Despite the worrisome evolution of 2016 US elections, the EU can learn an important lesson from the way in which US citizens choose their leader. A central place for political conflict in elections and beyond would help the European project move forward.
The US 2016 presidential elections, facing off Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump against each other, have been raising many European eyebrows. Indeed, the seemingly mere focus on emotions rather than real facts and the obsessive interest in the candidates personal lives are difficult to understand for EU citizens. An overall incomprehension to the way in which Americans decide on their leader can be sensed in the EU. Whereas in this case, it can be largely described to the controversial character that is Donald Trump, also without him the elections we experience in the EU, whether on a local, national or European level, are infinitely different from those in the US.
Leaving aside the racist, sexist, xenophobic and islamophobic language that unfortunately widely occurred during these elections, there is one thing the EU can learn from US elections however, namely visibility.
Leaving aside the racist, sexist, xenophobic and islamophobic language that unfortunately widely occurred during these elections, there is one thing the EU can learn from US elections however, namely visibility. Undoubtedly, this US election is worrisome in many ways. The two-party system has resulted in two options described as having to choose for the least worst candidate, but if we can learn one thing from it is this one: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could not be more different in terms of political views, and that results in conflicts and debates. It is exactly this lack of debate that occurs in the EU nowadays. We see this in many ways, think about the lack of direct elections of the the President of the European commission, the highly complicated process to vote for MEP’s, or the incomprehensive institutional mechanisms. This invisibility of political candidates, of representatives, traces back to a more fundamental problem of the EU. It is, in the eyes of many citizens, a mere technocratic and complicated structure. It would benefit from becoming more political, more conflictual. Citizens need an identification with the state of order where they live, instead of the state in which the EU is involved in, without an alternative.
There is no identification of Europeans with the EU project anymore. At the opposite, this identification clearly does exist in the US. Arguably, Europeans are a more rational people and are not as attracted as the US citizens to the patriotic presentations of their continent. However, still some kind of identification with the common order is needed. A true democracy should not deny or transcend its contradictions, but should instead embrace them. A consensus based on democracy is non-desirable. Looking at the EU, there is no place for real conflict. With all its institutions and mechanisms, the EU is a manifest example of trying to reconcile contradicting interests and values. Instead of offering real alternatives however, it keeps denying the fundamental issues of the EU, and holds on to so-called plumber politics. We clearly see this in times of crisis, when the economic reasons for people to support the EU fade away. Indeed, euroscepticism has risen after 2008, since there was no widespread identification with the EU beyond the economic advantages. This means that the core, the being itself of the EU has to be clearly politicized. A real debate on the future of the union has to be carried out. A presentation of minor improvements or adaptations, as we see for example with the refugee influx, for which the plans are still not implemented as they were supposed to, does not suffice.
The core, the being itself of the EU has to be clearly politicized.
We see that with the EU elections in 2014, a minor step in this way has been taken, when the different political factions clearly distanced from each other. Also the citizens could, indirectly, choose a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. However, This was far from sufficient, since there was still little difference between factions. Moreover, the process was lacking real political conflict where the voter would have a choice between clear ideological models. Thus, without the incontestable disadvantage of the US system or presidential elections. Without the dubious atmosphere of the current one, there is one thing that the EU can take away of the United States. It is the central role of political conflict and the polarization of candidates offering opposite different political points of view. Only in this way, citizens of the EU will be able to identify themselves with this project. This identification is essential to operate the Union in the way that founding fathers intended it to.
Paulien Natens is an advanced Master student in international and European law at the VUB.