May 25, 2019

How the European Parliament transcends the nation-state

By Barend ter Haar.

As the famous attention experiment (see YouTube) shows, we might not notice a gorilla that clearly stands in front of us. For comparable reasons, most of us might not yet have noticed that the European Parliament has developed into a powerful and ground-breaking political experiment.

Why haven’t we noticed? An important reason is that the transformation of the European Parliament has been a gradual process, not a spectacular event such as Brexit or the introduction of the Euro. But the most important reason is that national governments, national political parties and national news media have a shared interest in maintaining the illusion that the important decisions are still made in national capitals, not in Brussels or Strasbourg. 

In reality more and more decisions are taken at the European level. That is not the result of a sinister power grab of Eurocrats, but because national governments over and over again come to the conclusion that a problem can be most effectively dealt with at the European level. Sometimes this is mainly for practical, internal market-related reasons (e.g. to avoid that member states have different standards for food safety); sometimes because the transboundary character of a problem requires it (e.g. climate change) and sometimes because the alternative to standing together is to fall apart (e.g. in the relations with China, Russia and the United States). As European cooperation thus widened and deepened, the role of the European Parliament grew step by step.

All this is work in progress and whether this trend will continue cannot be predicted. But so far, the European Parliament has become far more powerful than most people realise. In addition to that, it is entering uncharted waters in the way it represents the European people. 

Intergovernmental bodies, such as the European Council, are based on the assumption that governments will promote their national interest, not the interests of their party, and that within their countries there is broad agreement about what these national interests are. The reality, of course, is quite different. The current debate in England about Brexit makes this very clear.

In reality, the interests of most people do not neatly fall together with the supposed national interests of their country. It is, for example, perfectly possible that a member of a national Green party feels more closely connected to the green parties in other countries than to the conservative parties in his own country. The current system of nation-states leaves little room for such multiple identities, but the European Parliament does. Although its members are still elected on a national basis, by nominating lead candidates (‘Spitzenkandidaten’) for EU Commission President on the basis of political group rather than nationality, it recognizes that political views on fundamental issues such as justice, peace and sustainability transcend the borders of nation-states. Your vote in the coming European elections can therefore really make a difference.

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