Department of Political Studies - University of Catania

Jean Monnet Chair of European Comparative Politics

Jean Monnet Working Papers in Comparative and International Politics


Fulvio Attinà

University of Catania

Strategies for democratising multi-state systems and the European Union

November 2000 - JMWP n° 28



The issue of building democracy in a multi-state political system is examined in the first section of the paper. Three options for multi-state democracy are analysed in this section. The introduction of the three options in the history of the European integration process is analysed in the first section in relation with the debate on the reform of the European institutions. The second section analyses how the reform of the legislative process of the European Union has enhanced the role of the European Parliament and political parties in agreement with the third option of multi-state democracy. The third section examines the debate on the role of national parliaments in the European Union as an instrument of the first and second option of multi-state democracy. In the last section of the paper, the issue of the accountability of the EU executive is analysed as the crucial issue of the third option of democratisation of the European Union.

The fulfilment of traditional functions of the state such as steering the economic growth and protecting citizens from crime and law-breaking organisations is endangered by the globalisation process and allowed by organised international co-operation. Globalisation forces the states to enter into organisations of international co-operation. Such organisations have either the form of world-wide regimes (like the trade regime run by the WTO and the monetary regime run by the IMF) or the form of region-wide organisations. The object of regional co-operation is either trade and economy or a wide spectrum of areas and fields. In the former case, mostly represented by Europe, the co-operating countries may establish formal structures of government and give birth to a multi-state political system[1]. The European Union is the first and foremost advanced experiment of multi-state political system which provides public goods to citizens by producing regulations and policies. Like all political systems, the European Union has the goal of efficiency and democracy. ‘What democracy for a multi-state system?’ is in fact the great question of today’s Europe.

Political scientists praise the European Union for the role it has in democratisation because the admission of new members to the Union is dependent on compliance with the European standards of the liberal, representative democracy. This is true for Central and Eastern Europe countries today as it was in the 1970s and the 1980s for Southern Europe countries. However, the importance of the European Union in the third wave of democratisation is not limited to pro-democratic external influence and the endorsement of new democracies [2].

For political scientists concerned with the analysis of democracy building, the European Union itself is an interesting and complex case to study because it is a democracy in progress. The common belief is that the European Union cannot undergo democratic control because the political system of the supra-state level is not rooted in the common identity of the subjects (Chryssochoou 1998; Weiler 1997). Such a way of reasoning pertains also to scholars with a strong background in political economy and public policy analysis (Majone 1996; Scharpf 1999). But, the reform process of the European Union carried out with intergovernmental conferences (IGCs) and treaty revision does not support the theory of the suspension of democracy beyond the state level. On the contrary, the long process of institutional and procedural reform has been concerned with the instauration of democracy in the European multi-state system and some positive results are on the account of this process. The institutional and procedural changes introduced by the Single European Act, the Treaty on European Union and the Amsterdam Treaty, in particular, have been also aimed at extending the participation of the people's representatives in the process of making collective binding decisions. The assessment of these reforms is not all negative in terms of democracy requirements. But, political scientists and constitutional law experts never anticipated the introduction of legislative procedures such as the co-operation and co-decision procedures nor supported them as viable and effective decision-making instruments at the time of their introduction in the EU policy-making. The good performance of these procedures in making legislation for the Europeans and the correct inspiration of the IGCs negotiators have not been deserved with the appreciation of the analysts as they merit. Shortcomings and obstacles, instead, have been under the spotlight.

The present study is concerned with the inconsistencies of the democratic model of the European Union but also attempts to redirect the study of the European Union democracy on the ground of the past development. The analysts of democracy in the European Union have to put the democratisation process in the right perspective and deal with it as it has been developing for the past thirty years. In particular, they have to take into account the multi-state democracy experience acquired by the whole system and the Union-builders’ ability to customise state-level democracy mechanisms to the multi-state system specifications of the Union.

