Monday, May 26, 2014

The European Parliament: A National Election?

In the wake of the E.U.’s parliamentary election in 2014, the media reported the results as though a number of “national elections” had just taken place. Unlike the European Council, the Parliament does not represent states; in fact, the representatives of the people do not even sit by state, but by federal-level party, renders the reportage as distortive at best. Moreover, its ideological bent can help us situate the E.U. along the interval of federal-state relations possible in federal systems; this situs in turn can tell us something about the likely trajectory for the Union—the electoral success of the Euro-skeptic parties being only a symptom. To situate the election results, I briefly cover a bit of federalism theory before discussing the election-results coverage itself.

Modern federalism, which combines “confederal” alliance governance with principles of national government, requires considerable vigilance to balance the two systems lest one engulf the other. In his seminal work on the subject, Federal Government, Kenneth Wheare contends that modern federalism requires no such balance to operate; all that is necessary is that the states and the federal government each have at least one domain of authority that is autonomous. He would be at pains to show that the nearly-consolidated U.S. “federal” system functions as a federal system rather than as a “one size fits all,” empire-scale government. He would also have trouble explaining how the state-centric E.U. “federal” system enables the federal level to function viably.

Unfortunately, the respective imbalances may worsen. Theoretically speaking, dissolution is the main risk facing a federal system dominated by its state governments, whereas consolidation is the alluring danger for a federal system dominated by its federal, or “general,” government at the expense of those of the member-states. If this hypothesis is correct, then the tendency of a given federal system can be predicted only once it has been situated relative to a threshold point wherein federal/state powers are in balance.  Even though state-rights claims of state sovereignty in the E.U.’s 2014 election season can easily be classified as ideologically fanciful, the preponderance of governmental sovereignty being at the state level portended a probably future of dissolution; the U.S. nearly succumbed to this plight in 1832 (the Nullification Crisis) and then again thirty years later (the USA-CSA war) because the states had most of the power back then. By World War II, the U.S. had “crossed the threshold” in terms of federal-state power, such that consolidation became the probable “end-game.” As E.U. citizens went to the polls in 2014, no one would accuse the E.U. of pursuing that course.

Notably, at least one major European press reported the E.U. legislative election erroneously as “European elections.”[1] Even though “countries” are not represented in the E.U.’s parliament, The Financial Times characterized the election as several national elections—even claiming that the UKIP party’s electoral success was the first time a third party had won a “national election” in Britain.[2] Even in terms of a “state delegation,” the Parliament, like the U.S. House, acknowledges no such grouping formally; in both legislative bodies, the representatives, who represent constituents in federal districts, do not even sit by state.

Marine Le Pen of France's National Front Party. Can the E.U.'s legislative election be reduced to several state-level elections? Je crois que certainment non.

To be sure, the E.U. was at the time much more state-centric than the U.S., as evidenced by the plethora of state-level parties dwarfing the federal-level ones. Even so, the characterization of “national elections” for an election bearing only on the E.U. and its citizens cannot be justified, and is thus likely the manifestation of a states-rights ideological agenda—the major attendant danger to which being dissolution. Put another way, relegating the direct relation between the E.U. Parliament and E.U. citizens in the public’s mind could compromise the Union’s viability more than the electoral success of the Euro-skeptic state-level parties in the national election (the Parliament being in line with national rather than international principles).  

1. Peter Spiegel and Hugh Carnegy, “Anti-EU Parties Celebrate Election Success,” The Financial Times, May 26, 2014.
2. Ibid.