Thursday, March 19, 2009
The European Parliament (EP) is a rather unique body. It is the only directly-elected body of the EU (since 1979) and offers the unique example of a supranational parliamentary body with significant powers. Currently, the EP has 785 Members from 27 countries (on the impact of the Lisbon Treaty, see Grahnlaw’s blog). They sit in groups formed on the basis of political affiliation rather than nationality.
To halt a downward trend in participation, the EP has opted for a new strategy. Rather than merely calling on EU citizens to exercise their civic duties, a new communication campaign will stress the fact that the EU has major policy choices ahead which will affect the everyday lives of EU citizens and that by voting in the elections, EU citizens can affect those choices. See also the EP’s 2009 elections website. It highlights “10 good reasons to vote.”
While the downward trend in participation cannot be denied (from 63% in 1979 to 45% in 2004), various explanations have been offered. Voter apathy used to be explained by the EP’s lack of powers or overall political insignificance. This explanation is now clearly unsatisfactory as the EP has been gaining a great deal of powers and influence since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. And so the lack of pan-European politics is now blamed. In short, the main reason lies in the fact that EU political life cannot easily be explained by reference to the classic distinction between a parliamentary majority supporting a government, and a minority opposing it. Indeed, in the EU, there is no “government” strictly speaking. Rather, executive and legislative powers are shared between several institutions (the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the EP). In other words, EU parliamentary elections do not have any immediate and visible impact on the EU’s decision making process and as a result, EU citizens tend not to pay too much attention to these elections. Yet the poor turnout must also be put into a broader perspective. For instance, it is my understanding that voting rates in US congressional elections average 45 per cent. Accordingly, the EU decline in voter turnout could very well be a symptom of a widespread phenomenon of voter apathy in most democracies. This does not mean that we should not consider, for example, compulsory voting for EU parliamentary elections. It may also be a good idea of “personalizing” these elections. European political parties could select a leader, prior to the elections, and the Member States agree to appoint the leader of the victorious party to the presidency of the Commission.
For additional potential reforms, see a recent report on Democracy in the EU and the role of the European Parliament. For a broader discussion of the EU’s alleged democratic deficit, see e.g. our book: The EU and its Constitution.