The first-ever debate between the candidates for the European Commission’s presidency late last month failed to provide a compelling reason for Europeans to participate in June’s European Parliament elections. Instead, it exposed some inconvenient and embarrassing truths about the bloc’s political system.
For starters, there is nothing distinctly European about these elections. Voters across the European Union will cast their ballots on different dates: Dutch citizens will vote on June 6; Irish on June 7; Czechs, Slovaks, Latvians, and Maltese on June 8; and the rest on June 9. Moreover, different electoral laws apply, with the voting age set at 16 in Austria, Belgium, and Germany; 17 in Greece; and 18 in the remaining EU member states.
Moreover, the EU lacks a pan-European political-party system. Instead, voters cast their ballots for candidates selected by national, rather than European, parties. Although most national parties participating in the EU elections are affiliated with European political parties like the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), or Identity and Democracy (ID), the latter remain relatively obscure and unfamiliar to the average voter.
In fact, national parties are not required to join any of the existing European parties, and even when they do, they rarely highlight their EU affiliation on national ballots. Consequently, these “europarties” are loose extra-parliamentary coalitions of parties from multiple member states. Not many German voters, for example, realise that when they vote for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), they are also indirectly supporting France’s Les Républicains, Italy’s Forza Italia, and Poland’s Civic Platform. Similarly, how many Italians know that by voting for Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, they are also backing Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party and Spain’s Vox at the EU level?
This structural problem is compounded by the lack of pan-European public opinion. Even though member states cooperate on an ever-expanding list of issues like economic policy, climate change, and security, Europeans primarily receive information about EU developments from domestic sources.
These accounts are inherently biased, frequently misinformed, and generally misleading, partly because national politicians tend to deflect blame by scapegoating the EU. Unsurprisingly, most MEP candidates focus their campaigns on national rather than European issues.
Consequently, the EU lacks a political environment capable of fostering a truly transnational space for pan-European policy debates. Such spaces should exist both within and outside EU institutions, enabling citizens to understand, influence, and participate in decision-making that affects their shared interests as Europeans.
Simply put, the EU is in dire need of a shared political identity. As former Italian Prime Ministers Enrico Letta and Mario Draghi recently noted, the absence of such an identity makes it harder for the EU to address its defence, immigration, and environmental challenges.
The recent debate in Maastricht, which featured current European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and several leading candidates vying to replace her, underscored these structural flaws. Despite marking Von der Leyen’s first public questioning since assuming office, the debate failed to capture the interest of EU voters, attracting only about 15,000 viewers.
The debate also showed that these aspiring Commission presidents, including Von der Leyen, might not ultimately be chosen. That is because selecting the commission’s president requires a dual majority, first from the 27 EU leaders who nominate the candidate, and then from the European Parliament’s 705 (soon to be 720) members.
Moreover, there is no consensus among the major European parties on whether the presidency should automatically go to the candidate of the party that receives the most votes. This was the case in 2014 with Jean-Claude Juncker, the lead candidate for the EPP, but not in 2019, when Von der Leyen was handpicked by EU leaders who chose her over the election winner, Manfred Weber, also from the EPP.
In fact, the only requirement imposed on EU leaders when selecting their presidential nominee is to “take into account” the results of EU elections, reflecting the new political majority in the incoming Parliament. If European leaders try to install a Commission president who lacks support from voters, Parliament should uphold this rule and reject their choice.
Such a scenario, while unprecedented, would hold EU leaders accountable for their decisions, demonstrating to the average EU voter that their vote matters. It would also ensure that the political direction of the next European administration is determined by the electorate, as is the case in every other parliamentary system. Ultimately, only a citizen-driven EU, accountable to its elected legislature, could possess the capacity and mandate to tackle the bloc’s many current and future challenges.
— Project Syndicate
  • Alberto Alemanno, Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris, is a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.