When Lyndon B Johnson fought John F Kennedy for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 1960 he knew that his best chance of success lay in the states which wouldn’t be holding a popular vote. This was a time when primaries were still rare – in most states the choice was made behind closed doors by local big shots. Johnson was a wheeler-dealer, a cajoler, a behind-the-scenes charmer. Retail politics – the art of schmoozing the ordinary citizen, speaking in plain English – these were skills which Johnson feared he did not possess. Were Johnson to become the Democratic party’s standard bearer he would need to rely on its less democratic parts.
Johnson lost all the same. Kennedy proved to be just as adept at backroom deals as his opponent, partly because his supporters could reasonably point out that their man was more popular. In 1964 primaries had become the norm. Once democracy has been introduced it becomes very hard to stop.
And so to last month’s European elections, the results of which are in some way still undecided. The European Union, in all its various guises, has always had a democratic deficit. It was not until 1979 that the European parliament was directly elected and while almost two thirds of Europeans cast their vote, the parliament they chose still had very limited powers. Perversely, as the parliament’s powers have grown over the following three-and-half decades, turnout has fallen.
The EU’s other institutions – the Council and the Commission – have similar problems with democracy. The Council president and foreign-affairs chief are chosen behind closed doors by the leaders of the 28 EU states – Catherine Ashton didn’t even realise she was a candidate last time around until hours before she was announced. Similarly the Commission president has traditionally been chosen in secret.
That’s the background for today’s row about Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, who claims he “won” the elections. Since he was the choice of the European People’s Party (EPP) which subsequently won the most votes (a plurality, mind, not a majority), he therefore deserves to be the next president of the Commission. His acolytes believe it would be an affront to democracy were he to be blocked. Respect my vote, they scream. The problem, of course, is that hardly anyone who voted for their local EPP candidate for MEP knew they were also choosing Juncker.
Which distorted form of democracy is best? Twenty-eight democratically-elected men and women choosing in secret or a group of parliamentarians claiming our vote meant something it really didn’t?
There is a way to solve this problem, one that Juncker’s supporters should be happy to back: we could have an election. An actual, proper Europe-wide election where we, the people, choose our new leaders. Not just the commission president but the new council president and foreign affairs chief.
National governments will not, of course, hand over the power to choose Europe’s leaders quite so willingly. But if direct democracy is a step too far, they should at least be in favour of transparency. There should be official candidates, each with their own manifesto. Televised debates should be held across Europe. And then national governments should vote, in public, for their candidate. Whoever gets the most votes wins.
Democracy should not be something to be scared of. Juncker, like Johnson before him, may feel he has a better chance in smoke-filled rooms. Europe, like the US before us, may feel we have a better chance out in the open.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.