Opinion Koen van Zon

Biggest flaw in EU democracy is lack of political debate

The European elections are just around the corner. Democracy in the EU has shortcomings, but the EU has mostly lacked political debate in recent decades. It is good that this is changing.

In June, more than 400 million Europeans will have to go to the polls again for ... yes, what exactly? If you do not know what European elections are for, it is not up to you. For a long time, a vote in European elections was mainly a vote for the EU. That tide is turning, and that is a good thing. Because European elections should not be a celebration of European unity, but a battle between political visions.


With European elections, we elect our representatives to the European Parliament. But they were not always so. Like so many European decisions, they were a compromise. In the 1970s, the European Parliament called for more democracy in the European Community, with itself at the center. Member states wanted to give in to elections, but prevent elected MEPs from calling the shots in Brussels. Thus, in 1979, the first European elections were a reality.

European elections still work at their core as they were conceived at the time, with all their shortcomings. They have little influence on the formation of the new European Commission.

Moreover, it is the European Commission that comes up with a new policy program, not the parliament. This means that European parties cannot make election promises, nor can they be judged on them. To the extent that there is an election battle, it is fought nationally.

Pro or con

The result: elections that few were really hot for. This is not surprising: for a long time, the European Parliament was mainly about the technical rules that applied in the European market. There was hardly any question of political struggle. European elections therefore became primarily a survey of the popularity of the EU. The higher the turnout, so it was thought, the greater the support. And judging by the turnout figures, it declined for decades.

The obsession with EU support turned European elections into a kind of referendum: are you for or against the EU, do you want more or less Europe? This flattened the political debate on the EU, and populists eagerly exploited it.

The forum

Compare it to House of Representatives elections: it would be absurd to ask whether you are for or against the Netherlands, the question is which Netherlands you want. After all, the survival of the EU is no longer an issue. It survived the financial crisis, refugee crisis, Brexit, Corona crisis, is still standing as a block behind Ukraine and is tackling the climate crisis.

The EU will not succumb to crisis; on the contrary, it is the forum to address the great challenges of our time. Even radical right-wing politicians recognize this. As much as they rail against Brussels, they also see opportunities to reform the EU from within - with stricter asylum policies, toned-down climate ambitions and a more pro-Russian stance.

Fair debate

The chances of the EU taking a sharp pull to the right as a result are high. But it does make these European elections about fundamental issues, and that is basically good news for democracy in the EU.

Democracy in the EU remains imperfect. Yet the trend of disinterest in European elections seems to have reversed: in 2019, turnout increased for the first time in 40 years. It is up to politicians and the media to do justice to this growing attention. After all, democracy in the EU thrives on open and honest debate about political visions, not on a flat-out for or against.

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