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What the EU can learn from the US presidential race

, by Marian Schreier

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January 2014. Just two days before the first presidential primary, Georgios Papandreou, the former Greek Prime Minister, gives an interview in front of a beautiful scene, the ancient harbour town of Valletta, the Maltese capital. The Maltese frontrunner accuses his strongest rival, the Danish Prime Minister and EU-wide frontrunner, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, of “parachute campaigning.” Papandreou, who announced his campaign for the President of the European Commission at the foot of the Acropolis with an inspiring speech, built his campaign around the leitmotif “A more democratic Union”.

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His competitor Thorning-Schmidt, by contrast, put the common European history centre stage while her campaign kick-off at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin. At the moment, it seems like the race has narrowed down to these two candidates after the ex-prime minister of Spain, José Luis Zapatero, suspended his campaign. But still, many pundits argue, the primary of the Party of European Socialists is far from being settled because Tony Blair could enter the race late. Maybe until the ‘Super Sunday’ in late April, when Germany, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria hold their primaries, the race will remain highly contested. Whoever becomes the Socialist candidate, he or she has good chances of beating the conservative incumbent, President José Manuel Barroso, in the general election in autumn 2014.

After the first primary elections in the US, it is time for a European, or in more concrete terms, a European Union perspective on the US presidential election and in particular the primary season. The lion’s share of European countries and citizens are not used to the notion of (open) primary elections, which is mainly a reason of the predominant political system, notably parliamentary democracies.

With the exception of France’s system of government, which combines elements of a parliamentary and a presidential system and therefore is considered to be a semi-presidential system, all EU member states are parliamentary democracies. Thus, the majority in the Parliament elects the head of government who, in the most cases, is the leader of the winning party. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, only a few parties choose their leader/candidate by a closed or open primary. Still, the method of choice is an old-fashioned party congress.

If primary elections seemingly don’t fit the national circumstances in Europe, what about the European Union? Why not adopting the US model for the next EU election cycle in 2014, as sketched out in the beginning?

At the moment, the European Council proposes a candidate for the President of the European Commission, who has to be approved by the majority of the European Parliament. The candidate, as laid down in Article 17 of the Treaty of the European Union, should ‘reflect’ the result of the latest European Parliament election.

After their heavy defeat in the 2009 European Parliament elections, the Party of European Socialists came up with the idea of a closed primary to choose their candidate for the EU top job, President of the European Commission, in 2014 . A first step, but not really a viable solution for the often bemoaned democratic deficit of the EU because it is, yet, a member-state driven process.

The key is a combination of two independently discussed ideas. Firstly, the direct election of the Commission President, as was recently suggested by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel . Secondly, primary elections for the candidates in the two major political parties: the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists.

How could these two measures benefit the EU and ‘reduce’ the democratic deficit?

In 2011, the European Union was nearly featured daily in the headlines, but not in the hearts and minds of Europe’s citizens. Still it is perceived rather as an economic or administrative actor than a political player. This is chiefly due to a lack of a truly European political discourse and visible political competition at the EU level.

With the two intrinsically interlinked proposals, at least three things would change.

First and foremost, the yearlong process, from the first primary in January until the general election at the end of the year, would lift European elections up from second-order to first-order elections. By the same token, the political parties would pay more attention to EU issues and, accordingly, invest more political and economic capital. As a result the focus on EU elections would shift from national issues, as seen in the recent cycles, to European topics.

Secondly, the intensified political competition and visibility of European Union politics would most probably lead to a higher turnout. In 2009 only 43 percent of the eligible voters casted there ballot for the European Parliament election, marking an all-time low.

Finally, primary elections in conjunction with the direct election of the Commission President could spark the much needed European discourse. Or as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas put it in his recent book “On Europe’s Constitution” , it could recalibrate the European project “as a down-to-earth, noisy and argumentative exchange of opinions in the public sphere!”

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