The President of Estonia can speak with more authority on matters of intercultural communities than most world leaders. Born in Stockholm to a family of war refugees and educated in the USA, Toomas Hendrik Ilves worked for Radio Free Europe during the Cold War and returned to his homeland after it regained independence to help develop it into the modern, Western nation it was always meant to be. After serving as ambassador, MP and Foreign Minister, he became one of Estonia’s original representatives in the European Parliament in 2004. As the head of state in a parliamentary democracy, his job is to exert a calming influence on the country’s politicians, making unpopular, but necessary decisions.
As the election campaign gathers momentum across Europe, it may be worthwhile to consider the official position of a person who has been through this process before, but is now no more than an interested observer. Of course Ilves is not running this time, but as a head of state, he must also remain impartial and refrain from supporting any specific political view. His comments need to be procedural, and because of this, I think they are valid for each and every country in the EU.
The full text of the President’s speech can be found here. His most important point concerns the candidate lists. Estonian voters will not be giving their votes to individual candidates, but to parties; if a party gets seats in the Europarliament, these will be filled from the top of the party list. In the last round of EP elections, Estonia’s campaign included prominent public figures such as supermodel Carmen Kass and Olympic gold medalist Erki Nool: they were supposed to attract voters who didn’t care so much about the issues, but wanted to support someone they admired. Of course, none of these local celebrities ever made it to Brussels. This time, there is a significant danger that party leaders will abdicate after the elections, giving the MEP seats to loyal backbenchers.
“I hope that our parties understand the responsibility associated with this [election model]; that they only present candidates that will go and work in the European Parliament if elected and thereby justify the trust their voters have placed in them. Those who stand as candidates only to win votes are deceiving the public.”
I don’t imagine this is a problem exclusive to Estonia, but neither have I seen much attention paid to it by th!nkers, or other eurobloggers for that matter. We talk of a democratic deficit in the structure of the EU, the lack of transparency in the workings of the European Commission or the toothlessness of the EP - but can we really blame the citizens and media for their apathy if the people actually serving in the Europarliament are not the ones we elected?
Those EU member states that have a proportional representation system have become complacent about it, assuming that the platform is more important than the individual representative. Even in a country as small as Estonia, where no scandal or political indiscretion stays hidden for long, the average voter would be hard-pressed to name at least a handful of serving MPs. You, the reader of this article, are a political junkie; can you recall a dozen of your country’s legislators off the top of your head? The Europarliament is even worse: there are no cohesive parties, only loose factions, and no first-tier politicians to keep the seat-fillers in line. As usual, nobody cares because the issue hasn’t resulted in any disasters yet - but if we want to improve the function of the Europarliament, not just maintain it, then this must be addressed.
Ilves also touches on another point, one which has been covered extensively: the intermingling of local and pan-European issues.
“…we have to remind all those who only talk about Estonian domestic policies during their election campaign what these elections are really about. It is important what the candidates intend to do in European Union politics. We have already gained some valuable experience: We do not need to break through anything in the European Union. We do not have to protect Estonia from the European Union. We are the European Union.We can prove ourselves in the European Union only if Estonian delegates make themselves heard in the European Parliament; if they find supporters who help them achieve their goals and can support their partners in the achievement of their goals.I assure you on the basis of my experience: it is possible. The delegates of even the smallest states can have a say in the politics of the European Union.”
The President of Estonia has every right to feel jaded about the EU, its pettiness, squabbling and indecisiveness; but oddly enough, even with his first-hand experience, Ilves still has faith in the Europarliament’s usefulness:
“One thing is clear – the delegates elected from Estonia must become opinion leaders in factions that consist of hundreds of delegates from different countries. In the place where decisions are really born.“
The message to candidates is: don’t disappoint us. The message to voters is: hold your politicians to their words.