The new European Commission needs a new approach to communication with the European Citizen. After the May elections we know that the European Union became more concrete for the Citizen.
The stakes were higher for the citizen, hence the alternatives were real: on security, on jobs and the economy, on climate change and on all the other issues. That conversation should not be left to a five-year-long halt. There is a need for a new set of instruments to be developed by the new European executive.
The European Council is not dismissive of the vote. In the past member states could take decisions about the top jobs behind closed doors. This time the European Council has to take the vote results seriously: party politics entered the European Council alongside the member states traditional horse trading.
The European Union has a formateur in the person of Donald Tusk and there are representatives of three political families negotiating a compromise deal.
Political Europe is no more a dream or a second class political battleground. It is real. Shouldn’t we adapt our thinking about the European political system?
It seems 2019 should be remembered as the year when the system became more mature and everybody took the decision more seriously: the often angry or worried voters and the political leaders in the European Council and in the European Parliament.
The political colors always mattered in the European Parliament and sometimes in the European Commission. In the European Council the national interests dominate and matter more than the political affiliations. In June 2019, however, with the six sherpas charged to negotiate a workable arrangement, the situation looks slightly different.
Each of the political families in the S&D-RE-EPP coalition has two prime ministers in this set up. There are 8 centre-right, or European People’s Party (EPP), national leaders-members of the European Council, 8 are affiliated with centrist and liberal Renew Europe (RE) and 6 are Social-Democrats (S&D), while the 7th Social-Democrat shall soon join the group replacing the Danish liberal in a few days.
The rest is either independent or side with smaller political forces. There is no Green member of the European Council.
What will the process bring? The attention is given to the names and the packages, that include not only the presidency of the European Commission, but also of the European Council, the Central Bank, the European Parliament and the High Representative.
The political forces try to build up two coalitions: the progressive one and the conservative one. Should one of them be successful, we may see a change in the logic of European politics from a broad coalition of the willing to a majority-opposition logic.
This however is unlikely, as all three groups (EPP, RE, S&D) are necessary for a new Commission President to be proposed in the first place – at least 21 votes are required.
Still, the confrontation may take place institutionally with the European Council disagreeing with the concept of choosing a Commission President from among the Spitzenkandidats and the European Parliament going for a rejection of the proposed compromise candidate. The process may be delayed well into the fall.
Yet the process that started on the evening of 26 May is not limited to the names of our future leaders. There is a parallel debate about the agenda of the next Commission.
In the Parliament a group of four mainstream groups, including the Greens, seems to be setting up the European agenda for the next five years.
Some member states are holding dear their Commissioner appointees depending on the portfolio and the agenda of the next Commission. Clearly the agenda depends on the majority the next Commission President will be able to build in the Parliament and the European Council.
The question of “who” dominates the media debate. The question of “what” the Commission shall do is what the political groups focus on, lobbyists are worried about and the member states who would like to advance their national priorities. There is one more question – the question of “how”, that needs to be addressed.
With the higher turnout there is a strong temptation for the business to continue “as usual”. This temptation should be stopped. In fact, this is the biggest threat that the business continues as usual. If the Greens are able to impact the European agenda is a positive first step away from the business as usual.
There is a missing link in the European public debate between the European executive, the Commission, and the voter, also known as the European Citizen.
The relationship between the two has never been strong. The EU started as a business between states.
The process of empowering the Parliament took thirty years. The Citizen has been an object of the European interest, but not the foundation on which the European castle has been built.
The original sin of the political union as created by the Maastricht Treaty was the decapitation of significant meaning of the European Citizenship after the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty.
Today the European citizens are firstly and mostly citizens of the member states. And those states are responsible for the communication on Europe to their citizens.
Who speaks “on Europe” to the Citizens?
Our member states have fallen so massively on their job to communicate “Europe” that Brexit happened. President Juncker openly says that one of the biggest mistakes of his political Commission was to entrust David Cameron and not to step in with communication to the European citizens who are British or live in the UK.
The 850,000 British who live outside of their country were deprived of the right to vote in the 2016 referendum.
The 3,8 million EU citizens who are not British but who live in the UK not only were deprived of their right to vote in the Brexit referendum – many of them were denied their rights in the last European elections.
Who stands for their denied rights?
The next European Commission’s task is clear: there is a need to Europeanise the policy of communication on Europe to EU’s citizens. Thus far it was done better or worse by the member states.
Think the press conferences during the European Councils. Answer yourself the question if you truly expect the Warsaw, Prague, Budapest or Rome governments to provide genuine information on Europe to the citizens of EU?
The link between the Commission and the Citizen is marked also with fears in the Berlaymont HQ about the Citizens Initiatives.
There were very few of successful initiatives and hardly any has sparked a major debate or a legislative change. The instrument is weak and costs of engagement are high. It needs a re-think.
One idea how to address the missing link between the next Commission and the European Citizen is to hold townhall meetings by the new Commission President before he or she forms the College or delivers a document known in the EU jargon as the political guidelines for the next Commission.
How amazing would it be for the new Commission President to talk to Citizens, not lobbyists, in Trier, Donostia, Douchy-les-Mines, Mielec, Kos and Ružomberok about their problems, about their challenges and worries. Before the EU agenda is set for the next period. Before we draw the lines of EU competences and national competences. Before it takes 17 months on average to legislate a proposal.
Europe will have a new leader. His or her legitimacy is going to be double, stemming from the Parliament and the European Council, but the direct link with the Citizen cannot be limited only to the act of voting once every five years.
About the author
Piotr Maciej Kaczyński is a trainer on the EU decision-making and a blogger on the 2019 EU elections He is also a member of the European Commission’s Representation in Warsaw Team Europe.