This year's State of the Union speech of Jean-Claude Juncker may be seen in retrospect as momentum for change in Europe.
After years of economic decline and disappointment, the EC president was for the first time able to send a strong message that resonated positively throughout the European media. His 'uni-vision for Europe' aim to close the gap between Western Europe and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe may be far-fetched. But his promise to strengthen the democratic legacy of the EU in addition to further economic integration is a promising sign, signaling the rise of a Europe that better listens to its citizens and better reflects the realities of its communities.
"Our Union needs a democratic leap forward. Too often, Europe-wide elections have been reduced to nothing more than the sum of national campaigns. European democracy deserves better. We should be giving European parties the means to better organise themselves," Juncker said in his State of the Union speech.
Even the European institutions admit that the EU’s citizen petitioning system, the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), has not brought the hoped-for success in its first 5 years. Only 50 initiative have been started, and only 4 have gained the required 1 million signatures. Similar issues surround the EU's direct democracy tools: the lack of proper European parties and cumbersome party financing are just two of the issues stopping citizens from putting greater trust in the EU.
Alberto Alemanno, an academic and co-founder of the Good Lobby initiative for civil lobbying, reflecting on the package, told Liberties: "In line with Juncker’s speech, the Commission seems to suggest that the time has come for the EU to focus less on policy and more on politics, by possibly involving a greater number of citizens, both at the electoral box and at the civic level. Furthermore, if the ECI reform nurtures participatory democracy by making it more citizen-friendly, the Funding of Political Parties proposal carries the potential to strengthen representative democracy in the EU space."
What may come
ECI reforms, including lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, promise to make it easier for citizens to start or support initiatives by introducing more digital tools and by lifting burdensome requirements. The EC also took for itself the right to decide about ECIs at political level in order to speed up and streamline acceptance of the citizens' initiatives. As a consequence, only the "Stop Brexit" initiative was declined, since it clearly falls outside the scope of the regulation. Citizens will be able to have their initiatives translated for free and be able to vote with eID cards. A unified and simplified upload page will also be launched, and a free online data collection service will be provided for organisers. Lowering to 16 the mandatory age to support an initiative will add up 10 million potential supporters from the most tech-educated generation.
According to Alemanno, however, "None of these proposed reforms alone will be able to address the civic empowerment gap characterizing the EU decision-making process. However, they will both potentially able to create an enabling environment for citizen-driven agenda-setting – via an easier access to ECI – and a more genuine EU political representation by lowering the barriers to entry for new European Political Parties. To realize the latter, however, the Parliament and the Council will have to complete their reforms of the composition of the European Parliament and that of the EU electoral law."
Still, says Alemanno, ECI reforms do not address the elephant-in-the-room question, currently epitomised by the Glyphosate ECI campaign: What happens when an ECI overlaps with an ongoing EU decision-making process? How would the 1 million signature play a role in an ongoing comitology decision? The Glyphosate campaign suggests that it is no longer credible to argue that an ECI and day-to-day decision-making are ships passing at night.
Real European parties
With the EU’s 'constitution', the Lisbon Treaty, the possibility to bring to life truly 'European parties' became a reality. However, until now the party families of the EP are patchworks of national parties sometimes binding together political groups with only distantly similar agendas.
From this aspect, not much has changed since the 2014 introduction on the regulation on the statute and funding of the European political parties and political foundations, even though it aims to increase the visibility, recognition, effectiveness, transparency and accountability of European political parties. The Juncker Commission therefore aims to pass the amendments before the 2019 EP elections in order to bring the much-needed change.
But problematic issues, like individual members of the same national party sponsoring the creation of different European parties, remain. Another crucial problem is that the current distribution of EU finding for European parties is not sufficiently proportionate to the size of representation achieved in European elections. To tackle both true representation and fair funding issues, the EC proposed to increase the percentage of funding that is allocated based on the real vote share from 85% to 95%. Today, 15% of funding is shared between all parties, regardless of the number of voters they represent.
Alemanno says that the proposal on funding of political parties is a reminder that Article 7 is not the only weapon the EU has to push back on rule of law backsliding by countries like Hungary and Poland. This regulation foresees an oversight mechanism – now further strengthened – of EU political parties’ compliance with EU fundamental values. While currently overlooked, this mechanism represents a powerful sanction mechanism that should be used more. Still, when around 30% of MEPs belong to European political groups whose parties are perceived or acting as populists (e.g., Hungary's Fidesz party belongs to the EPP group, Syriza and Podemos to the Greens-EFA group, UKIP, AfD and M5S to the EFFD group), its use is clearly still a no-go.
No magic recipe
No rational EU citizen should have overwhelming expectations about the above-listed steps, though none of them is overly ambitious. However, after years of the Commission having to defend itself, its president was able to send a positive signal that aims to keep together the EU, and at the same time offer new ideas to cut the democratic deficit of the Union.
As Juncker put it: "We need European parties with a genuine European dimension and with the means to make a difference."