Democratising multi-state systems

Forced to adapt to globalisation and to make common regulations and policies within the frame of a multi-state political system, national governments create institutional arrangements to achieve the primary goal of economic co-operation. In the early phase of this co-operation, concern for democracy is not a priority. The popular legitimacy of co-operation is originally seen in terms of the efficiency of the outputs. Especially in the early stage, integration is built up with prudential norms, experimental arrangements and contingent solutions which leave the requisite of democracy on the side. As co-operation proceeds, institutional arrangements are changed and adjusted to the expectations and wishes, firstly, of the member governments and, subsequently, of other political actors. To comply with the obligations of the integration process, governments and parties aim at balancing efficiency goals with democracy requirements.

            To achieve the goal of multi-state democracy, three options are available. These options are:

         - to control the supranational institutions by national democratic means;

         - to build up specific mechanisms of democratic control at the supranational level;

         - to create the democratic mechanisms of the nation-state in the multi-state (multi-level and multi-nation) system.

An option can be chosen by a government, a political party and any collective actor as its strategy for achieving democracy in the multi-state system. Different strategies can be made as well by a combination of distinct elements of the three options.

The first option has many, sometimes vociferous, advocates in the European Union. They want, for example, all the important decisions of the supranational institutions to undergo the scrutiny and approval of the legislative assemblies of the member countries. Ratification by national institutions is the most important mean of this first option. In addition, the actors most keen on this option want the most important decisions of the European Union institutions to receive the direct approval of the national public by referendum. Political actors of the European Union - notably French, British and Danish political actors - want to go further with this option. They propose to give the national parliaments direct access to the preparatory phase of the supra-state level of decision-making. To democratise the Union, the law-making national assemblies must be admitted to the law-making process of the Union. According to this option, the European Union is a consociational democracy in which each pillar/state is a unitary actor, represented by the national government at the level of the central institutions. Political parties have no role in such a multi-state democracy. The European Parliament is a second-rank institution with no real capacity of unitary representation of the European demos because not one demos exists but as many demoi as member states. For example, according to Dehousse "the experience of parliamentary federations shows that party affiliation and representative logic are not properly speaking incompatible”, but party logic could be counterproductive in such a system because “in the event of a conflict, the former tends to gain the upper hand over the latter" (1995:129).

The second option has been the main road to democratise the European Union and is also the most favoured strategy today. The margin between this and the remaining options, however, is becoming narrow. Increasingly, political actors propose strategies of EU democratisation that bring together elements either from the first and second option or from the second and third one. The co-operation and co-decision procedure, the rotating mechanism of the Presidency, the creation of the European Ombudsman, the revision of the budget procedure, the rules of transparency of the Council meetings are examples of measures created by the EU governments and institutions to build up a multi-state democracy of its own. So far, this strategy, brought forth by the imagination and experience of Europeanists, Eurocrats and Euro-politicians, has proven to be a good one but not to the point of eliminating the problem of Euro-democracy. Inventing specific mechanisms of democracy of the supranational level could never be the final solution because the member countries have their own experience of democracy and the European publics want to see their experience respected also at the supranational level (Blondel, Sinnott and Svensson, 1998). The second option necessitates, at least, the injection of elements taken from the third one.

Third option can be achieved by measures embedding the democratic mechanisms of the nation-state into the multi-state system. Similarity among the democratic traditions of the member countries is the preliminary condition to make this option concretely available. The European countries have such a preliminary condition because they all share the same view of representation mechanisms, citizens (indirect) participation and rulers accountability by competition and co-operation among intermediary collective actors (the political parties) who represent the interests and will of the citizens. Briefly, they all are first and foremost party democracies. Future enlargements will not endanger the democratic consistency of the European Union members as accession of new countries takes place only after a due period of democracy apprenticeship. However peculiar (or sui generis) the political system of the EU is, the political development of the Union depends on the assimilation of the representative/party democracy tradition by the supra-state level institutions.

