Linkage between European citizens and EU institutions has to be restored

Istituto Affari Internazionali

The Conclusions of December 2008 European Council on the fate of the Lisbon Treaty
In Italy, the reactions to the European Council of December 2008 have been quite positive at the political level. The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, affirmed that it was a success for the European Council to reject the Irish request for a new ratification process from all EU member states. In his opinion, the Brussels Summit proved very useful for finding a compromise on this difficult issue since it “worked hard to give Ireland the possibility to hold a new referendum on the treaty”[1]. For this purpose, he said the EU had to “accept some conditions” such as maintaining a 27-member Commission, allowing the non participation of Ireland in the EU military missions and giving it some assurances on ethical matters and family law.[2]
However, the reaction of the Italian press to the European Council’s decision was less enthusiastic, because it showed the ‘weakness’ of the EU on such an important matter. As an Italian analyst wrote, quoting a popular phrase by opera singer Maria Callas, “once you start making too many concessions, you’ll never be able to stop, since people will expect you to do so automatically”[3]. Some commentators felt that the December European Council’s conclusions are somehow contradictory. In fact, by keeping the number of Commissioners at 27, the Council indirectly put a limit on the Treaty of Lisbon, which called for a smaller Commission in order for it to work properly.[4] Moreover, some Italian journalists were not convinced that the Irish people will vote ‘Yes’ next time round, as happened with the second referendum on the Treaty of Nice in 2002.[5] At present, the situation in Ireland is totally different from six years ago. First of all, the economic situation in the country is now much worse with Ireland experiencing a recession, while its economy was growing rapidly in 2002. Secondly, the EU’s popularity among the Irish population is much lower than before. Finally, the ‘No’ front in Ireland is very well organized and deeply-rooted.[6]
In conclusion, there seems to be a sort of discrepancy between the government and the public opinion in the way they perceived the December 2008 European Council’s conclusions. This gap will probably narrow in the next months when the Irish vote again.

The upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2009
There has been a lot of debate in Italy about the upcoming European Parliament elections both at the political and academic level. Last summer, some proposals were made on how to change the current electoral system to guarantee fair representation of European citizens.
The Minister for Normative Simplification, Roberto Calderoli, suggested a new electoral system with a 4 percent threshold, only one preference instead of the previous three and ten constituencies (at present they are five).[7] In September 2008, the government party, Popolo della Libertà (PdL), proposed introducing a 5 percent threshold and an electoral system with closed party lists,[8] as well as abolishing preferential votes. The reasons for this choice were several. The proposal to introduce a higher threshold was meant to avoid party fragmentation inside the parliament. Moreover, as Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi declared, “the fixed party list would make it possible to have professionals who can best represent the country inside the European Parliament committees”[9]. However, this position was not shared by other parties and by many representatives of the Italian press. The opposition party, Partito Democratico (PD), was in favour of a 3 percent threshold and maintaining the possibility for voters to express their preferences for individual candidates. The centrist party, Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e Democratici di Centro (UDC), was in favour of preferences and the lower threshold as well. In fact, had the PdL proposal been approved in parliament, it would have been difficult for the UDC to send any representative to the European Parliament.
When these proposals were launched, many Italian journalists and representatives of the research community were against the abolition of preferences. Michele Comelli and Jean-Pierre Darnis, from the “International Affairs Institute”, wrote that the abolition of the preference system would “make it impossible for the voters to choose their representatives in the European Parliament directly”[10]. Moreover, some journalists argued that, while in other EU member states, such as Germany, democratic procedures have been established inside the parties to choose their candidates; in Italy however, “the fixed party list mechanism of the national electoral law has boosted […] the use of co-optation from above, without the introduction of any democratic procedure either inside or outside the parties”[11].
On the other hand, some commentators were in favour of abolishing preferences. For example, Antonio Missiroli, director of studies of the “European Policy Centre”, affirmed that “the preference vote has an influence on both the electoral campaign – driving the parties to put more popular candidates on the lists […] in order to attract a higher number of votes – and the consequent behaviour of the elected candidates, who have to keep visibility in their country in order to gain a second mandate”[12].
Some journalists also argued that the preference system has the negative effect of forcing the potential candidates to fight against one another in order to gain votes through the use of advertisements, and political dinners and cocktails. Thus, the consequence is that only the wealthiest candidates are elected.[13]
The text proposed by the PdL was discussed in the Italian parliament on the 27 October 2008. On that occasion, the President of Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, asked for “a large consensus in parliament”, which in his opinion, is a fundamental condition when “it comes to modifying some of the most important rules of the democratic competition”[14]. Since there was not enough consensus among the different parties, Silvio Berlusconi declared that for the time being it was better to maintain the current electoral law.[15] At present, Elio Vito, Minister for Relations with Parliament, and Dario Franceschini, deputy-secretary of PD, are working on a compromise on the reform.[16]
Above and beyond the national electoral law, some observers raised proposals about the European electoral system. Michele Comelli and Jean-Pierre Darnis, of the “International Affairs Institute”, wrote about the necessity to establish common electoral procedures all over Europe, in order to “make the European Parliament elections more ‘European’, whilst they have become just another national event, in which Europe tends to be only an accessory element”[17].
In concerns to Italian citizens, the results of the last Eurobarometer survey showed that at present, they are more aware of the importance of the European Parliament elections than the average European (41 percent of Italians are ‘somewhat interested’ in the elections as compared to the 38 percent average for other European citizens).[18] The issues that seem to influence Italian voters the most are economic ones such as: economic growth (47 percent), unemployment (42 percent), inflation and purchasing power (40 percent).[19]
The formation of the new Commission in autumn 2009
In Italy, the debate on the formation of the new European Commission has been focused particularly on the appointment of its president. For Italian observers, it is not only a matter of who will be the next person to hold this position, but also of how this choice will be made.
As for possible nominees, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi announced that he is in favour of a second mandate for the current President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. He affirmed that “it would be absurd to throw away his intelligence and experience”[20].
More generally, forming a new European Commission is considered an opportunity to restore the linkage between European citizens and the EU institutions. For this reason, some Italian analysts and politicians are in favour of a sort of direct election of the President of the European Commission. This idea, which was already proposed in 1999 by Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa of “Notre Europe”,[21] has been central in the debate concerning the next European Commission. According to Gianni Bonvicini, vice-president of the “International Affairs Institute”, there is widespread consent on the necessity to make the European elections more ‘politicised’.[22] He suggests that, before the elections, each European party should choose a candidate to run for the position of the President of the European Commission. The party that gains the majority in the European Parliament could then indicate the person they supported to the European Council.[23] This approach has already been used by the European People’s Party, which proposed Barroso again as its candidate for this role. In Bonvicini’s opinion, this mechanism would make it possible for European parties to have their electoral programmes carried out by a person with strong legitimacy deriving from the European citizens. This idea is shared by Antonio Missiroli, director of studies of the “European Policy Centre”, who wrote an article in which he analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of such a proposal.[24] Among the shortcomings of the direct election of the next President of the European Commission, is the fact that this solution would probably politicise the Commission too much, which would be strongly influenced by the winning party. This could have negative consequences on the ‘regulatory’ role of the Commission, which is often in charge of ‘technical’ decisions that should be not affected by party politics.[25] Notwithstanding this possible drawback, Missiroli believes that the direct election of the European Commission’s President would have more positive than negative effects. By voting for the candidate to this office, European citizens would be given the opportunity to express themselves in a ‘pan-European electoral campaign’, conducted at the European rather than at the national level.[26]
Other observers also think that it would be very important for the European electorate to choose directly the European Commission’s President, whom is considered “the key figure of the EU”[27]. This solution is in fact considered to be both “useful” and “feasible”:[28] useful, because it would help to reduce the gap between the citizens and the European institutions and at the same time would stimulate an open debate on the possible candidates, improving the transparency within the EU; feasible, because it would not require a change of the treaties since it would be possible under the present rules.[29]
The idea of the direct election of the President of the European Commission is strongly sustained by the “European Federalist Movement”. In fact, they conducted an online campaign called “Who is your candidate?”, which aimed at collecting signatures and asking the members of the political parties to choose their candidate before the elections, since they believe that this would improve the accountability and transparency of European institutions.[30] They collected 1,285 signatures of people from all EU member states, including a few Italians.
From this overview, it may be noted that if there has been a debate in Italy concerning the new European Commission, it has been focused mostly on the possibility of direct election of its President. According to some authors, this mechanism would stimulate people’s participation in the 2009 elections, which is very low at present. In fact, as the last Eurobarometer shows, Italian public opinion’s trust in the European Commission is quite high (48 percent)[31] and a change like the one proposed by some Italian analysts would probably increase it.
The appointment of the High Representative
In Italy, after the Irish ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty, the debate on a possible new High Representative was quite scarce. This is due to the fact that in such a difficult moment for Europe, it is common thought that it would be very useful to keep the expertise of the person who already held this position.
Therefore, for many reasons, there is a widespread perception that Javier Solana should be appointed as “Mr. CFSP”[32] again. First, he is now an “expert” and “able to mediate”, and secondly, he is a socialist; this last element would make him the perfect candidate to counterbalance the likely reappointment of Barroso as President of the European Commission.[33]

