The European Union finds itself in a contradictory situation in advance of the European Parliament elections in May.
On the one hand, the levels of support for the EU are higher than they have been for 25 years. 62 per cent of EU citizens have a positive view of their country’s membership of the EU; this is as high as 81 per cent in Germany. On the other hand, the departure of the UK sees a country leaving the Union for the first time. On the one hand, the 27 remaining states have shown great unity in the Brexit negotiations and unanimity in their defence of Ireland. On the other hand, the Union faces deep divisions over the question of accepting refugees and migrants.
In 2018, economic growth in the EU was 2.1 per cent, but at the same time, the inequality between rich and poor is growing. On the one hand it is evident that the challenges currently faced in the areas of climate change, immigration, energy, tax and bank regulations cannot be met by individual states in isolation. On the other hand a new nationalism is growing, and the EU is under attack from Eurosceptic populists. At least the fate of Europe is today being discussed in much broader, more engaged terms than it was only a few years ago.
The most important event for the EU in 2019 will be the elections to the European Parliament to be held from 23 to 26 May, in which 340 million citizens are entitled to vote. There is nothing to compare with the European Parliament worldwide; nowhere else is there a supranational institution that functions as a directly elected parliament. Every change to the treaty has expanded its spheres of competence. The proportion of the EU legislation passed with the full co-determination of the European Parliament is now almost 50 per cent.
On the other hand, the European Parliament is itself part of the democratic deficit of the EU. The first direct elections to the European Parliament took place almost 40 years ago, but the European elections are still run along the same lines as the national elections, and their European legitimacy remains limited, especially since the citizens only vote for national parties. These do join together in the European Parliament to form Europe-wide coalitions, but they have no direct connection with the population.
This may be an explanation for the fact that the participation in elections has fallen continuously since the first elections in 1979, when the level was 62 per cent, to 42 per cent in 2014. But as the only body directly legitimized by electors, it is and remains the most important instrument for stronger democratization of the Union. It is therefore worthwhile to fight for the European Parliament and develop concepts for improving it.
In a time when multilateralism is being called into question, Europe’s hour has come. The Union represents an example of how the major problems of the 21st century can only be overcome by supranational cooperation. A prime example of this is the combination of ecological and social issues. It is hoped that the forthcoming European elections will see a high level of participation and a strengthening of the pro-European parties. In order to achieve this, the EU needs Europeans with strong convictions, who are prepared to defend their positions against their detractors.
Martin Maier SJ