It must be added that political parties are by no means the only sort of intermediary group in today's European democracies. Various categories of groups and agents represent citizens before public officials. The transformation of the Welfare/interventionist State into the post-welfare/regulatory state (Majone, 1996) has brought important consequences to the intermediary organisation practice between ruling institutions and the public. The situation is even stronger in the European Union. The growth of interest groups in the life of the European Union and the working of its institutions has been very long in the past and it has preceded the growth of party politics (Greenwood and Aspinwall, 1998; Mazey and Richardson, 1993). In these circumstances, the political parties are no more the privileged and predominant agents of representation and democratisation as they have been in the past. However, there are specific aspects of the role of political parties in representative democracy not affected by this transformation. In particular, political parties are distinguished according to the role they play in structuring electoral choices (making platforms and, especially, nominating candidates), forming government and taking responsibility for the conduct of public policy.

The conditions that set the role of the political parties in the European Union are examined in this article. The next section of this article looks at the role that political parties have in the government structure of the present European Union. The issue of reforming the role of national parliaments in the European Union is examined in another section. The last section proposes to go ahead with a reform process of the European Union which gives the European Parliament and, indirectly, the political parties a fundamental role of political control on the executive of the Union.

The political parties in the EU institutional arena

Political parties were thrown into the political arena of the European Community at the time of the first Euro-elections on June 1979. Eight years later, on July 1987, the European Parliament took on the role of co-player of the common legislative process in a number of selected areas. The transformation was brought by the co-operation procedure which was introduced by the Single European Act. With the coming into force of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the Parliament's role in making EU legislation was strengthened with the right to co-decide in a new list of selected areas. The Maastricht Treaty also extended the cases of the use of the assent procedure (created by the Single Act) by giving the European Parliament the final power of decision on a small number of subjects. With the coming into force of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, the power of the European Parliament has been further increased. The Treaty revised the co-decision procedure and enlarged the use of the co-decision and the assent procedure.

In addition, the nomination procedure of the President of the Commission, which was introduced by the Maastricht Treaty and reformed by the Amsterdam Treaty, is the initial instrument to build a direct political relation between the Members of European Parliament (MEPs) and the European Commission. The Maastricht Treaty article no. 158 gave the Parliament the power to approve the new Commission nominated by the President who, in turn, is nominated by the national governments by common accord and after consulting the European Parliament. The Treaty of Amsterdam article no. 214, instead, gives to the Council and the Parliament the power to nominate the Commission President. Since the Parliament role in the nomination process is not only an advisory one as it was in the Maastricht reform, it is expected that party competition in the European Parliament and the Union will go a bit further than it did after Maastricht. To reach such a result, the EP Party Groups have to commit themselves to exerting political control on the Commission and obtaining respect to such a commitment from all the member parties. This goal is achievable through further reforms of the Union such as those dealt with in the closing section of this article.

Institutional factors are of great importance in determining party politics at the Union level. So far, party integration has been achieved for the effect of the choices made to reform the EU institutions rather than for the decisions of the party leaders. Party integration has taken a step forward at the time of the institutional and procedural reforms of the European Parliament which have been mostly a deal of inter-governmental and inter-institutional negotiations. The impulse to party integration given by such political choices as the direct European elections and the new decision procedures are a good case in point. In general, the European political parties were not interested in the making of these choices. The relation between parties and democratisation at the European Union level has this unusual pattern: democratisation brings political parties into existence as players of political actions rather than the other way round.

The EU system of government consists of an executive sub-system and a representative sub-system. In this respect, the European Union is not different from other political systems with articulate democratic structures. But, the relationship between the two sub-systems is unique in the case of the European Union. Unlike democracies with parliamentary forms of government, the European Union is characterised by lack of political accountability between the executive and representative sub-systems. This feature does not imply that the Union is a presidential as opposed to a parliamentary form of government because the executive sub-system of the European Union does not account to the electorate either. Removing such an absolute state of electoral unaccountability on the part of the executive is an important step in the road to democratise the European Union. A serious obstacle to such a reform is the fact that the Council exercises executive and representative (of the states) functions at the same time.

