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The European Union as a whole is more popular than its institutions
Despite the rise of fringe parties and populists, many voters still appreciate that the European Union is “necessary”, writes Tim McNamara.
‘We now live in interesting times’. The supposed Chinese curse seems to be never more apt for those interested in EU politics. 

There is undoubtedly a groundswell of anti-political sentiment across the EU. The political parties of the supposed mainstream have performed badly and the populist fringe parties seem to have benefited. Yet there is evidence that many feel that the EU as a whole is a necessary thing despite its perceived flaws. Despite the apparent disconnect between the EU’s institutions and its citizens. 

In many respects the consequences of the 2014 European Parliament election will not necessarily play out in Brussels but in the individual Member States over the coming years. The onward march of parties such as the UK independence party (UKIP), the French Front National (FN) and the Danish People’s party (DPP) often says more about domestic politics in their own Member States than it does about the validity of the EU. 

The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, may have made a long political career out of pasquinades concerning the EU, but his party’s appeal also resonates with those who feel they have been left behind by a rapidly changing economic and social model. Farage, Le Pen et al understand that the disaffected once roused can be politicised rapidly and motivated to vote. 

Whether the leading ‘dog whistle’ appeal is immigration, unemployment etc. etc. is irrelevant. Once they have been mobilised, a loose coalition of ideas based upon nation, a mythical view of the past, a return to economic certainty, covert xenophobia and trust in politicians becomes an attractive unique selling point to a significant minority. 

Yet a large majority of those elected as MEPs are members of parties that support the EU project and still believe that coordination, cooperation and sometimes legislation at the EU level is necessary in this increasingly globalised world.

Recent polling by the Pew Research Center in seven countries (including six of the most populous) i.e. France, Germany, Greece Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK serves to draw out the manifest contradictions that have arisen in the European parliament elections. 

Those who have a favourable view of the EU has risen from 46% to 52%. Whilst those who believe that integration has strengthened their economy has also risen from 26% to 38%. Yet 71% believe that their voice doesn’t count and 65% believe that the EU does not understand the needs of its citizens. Whilst 63% believe that the EU is intrusive and 57% believe it to be inefficient. 

Another major contradiction is between the concept of the EU as an idea and the European institutions themselves. Fifty-two percent of those polled were in favour of an EU. Yet only 36% had a favourable view of the Commission,  34% a favourable view of the Parliament and 30% for the European Central Bank.

Allied to the election results, what these results speak to is a belief in the idea of a European polity and a concurrent alienation from the established political processes and institutions of the EU. 

It is difficult to see how the Commission, as a bureaucracy,  can be made more relevant to peoples’ lives. Beyond enhanced consultation on its proposals and greater transparency in its ways of working (probably best achieved on-line), by its very nature it mainly carries out the (boring) day-to-day management of the EU’s policies. Although greater accountability for European commissioners to national parliaments would also be a good start.

For the Council of Ministers, national politicians have too often used the EU’s institutions and their workings as a fig leaf to cover up their own hand in unpopular decisions at the EU level. Complete transparency of Council voting, greater scrutiny by national parliaments and a far greater degree of political honesty by Government ministers would help.

The greatest challenge is to the European parliament, how does it make itself relevant in the eyes of voters? How does it have a far greater connect with national parliaments and national parliamentarians? How can national parties exert their influence in the periods between European elections? The European parliament has to find a way of integrating national parliaments into the parliament’s processes and structures.

Whilst the Lisbon treaty introduced the concept of the yellow card system for national parliaments, one third of parliaments (nine) can force the Commission to reconsider a legislative proposal on subsidiarity grounds. The EU through treaty change needs to give national parliaments a red card system also, were legislation can be blocked completely.

Consideration also should be given to a second chamber of the European Parliament made up of MPs on a pro rata basis to add greater national democratic legitimacy. It would not need to sit in Brussels but exist on a virtual basis with national parliamentarians remaining in their capital cities. There also needs to be much greater cooperation and coordination between MEPs and national parliaments. Possibly giving observer rights and speaking rights for MEPs in legislative second chambers. 

The apparent contradictions between democratic accountability, national sovereignty and treaty-based European law are manifest, yet greater strides must be made to break down the structural barriers to greater ownership of EU processes by voters through national parliamentarians. 
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.
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