[1] See: UE/Vertice: Berlusconi, buon risultato non tornare su Lisbona, ASCA, 12 December 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. Zagari: Il caso irlandese e il rischio del “Trattato zero”, Il Tempo, 16 December 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Il Sole 24 Ore: L’Irlanda tornerà a votare in ottobre sul Trattato UE, 12 December 2008, available at: e Lavoro/2008/12/irlanda-trattato-ue.shtml?uuid=ddbeb94c-c824-11dd-baf9-fbc7a4fc4e23&DocRulesView=Libero (last access: 25 January 2009).

[6] Ibid.

[7] L. Fuccaro: Soglia al 4% e una preferenza – Europee, il testo del governo, Corriere della Sera, 31 July 2008.

[8] With a system of closed party lists, which does not allow the voters to express their preferences for single candidates, the candidates at the top of the winning electoral list get elected.

[9] See: Antifascismo e preferenze, Il Riformista, 18 September 2008.

[10] M. Comelli/J. Darnis: Europa e legittimità democratica: due proposte, Affari Internazionali, 8 August 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[11] R. Gualtieri: La preferenza per evitare le oligarchie, Il Mattino, 18 September 2008.

[12] A. Missiroli: Anche in Europa si può ridare lo scettro al principe, Affari Internazionali, 20 August 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[13] L. Caputo: Ma solo così si riducono spese e clientele, Il Giornale, 15 September 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[14] See: Verso le Europee, appello di Napolitano: ampio consenso sulla legge, Panorama, 28 October 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[15] P. De Martino: PD e PDL ci riprovano, legge modello svedese-belga, 9 January 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[16] Ibid.

[17] M. Comelli/J. Darnis: Europa e legittimità democratica: due proposte, Affari Internazionali, 8 August 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[18] Special Eurobarometer 299: The 2009 European Elections. Results for Italy, September 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[19] Ibid.

[20] See: Il Cavaliere “ricandida” il portoghese, Corriere della Sera, 16 July 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[21] T. Padoa Schioppa: From the single currency to the single ballot-box, Paris 1999, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[22] G. Bonvicini: Elezione “diretta” del Presidente della Commissione europea?, Affari Internazionali, 8 August 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[23] Ibid.

[24] A. Missiroli: Anche in Europa si può ridare lo scettro al principe, Affari Internazionali, 20 August 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] M. Ruta: Come sceglier il Prossimo Presidente della Commissione UE?, 7 September 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] See: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[31] Standard Eurobarometer 69, Spring 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[32] See: Unione europea: il valzer delle poltrone scatena le diplomazie europee, Panorama, 8 May 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[33] C. Tosi: Cambiare tutto per non cambiare niente, Limes, 4 January 2008, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).