The consequence of such relationship among the EU institutions is that, unlike parties in any democratic system, the Euro-parties do not compete for the control of the government but merely for influencing the deliberations of the Parliament. More precisely, the major goal of political parties at the Union level is to achieve majority voting on legislative acts which must be approved with absolute majority (i.e. by the assent and co-decision procedures). Notwithstanding the political relevance for the policies of the Union, such a goal does not require the party groups to elaborate and defend a real competitive strategy in the Parliament. On the contrary, the European Parliament is able to achieve its legislative role only on condition of playing down party competition and building up large convergence of party groups on legislative voting. Therefore, despite the importance of the legislative role of the Parliament brought by the new decision procedures, Euro-election campaigns are silent on the legislative responsibility of the MEPs because of the absolute majority requirement and not only because European elections are left to the responsibility of national parties - as explained by the second-order election theory (Reif, 1985).

Briefly, a vicious cycle has been installed by the legislative co-decision procedure. By playing the legislative game of the co-decision procedure, the European Parliament Party Groups have a governing function of the system but they cannot take electoral responsibility for that function because such a function is exercised by large coalitions. And vice-versa, by abstaining from presenting themselves to the judgement of the electorate as responsible co-legislators, Party Groups perpetuate the absence of the European electorate and the presence of as many European electorates as member states (Smith, 1996; Van der Eijk and Franklin, 1996).

To account for all the aspects of the picture, it must be added that an extremely high degree of party discontinuity is the persistent character of party politics in the European Union. This character is defined by the coexistence of the following elements: (a) the Party Groups of the European Parliament act as cohesive collective actors and (b) a party system has materialised in the European Parliament (Attinà, 1990; Bardi, 1996; Hix and Lord, 1997; Raunio, 1997; Thomassen and Schmitt, 1997), but (c) the creation of the Party Federations and Party Groups has narrowed the distance of the Euro-parties from the national parties only in a small proportion. It is also true that party politics is discontinuous by nature in all multi-level (and federal) systems. However, for the viability of these systems and the sake of linking the people to the executive of multi-level systems, discontinuity and division of labour between the political parties of the different levels must be mixed with a certain degree of cohesion and interaction. This is vital also for the European Union because two complementary conditions apply at the same time (Hix and Lord, 1997: 18): national parties 'are too small to organise themselves individually to influence the outputs of EU institutions' which are important to their electorate; the Party Federations and Party Groups 'make no direct contact between society and EU governance' with negative consequence on the legitimacy of the system.

The National Parliaments in the EU institutional arena

From the mid-1980s, the role of the European Parliament, the only arena of party (imperfect) competition in the European Union, has been attacked by the supporters of the argument that democracy must be restored by giving more power to the national parliaments.

Calling the national parliament to take vigorously up its role of control on the national government in Community matters has been a constant and widespread self-assigned mission of certain national deputies in the member states. But, the renaissance of the national parliaments has been claimed also in the view of amplifying their role at the supra-state level. During the last ten years, this claim has been gaining ground. In the 1992 and 1997 reform processes, it resulted in two Declarations appended to the Maastricht Treaty and one Protocol annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty. The Declarations and Protocol call for new arrangements concerning the representative institutions of the European Union and the member states. As past institutional reforms affected party integration, new arrangements of the parliament politics of the European Union could also affect the democratisation of the Union and the role of the political parties.

In 1989, regular meetings of the EC committees of national parliaments along with the European Parliament, known as COSAC (French acronym for Conférence des Organes Specialisés dans les Affaires Communautaires) were established on the initiative of the French Presidency. COSAC meets every six months in the country holding the Presidency and consists of delegations of up to six members from each member state drawn from the European Affairs Committees (of both chambers where that applies) of each parliament and six members of the EP. The delegations are not mandated and the conference proceeds always by consensus.

In November 1990, a Conference of Parliaments was held in Rome, bringing together more than 300 members from all 20 chambers of the Parliaments of the Member States and from the European Parliament. The Rome Conference of Parliaments had the aim of influencing the Intergovernmental Conference which brought up the Maastricht Treaty. In fact, national parliaments received official recognition in the Declaration no. 13 on the “Role of National Parliaments in the European Union” appended to the Treaty. In addition, Declaration no. 14 on the “Conference of Parliaments” invited the representatives of national parliaments and the European Parliament to meet “as necessary” and stated that the “Conference of Parliaments” will be consulted on the “main features of the European Union”. The Conference has never met since the Declaration has been issued. COSAC, instead, has continued to meet as a place for exchanging information on issues of common concern, with little support for it to assume a broader, decision-making role - at least, until the Amsterdam Treaty has been issued.

