National elections just passed in Germany and upcoming in France deprive Europe of political leadership. But there is an electoral solution that could solve this problem, writes Matteo Garavoglia.
Dr Matteo Garavoglia is Director of the European Public Sphere Project at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Associate at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)
German citizens have voted. As the negotiations to form a coalition are likely to last until Christmas, Europe’s most prominent country will not be able to provide real leadership for Europe for at least three months. By January, France will also be in the midst of an election campaign for presidential elections (scheduled for April) and then for parliamentary elections (scheduled for June). Therefore, Europe’s second most important political and economic power will not be able to exercise serious political leadership for the first six months of 2022. And then come July and August: holiday season in Europe.
By September next year, we will thus have experienced a period of more than 12 months in which the two most important countries in Europe will not have been able to express serious political leadership because of their different electoral calendars.
This is nothing new. In 2017, France voted for a new president in April and then for a new parliament in June. Soon after, Germans went to the polls in September and took six months to conclude coalition negotiations and form a government in March 2018.
Already at the time, for a whole year, the two leading countries in Europe were unable to launch serious policy initiatives and reform proposals because they were busy running their own election campaigns and then forming their governments.
Given the extraordinary challenges that European countries face (from climate change to pandemics to immigration, to name but a few), it seems absurd that national political systems repeatedly produce such paralysis. The lack of coordination in electoral cycles makes it extremely difficult to promote the reforms we so desperately need to tackle the huge problems our societies face.
To solve this problem, the solution seems, in theory, simple. It would be enough to synchronise the elections of the national parliaments with the elections of the European Parliament, and thus the elections of the different national parliaments with each other. This would have an extraordinary impact on the quality of European democracy and the legislative processes connected to it. We could really vote at the same time as Europeans, even at national level as far as internal competences are concerned. Then we could seriously start working together as Europeans.
In practice, the solution seems much more complex. However, to initiate this kind of reform, not all European countries need to agree. Each country could approve the reform as and when national conditions permit. Unanimity of the 27 EU member states would not be necessary. It would be enough for two or three large states to commit themselves to promote a domino effect through which other countries could follow suit. Belgium, to begin with, has already done it.
The pioneering countries that commit themselves first to this initiative would have the opportunity to dictate the legislative agenda throughout both the European and their own electoral cycles. This reform would also strengthen national parliaments by enabling them to coordinate their efforts to promote EU-wide legislation. Finally, it would help to stabilise the situation in countries characterised by chronic political instability by significantly reducing the incentives to terminate legislatures before their natural expiry dates.
Studies on the legal and constitutional feasibility of this intervention in various European countries have already been carried out, and such a proposal could already be shared with the main European governments. What is needed is will. Our political, business and intellectual leaderships must have the historical foresight and political courage to promote such an initiative. The Conference on the Future of Europe could be the right place for this conversation to take place.