“Since the Maastricht Treaty, citizens’ approval of the EU has steadily declined,” stated Professor Thomas König from the University of Mannheim and the Collaborative Research Center for Political Economy of Reforms in his keynote speech. This observation is the starting point for a study carried out in 13 EU Member States, the central results of which Professor König presented to the approximately 70 guests from the realms of politics and science. For the study, the researchers presented various EU institutional arrangements to the participants and asked them to evaluate each one. “The population rejects the Commission’s current monopoly on legislative proposals,” Professor König explained.
There is agreement among all the countries considered in the study on many points, including how citizens want their governments to be involved in EU legislative initiatives. Europeans are satisfied with the current bicameral legislative system of EU Parliament and Council, and they also support majority decisions by its Member States. However, the European population clearly rejects the EU Commission’s exclusive right of legislative initiative, with different views emerging about the distribution of power in the EU’s judiciary: “While in many countries the respondents view the European Court of Justice’s power to impose sanctions for violations of EU laws as positive, participants from Sweden, Austria, Denmark and the Czech Republic would like to see increased judicial responsibility for their own national courts,” Professor König explained.
Along with prosperity, Europe must also offer more transparent decision-making
The design of the European institutions preferred by the respondents differs from the current design insofar as the Commission, the Council and the Parliament have a shared right of legislative initiative. “A reform of the legislative initiative would bring about a great improvement in public opinion compared to the status quo – if that’s indeed what the EU wants. It’s a political decision,” stressed König. “Simply strengthening the power of the European Parliament in order to increase the legitimacy and acceptance of the EU is definitely not what the public desires.”
In the subsequent panel discussion Thomas König was joined by ZEW economist Professor Friedrich Heinemann and Marcel Haag from the European Commission, with Jennifer Rankin, Brussels correspondent for The Guardian, moderating. With reference to the keynote, Haag argued that since the British vote on Brexit, approval of the EU seems to be increasing, especially in countries such as Sweden and Poland. He also pointed out that the study only looked at input legitimacy, i.e. the question of how transparent and democratic political processes are. In the past, however, the focus of the EU had been on output legitimacy, i.e. on the direct benefit for the population. “It was about the added value that the EU was offering its citizens,” said Haag, underlining his position.
Professor König countered: “The problem with output legitimacy is that it decreases in economic crises, as we could also observe during the financial crisis. But I’m still convinced that we can increase both approval and output.” If public acceptance is not increased, decision-making processes will become increasingly difficult: “The Maastricht Treaty promises more transparency. We should not be surprised, then, that approval is declining after more than 20 years of doing just the opposite,” emphasised König.
Focus on European added value through transnational lists
Heinemann suggested that the electoral system for the European Parliament be examined in a further study, with questions such as: Should every vote count equally in the European elections? Should there be transnational party lists? He regretted that the EU Parliament had voted against the proposal to fill the seats freed up by Brexit via transnational lists. “These MEPs would have a cross-national view of Europe,” said Heinemann. “Regarding negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework, the European Parliament is defending the currently prevailing principle of agricultural subsidies and cohesion funds. Parliamentarians place their national constituencies above European added value as far as the allocation of funds is concerned. Members of transnational lists, on the other hand, would rather ask themselves whether a particular solution would really be beneficial for all Member States.”
Questions from the audience were also taken up for discussion. Shouldn’t the goal of European integration be prioritised before institutional design? Heinemann responded that the development of the EU depended on how its institutions were designed; the former was not determined independent of the latter. “Everyone’s talking about European added value. To achieve that, you need the right institutions in place.”