In preparations for the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference, proposals were made, particularly emanating from the French National Assembly, for the creation of a new European parliamentary body, partly or entirely composed of national parliamentarians. The French proposal raised more opposition and disapproval than consent. National parliaments in Great Britain and Denmark agreed with the French proposal but with an important qualification. In terms of democratisation strategy, the French proposal was in line with the 'second option'; the British and Danish proposal was in line with the 'first option’. In fact, the French proposal aimed at strengthening the collective role of the national parliaments in the European Union. The Danish and British advocates, instead, aimed at strengthening the individual national parliament scrutiny of Community’s legislative procedures. In recent times the British government has changed position and taken the lead of the campaign for giving the national parliaments a collective function in the European Union. This function should be fulfilled through a new parliamentary body of the institutional structure of the European Union composed of the delegates of the national parliaments.

However, the Protocol 'on the role of national parliaments in the European Union' of the Amsterdam Treaty seems respectful of the 'second option' of democratisation because it gives no formal role to national parliaments in the EU decision-making process. It concedes that the transfer of information from the European to the national level, in particular the transfer of all Commission consultation documents and proposals for legislation, must be improved. This is a minor concession to the 'first option'. The Protocol recalls that scrutiny by individual national parliaments of their own government in relation to the activities of the Union is a matter for the particular constitutional organisation and practice of each Member State. For this reason, the transfer of documents will be made according to their nature: green and white papers and communications shall be directly sent to the national parliaments, the legislative proposals will continue to be forwarded to the national legislature via the national governments. A period of six weeks shall elapse between a proposal being made available in all languages to the European Parliament and the Council by the Commission and the date when it is first placed on the Council agenda for decision. COSAC is recognised by the Protocol as a body with the right to make contribution to EU policy making by commentating on proposals and initiatives in relation to the area of freedom, security and justice, the area of the application of the principle of subsidiarity, and the questions regarding fundamental rights. The contributions of COSAC will neither bind the EU institutions nor prejudice the position of the national parliaments. On the whole, the Amsterdam Protocol is ambiguously situated between the first and second option.

The Protocol on the role of national parliaments was hardly a surprise to the European Parliament. In the "Resolution on the relations between the European Parliament and national parliaments" (A4-0179/97), issued on June 1997, MEPs made a proposal very similar to the content of the Protocol. The 'introductory considerations' of the Resolution are as important as the measures advocated by the MEPs. Three considerations are pointed out here. First, MEPs see distinctive and complementary roles for the European Parliament and for the national parliaments in strengthening democracy in the Union. They affirm that the former has the role of controlling the actions of the other EU institutions and bodies; the latter have the role of controlling their own national governments acting in their EU capacity. Second, MEPs affirm that the case for close co-operation between the European and national parliaments should not further complicate the institutional structure of the European Union. Third, the MEPs see two facts at the heart of the current EU democratic deficit: (a) qualified majority voting in the Council has been introduced in a considerable number of legislative areas where individual national parliaments are sidelined in the decision-making process and the European Parliament has not power of co-decision; (b) neither the Council nor the European Council can incur any ultimate political censure, since no vote of confidence in them is possible either in the national parliaments or in the European Parliament.

It must be emphasised that the solutions proposed by the European Parliament clearly separate the tasks of the parliaments of the two levels. The task of the European Parliament is to control the EU institutions through (i) the extension of the co-decision and assent procedure and (ii) the strengthening of the EP role in the appointment of the President of the Commission and the Commission as a whole. The task of the national parliaments is to scrutinise EU institutions from outside, i.e. without imposing on these institutions any obligation. No measure of collective role of the national parliaments, beyond that assigned to COSAC, is supported by the EP resolution.

