US and EU (presidential) elections are really very similar

US flagFew recent nominations in the US have been as exciting as the current Clinton vs Obama run-off for the Democrats. Equally exciting are current speculations about the first “EU president” (see my previous blog entries about this), a post that has to be filled by 1st January 2009. However, there is a crucial difference between these two run-offs: US primaries are possibly one of the most democratic and transparent exercises (with their own limitations of course) while the nomination of the president of the European Council is like magic. – After the European summit in October or mid-December Monsieur Sarkozy, head of the (rotating) EU presidency, will present the (candidate for) President of the European Council – like the magician pulls the white rabbit out of his hat. Ergo, the nomination of the EU president is in no way going through any sort of democratic/parliamentary scrutiny. The only kind of pre-evaluation is exercised by media speculating names up and down (see also our own speculations here).

This lack of scrutiny is also a reason for why Jon and I have started the initiative. We want the Commission President to be EU (Council) president at the same time. And at least s/he is (supposed to) follow some sort of democratic scrutiny and will be chosen in light of the outcomes of the EP elections.

But take aside the EU president and look at the more crucial selection of the EU executive, the Commission, and you find a high number of similarities between the EU and US systems: 1) both races are of contintenal scale, 2) both have some sort of multi-seat constiuencies (member states in the EU, states in the US), 3) in both the EU and US there are somehow different rules within each multi-seat constiuency, 4) the demographics (incl. language) of each constituency vary very strongly, 5) on a very broad scale the EU constituencies are also dominated by two big political families (EPP and PES – as opposed to Democrats and Republicans on the other side), 6) new campaign and polling instruments are increasingly moving back and forwards between east and west coast of the Atlantic, 7) campaigns in our advanced democracies are increasingly relying on indirect communication (particularly media) making them ever more expensive.

EU flagMy assumption is that the 2008 US campaign will have a very high impact on the EP elections in June 2009. Not only will Europeans look for the latest campaign tricks and techniques. Political parties might also face the most expensive campaign ever with an increasing pressure to maximise the European perspectives of the campaign while staying in touch with the local/national message. There are two big questions for the European 2009 campaign that will decisely determine whether the EP elections will become more serious (and equally more American): 1. Will the European political parties (i.e. EPP and PES) massively politicise and visualise the campaign by presenting their respective candidate for the Commission President openly ahead of election day? (at least this would be in the spirit of the new Lisbon Treaty/Constitution), and 2. Will the European political parties increase the stakes of the race – and their own media outreach – by holding national primaries to crown their candidate for the Commission President?

If fewer things change in 2009, I would suppose that this EU campaign will still be the last run under primarily national premises. 2014 will really bring us into a continental scale election of the American sort. I am looking forward to this because it would finally increase the stakes of European democracy and democratic scrutiny of the candidates. Successful politics can only be successful and fullfil our expectations on democracy if faces and programmes go hand in hand.

3 thoughts on “US and EU (presidential) elections are really very similar

  1. Ralf Grahn

    An interesting comparison, but we still do not know how long it will take for liberal representative democracy to replace “managed democracy” in the European Union.

  2. Jared Sonnicksen

    I find the comparison highly intriguing! The analysis is quite original and thought-provoking. And indeed, the elections for the EP need to have something at stake if they are to inspire citizens to participate. On a side note, the German word “Wahl” is interesting in this context, because it can mean both “election” and “choice” and if elections are to mean anything, they have to also offer a “choice”! Hopefully we will see some positive developments on the part of the European political parties here. I also think direct elections of the President would create that opportunity for a “choice” and an impetus for EPP to “europeanize” their campaigns.

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