their political family?
  • How will national governments respond?   Are we right to assume that they will be very reluctant to see a European public space emerge as it will create something over which they have very limited control, what I might call the Charles II syndrome? 
  • And what about citizens?  Will they be more willing to vote at the European elections because of this change, as the poll conducted for the European Parliament suggests they will?   Will it change their attitudes to the EU?  Will it enable them to see the importance of the EU for their future?  Will it make them feel that they have a stronger input into what is decided at EU level?

 You will find the complete inaugural address here.

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