In the present institutional structure, the role of the national parliaments in the EU decision-making process lies in scrutiny and advice at the state lavel. When allowed by national laws and practice, that role is also to oversee and control over the national government’s action in the Council (Norton, 1996; Wiberg, 1997). The national parliament exercises such a role according to the constitutional and political context of the country. On this point, Judge (1995: 82) is right in mentioning factors like the 'location of the parliaments at the interstices of national political controversies and concerns', the 'conceptions of sovereignty' within the state, the territorial organisation of the state and the degree of commitment to deepening integration. On the same point, Bergman (1997) proposes to explain the variation of scrutiny by European Affairs parliamentary committees across the member states through research on five variables: public opinion, national political culture, existence or absence of a domestic federal constitution, the rules governing parliament-executive relations and the evidence of strategic action. However, critics say that national parliaments have been marginal or residual in dealing with Community affairs and also prevalently negligent about their formal role of control over national governments. This criticism does not apply to all the parliaments and at all the times. Parliament scrutiny was rather ineffective in the past (Williams, 1991), but since the mid-1980s national parliaments have been making important changes to their procedures concerning the examination of Community issues. Norton (1996: 179-182) signals three main changes: greater specialisation of the parliamentarians, greater activity of the parliament committees and some attempts to integrate MEPs into their activities. Some of the parliaments of the member states have turned to be very active and strong on EU affairs, especially after the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty. Today the French National Assembly and the German federal parliament have their leverage on EC affairs. They can pass resolutions on draft EC laws. But, the ardent defenders of the role of the national parliaments invoke the diffusion of the so-called Danish model of parliament oversight. As known, the Danish model consists in the decisive - though not formal - power of the European Affairs Committee of the Folketing. The Committee gives the national government a mandate before important decisions are taken by the Council of Ministers. Sidenius, Einersen and Sorensen (1997) explain the Danish model 'by the presence of minority governments which has made it imperative to current governments to inform and to take the opinion of the committee into careful consideration' (p.27). Beside this factor, the small size and mono-cameral nature of the Danish Parliament must be taken into consideration to understand why this model works rather well despite the complex and cumbersome EU decision-making process which discourages any regular exercise of mandate control of the parliament on the national government.

It must be acknowledged that the debate on the role of the national parliaments in the decision-making process of the European Union draws attention to a critical aspect of the present discontinuity of the European political system. As multi-level political system, the European Union has the problem of the relations between the governmental and political institutions of the different levels. Multi-level (and federal) systems use different means to regulate inter-institutional relations, to give legitimacy to their institutions and to make democratic decisions. Certain instruments (like elections and inter-governmental procedures) work well only on the condition that non-institutional actors (like political parties) also work well.

The levels of government of a federal system are somehow discontinuous systems and the institutions of the distinct levels are independent from one another but co-ordinated with one another. Discontinuity and independence are essential conditions to make the multi-level system works according to the requisites of both the individual level and the whole. But also cohesion and coherence must be respected. In this regard, common political identity and the will to stay together and obey the common political authority structure are essential components of the system. In addition, it is important that specific actors bring that will to the consciousness of the policy-making institutions. It is the function of collective actors - mainly of political parties - to collect the different popular aspirations and needs across the levels of the system. Moreover, it is their function to produce programs of coherent governmental actions to achieve the aspirations of the largest numbers of citizens of the whole system. For this reason, the decisions of the central institutions cannot be made only by the representatives of the governments of the member states because, as such, they are loyal to defend above all their state interests. Central decisions must be made with the essential participation of the representatives of the collective actors that have elaborated unitary views after debating the problems of the different levels.

The Rome Treaty is clear on this point. It gives the Commission rather than the representatives of the executives of the member states the task of fulfilling the Treaty norms, that is the task of initiating legislation and monitoring the implementation of Community decisions by the state and sub-state administrations. The Treaty of Rome identified an executive (i.e. the Commission) not coincident with the institution of the executives of the states (the Council). Since the signature of the Treaty, the control of the national governments on the Commission has been growing but has not curtailed the role of the Commission. At the same time the representatives of the people of the member countries (MEPs) have been given the power to interact with the Commission and examine its legislative and executive actions.

