There​ has been much hand-wringing, even a sense of political panic, since the European elections. ‘Anti-establishment’ parties now occupy – so it’s said – a third of the Parliament. But there is a world of difference between Ukip, which just wants to be done with meddling foreigners, and what in essence are anti-austerity, but not anti-European, parties such as Syriza or Podemos. To call them all ‘populists’ is lazy, or even a wilful ideological distortion. Rather than recognising that the main European conflict – between austerity and its enemies – is now properly represented in the only meaningful continent-wide assembly, the anti-populist mainstream is doing the very thing it accuses the populists of doing: declaring its opponents an illegitimate opposition, morally beyond the pale.

This is all the more surprising given that the elections had been intended both to politicise and ‘personalise’ Europe in order to boost the legitimacy of European integration. This spring, the European ‘party families’ crowned ‘leading candidates’ (now even in the English-language press regularly referred to as Spitzenkandidaten, as if having an official contender for a top job were some bizarre Teutonic ritual) for the position of president of the European Commission. ‘Choose who is in charge of Europe’ was one of the slogans designed to get people to the polls. In the event, many voters chose to tell the elites that they don’t like the direction, or even the existence, of the EU. But this shouldn’t necessarily be alarming if politicisation was the aim. There was never any reason to think that people would rush out to ratify the EU as it currently operates and whistle the ‘Ode to Joy’ on the way home from the polling station. Yet it seems that only Jürgen Habermas, still the most prominent defender of the EU on the left, has seen the positive side, his position summed up by Occupy’s slogan from a different moment: this is what democracy looks like.

Or does it? There are at least two problems with this somewhat Panglossian reading of the election result. As Peter Mair pointed out, European voters tend to register their opposition to the EU in the wrong forum. The European Parliament doesn’t decide the shape of the Union as a whole; that is determined by the treaties negotiated by member states. To be sure, a vote for Ukip or the Front National can still have an effect. Mainstream politicians are now falling over themselves to please Europeans whom they take to be nostalgic for the certainties of the self-contained nation state. The French government has cancelled plans to allow non-European residents to vote in local elections; Iain Duncan Smith is trying to drum up support for restricting freedom of movement within the EU. All over the continent, we are told that topics such as immigration shouldn’t be left to extremists. According to this logic, of course, the extremists get to dictate the political agenda: if they want to talk about the ‘Roma problem’, we will all have to talk about the ‘Roma problem’, and not about deindustrialisation or discrimination in Hungarian schools. Mainstream politicians are fooling themselves if they think they can satisfy voters with rhetoric or policy proposals stolen from the far right. People will always prefer the original, especially if the original remains pure because it has never had to compromise.

The second problem with thinking the election result represents an outbreak of democracy is that citizens will not, as they were promised during the campaign, get to choose what the website of the European Parliament calls the ‘EU government’. The Lisbon Treaty contains no such promise. Instead, the decision lies with the European Council, the body comprising the heads of government of member states, which merely has to ‘take into account the elections to the European Parliament’. In the name of making the EU as a whole more democratic, savvy political entrepreneurs like the Social Democratic Spitzenkandidat Martin Schulz wanted the Parliament to assert its power to decide the president of the Commission – not just to consent to the Council’s choice, as envisaged in the treaty. For a while, everyone went along with this useful fiction: even Angela Merkel, reluctant as usual to have her choices constrained by inconveniences such as a popular vote, eventually agreed to declare Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, the leading candidate of the Christian Democrats. ‘Presidential debates’ were held in French, English and German (all of which both Juncker and Schulz speak fluently). Juncker came across as exactly what he is: not ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’, as the Sun has it, but a veteran of EU consensus politics who, as head of the Eurogroup, has presided over austerity policy for many years and always seems mildly irritated by intrusions of the people into politics. His party family, the European People’s Party, came out on top in the elections.

Just after the elections Merkel tried to wrest power back from the Parliament by claiming that Juncker was indeed capable of implementing her party’s agenda, but so were many others. But the only constituency that ultimately counts for Merkel – the Germans – didn’t like this manoeuvre. The chancellor was treating European voters like children who had got to play democracy in the sandpit for a bit, but now the adults were back to make the real decisions. So now she is backing Juncker again – only to find herself up against David Cameron’s threat that the appointment of a supposed arch-federalist makes the UK’s exit from the EU more likely.

The stand-off makes for high drama, but it will probably be resolved in the time-honoured way of the EU: a backroom deal that allows everyone to declare victory. The real question is whether the Union can afford a power struggle between the member states and Parliament after every set of elections. The masses won’t be marching in the streets for Juncker, but now that the expectation that the people have a say has been created, reneging on democratic participation will be damaging. This is Tocqueville’s point: the most dangerous moment for any regime is when it starts reform and thereby raises hopes.

Where to go from here? One possibility is for the elites to tell the people, sorry, we didn’t really mean it. Yes, Europeans get to choose who is in charge but, as before, only indirectly, by voting for national governments who will then compromise on a candidate for Commission president. This, defenders of the status quo would say, is what democracy looks like in the EU. The alternative is to get real about European elections. This wouldn’t mean turning the EU into a federal state, but it would require a single European election law; Spitzenkandidaten would need to be on the ballot everywhere in Europe; and there would have to be genuine European parties or party families whose leaders didn’t commit fratricide before or after an election (Labour disowned Schulz even before his candidacy was announced). As a second best, voters should have the option of transnational ballots: if my preferences happen to align perfectly with the Slovak party Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, why shouldn’t I be able to vote for it? Because there is no ‘European people’ as such and we need to continue to divide up parliamentary representation by nation state? But that is already done in the European Council.

There is a further problem, however. The Commission isn’t quite an ‘EU government’ and Brussels is certainly not like Westminster. It is true that the Commission president has some leeway in policy-making, which is why ‘politicising’ the Commission is not a quixotic idea. But as things stand, the president does not get to pick his commissioners, so there is no such thing as coherent cabinet government. More important, the Commission, as well as initiating policy, is supposed to be the impartial guardian of the European treaties and to enforce them. This is what lies behind the cliché that Brussels is ‘remote’ and ‘bureaucratic’. A more directly political Commission would have to split off from that part of the EU machinery that is precisely meant to have these qualities.

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