It has been proposed to increase the popular control of the Union decisions, by giving the national parliaments a formal role in the EU decision-making process. The enhancement of the role of the national parliaments will lower the obfuscation of the role of the Commission which has been made at the advantage of the Council and the national governments who are not politically responsible in their capacity of high-rank players of the EU decision-making process. But to accept such arguments and to give to another actor of the state level (i.e. the national parliament) access to the decision-making process of the Union level makes such a process fully dependent on the veto of the single unit. On the contrary, the need is to achieve the goal of strengthening the role of the collective actors of popular representation and making the institutions of the different levels of the Union co-operate with one another. In such a perspective, it is not wrong to call upon national parliaments to have a major role in the European Union, but the right attribution of role must be made. This is the point of the proposal made in the next section which is concerned with the fundamental issue of the accountability of the executive of the Union.

The Election of the President of the Commission

Parliaments are multi-function institutions. Among other functions, they make laws and control the executive. These are the most important functions of the parliaments of the European model of democracy. Can national parliaments be called to perform such functions also at the supra-state level of the European Union? With regard to the legislative function, it has been argued that the formal participation of national parliaments in the making of the EU legislation brings the risk of blocking EU decisions on any occasion of conflict at the national parliamentary level. Moreover, the burdensome nature of such a measure is evident. With regard to the function of control and supervision of the Commission, this function pertains to the European Parliament as the body of popular representation of the Union. There is no reason to allow national parliaments to share all that power with the European Parliament except for that political control of primary importance that has been given to the European Parliament in a small but growing size in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties. This is the power of the Parliament to nominate the Commission. Appropriate reform steps must follow and make the Commission more directly responsible to the Parliament than it is today. At the same time, national parliaments may be admitted to share such a power with the European Parliament.

The rationale to join together the European and national parliaments in the election of the Commission President is manifold. First, it is to appoint this important political figure with the direct participation of all the major assemblies of political territorial representation of the European Union. Such an arrangement will increase the legitimacy of the Commission. Second, the goal of integrating political parties across national lines is reached by allowing them to co-ordinate the action of the national parliaments in the nomination of the Commission President. Third, "opacity" will be removed from the selection of the Commission President without taking off the national government from the selection process.

In the present situation, the European Parliament votes on the candidate of the Council after this institution has completed a run of obscure inter-governmental negotiation. The Amsterdam Treaty has changed the investiture procedure but the change may have no fundamental results. As Hix (1997) has demonstrated with the analysis of the Parliament voting on the Commission President in 1994, MEPs voted according to national government majority lines rather than EP Party Group lines. This is not per se an 'un-democratic product'. The 1994 Commission President was elected by an ad hoc majority of the European Parliament reflecting the government majorities in the national parliaments. In other words, it was elected by the majorities of the separate European electorates. Given the "second-order" nature of the European elections, given the nature of the relation between EP Party Groups and national parties and given the discontinuous and complex nature of EU party politics, such a result is not a surprising one at all.

Let us elaborate on this discontinuity. At the EU/EP level, national parties behave according to EU/EP rules, practices and goals. At the national (and sub-national) levels, they behave according to the national (and sub-national) rules, practices and goals. The investiture of the Commission President is made by two institutions (the Council and the Parliament) which have different rules and goals of party competition. Party competition is not actually present in the Council but is present "behind" all the members of the Council, in the government-opposition competition at the national level. Party competition in the Parliament, instead, has its own forms. It cannot be expected that party competition in the European Parliament annul party competition in the national government arenas. The opposite cannot be expected either. From the point of view of the Union in general, the real problem is to lower party discontinuity. From the specific point of view of the investiture of the Commission President, the real problem is to make the election procedure transparent in order, firstly, to make it an issue for the European and national electorates and, secondly, to make the EU executive accountable to the people. In addition, with the present election procedure of the Commission President, national minority parties are not involved in this important event for the life of the Union. They do not propose candidates nor make platforms on this occasion. By giving the national and European parliaments and their parties the power to propose candidates, the opacity of the election is eliminates and party competition on the selection of the executive is put before the European electorate.

It must be stressed also that identification with the political system and support to political institutions are achieved in Europe if certain principles of democracy are respected. The political responsibility of the government to the people is one of such most sought principles. In the political system of the European countries, this responsibility is based on the role of the political parties in between the government and the majority of the people. The government is elected by the majority and detains the office until it has the consent of the majority of the electorate. In the presidential or semi-presidential democracies of Finland, France and Portugal, majority is the result of the direct vote of the largest part of the population for the candidate president. In the rest of the EU contries, the largest party or coalition of parties is the parliamentary majority that selects the government leader. By all means, such a model of government responsibility has the support of the people and is the indispensable condition of the common political identity of the public. To be consistent with such a model and democratise and legitimise the European Union, the executive of the Union must be made accountable to the institutions of popular representation of the Union.

However, the realisation of the proposal of direct popular election of the Commission President is hard to conceive today. Firstly because an inter-governmental conference will hardly adopt a mechanism which bypasses national governments and, secondly, because no real party structures exist all over the territory of the Union. Instead, the selection of the President of the Commission with an election procedure in two phases, one at the level of the national parliaments and the other at the level of the European Parliament, is possible because it does not imply the exclusion of the national governments from the election procedure. This procedure, in fact, will be based on the active and essential involvement of all the political parties, national majority (or government) parties included. In addition, this procedure can be managed by the two-level party structures already in place in the EU political system. In the first phase of the procedure, the national parliaments designate a small number of candidates by using a proportional electoral system or an any method adopted by the national parliament and respecting the right of the minority parties. In this way, the majority and minority parties of the states can propose and vote for their own candidates. These candidates should be outstanding political figures of the Union, not necessarily citizens of the state. The second phase of the formal procedure is the election of the President by majority voting in the European Parliament on the candidates who have passed the “primaries” at the national parliamentary level.

The aim and advantage of such a parliamentary procedure is to produce an executive of the Union fully legitimated by the institutions of political representation of the national and Union level (i.e. the national and European parliaments). The key role in such an election procedure will be that of groups able to make a successful campaign across the government and parliament structures of the national and Union level. Such groups have to select good candidates, formulate political platforms for the five-year term of the Commission suitable to all the member states, gain the nomination to the European Parliament by the national parliaments, and win the election at the European Parliament level. By all means, such groups will be the existing political parties which have already formed two-level Europe-wide organisations.

The reduction of discontinuity across the national and Union level is another advantage of this procedure because the constitution of coincident or compatible majorities in the national and European parliaments will result from the campaign negotiation. Finally, political competition will become more homogeneous within the European Union with the result of better harmonisation and convergence in many or all the major policy areas.

Is the two-phase procedure difficult to carry out for the length of time needed to conduct negotiation and parliamentary primaries in fifteen or more countries? Today, having fifteen actors negotiate is the normal condition for running the Union and electing the President of the Commissions. Having such negotiations also among parliamentarians rather than among ministers and diplomats alone may well be more complex and conflictive, but it would be also more efficacious in terms of democratic legitimacy. It would not necessarily be much longer. The one year long procedure of the election primaries for the President of the United States shows that a large democracy can afford an election procedure that lasts for a year. It is necessary to recognise that democracy beyond the nation-state cannot be achieved with simple and rapid procedures with the participation of few actors. It demands complex and long procedures because of the necessary participation of actors of different level and nature. They must be associated to the fundamental procedures of the system to produce democratic results.


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1. The term "multi-state political system" stands for a political system with stable, articulate and democratic institutions of government. It has executive, representative and control institutions similar in functions and form to those of the constituent states (Attinà, 1997). In the Europe case, the Commission is the executive institution; the Council is the representative institution of the states and also an executive institution; the Parliament is the institution of territorial political representation of the people; the Committee of Regions is the institution of representation of the local level; many kinds of committees and working groups and the Economic and Social Commission represent interest organisations; the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors are the institutions of legal and financial control; the European Central Bank is the institution of monetary policy; a small number of agencies are responsible for preparing and monitoring specific regulations.

2. The relevant references here are not limited to Huntington (1993) but comprise a large number of authors like, for example, Linz and Stepan (1996), Maravall (1996) and Whithead (1996), who have incorporated international variables in their model for the study of democratisation.


ã Copyright 2000. Jean Monnet Chair of European Comparative Politics 

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Fulvio Attinà, University of Catania