Wednesday, June 3, 2009
This week, approximately 375m EU citizens will have the opportunity to decide who represent them for the next 5 years at the only directly elected Pan-European assembly, i.e. the European Parliament. Originally a powerless assembly consisting of representatives of national parliaments of the Member States, the European Parliament has progressively established itself as a much more powerful institution. Since 1979, its members are elected by direct universal suffrage. Yet turnout at EU Parliament elections has generally been low. This year, a low voter turnout is again expected. This persistent aspect is usually presented both as a recurring problem and the symptom of a crisis of political legitimacy.
That turnout has decreased at every ballot cannot be denied. From almost 65 percent in 1979, the turnout progressively decreased and reached a new record low in June 2004, with just 45.3 percent of EU voters casting ballots. With the latest polls pointing out to another low or even lower turnout, Europhiles as well as Eurosceptics appear to agree on at least one point: The declining participation rate undermines the European Parliament’s legitimacy and more generally, reflects the remoteness of EU institutions. Another, more reasonable, assessment is possible. What if voter apathy merely reflects the peculiarities of EU politics and the “second-order” nature of EU Parliament elections?
Understanding EU political life is no easy task. Indeed, the classic distinction between a parliamentary majority supporting a government, and a minority opposing it does not make much sense at the Union level. Worse, voting majorities are relatively flexible within the European Parliament and there is no genuine, clear and permanent cleavage between a right-wing and a left-wing. Therefore, a polarised debate is generally not available with the unfortunate consequence that the media take little interest in EU political affairs.
Voter apathy may also be explained by the fact that EU Parliament elections are what political scientists call “second-order elections”, that is, they are viewed by voters as relatively unimportant. This reaction is not entirely unreasonable. While the European Parliament has been gaining a great deal of powers and influence since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the Council of the EU – the body made up of national ministers from all the 27 Member States – still largely remains the main EU decision-making body. More generally, voters can be forgiven for not paying too much attention to EU politics when the issues voters are most deeply concerned about, for instance, taxes, welfare, education, are ones over the EU has little or no direct control. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt had therefore a point when he recently pointed out that voter turnout may merely reveal the rational judgment of EU citizens who understand that EU Parliament elections are not as decisive for their daily lives or their future than national elections.
Last but not least, the relatively poor turnout at EU Parliament elections must be put into a broader perspective. Decline in voter turnout and rise in electoral support for eccentric or extremist political parties are far from exclusive to European elections. Regarding poor turnout, for instance, the European Parliament does not suffer from the comparison with the US Congress as voting rates in US congressional elections average 45 percent. In the end, if one agrees to view democratic apathy and anti-establishment votes as the symptom of a genuine crisis of legitimacy, such a “crisis” is present at all levels of government since the 1970s.
While low voter turnout at EU Parliament elections should neither be viewed as a unique phenomenon nor as the symptom of a crisis of legitimacy, this is not to say that one should abstain from seeking to increase voter (and media) interest and favour the development of pan-European politics. Among recent proposals, two are worth noting. Firstly, national governments should consider allowing a certain number of MEPs to be elected on the basis of an EU-wide constituency via transnational lists. This may help in shaping the public discussion on European issues rather than domestic ones.
Another more radical proposal, recently debated, seeks to improve the connection between the choices made by citizens all across Europe with the composition and political orientation of the Commission by asking EU political parties to agree, prior to the Parliament elections, on a name for the presidency of the Commission and actively campaign on the basis of a transnational program. There was no legal obstacle for doing so this year but national governments have been keen to pre-empt any attempt at undermining their pre-eminence when it comes to selecting the president of the Commission and members of his/her team. By indicating early that Mr. Barroso should see his mandate renewed for another 5-year term, national governments unfortunately reinforced the diffuse feeling among voters that their votes would have no direct and immediate impact on the development of EU policies. This is another, perhaps surprising, demonstration that those most opposed to a more politicized EU are not Eurosceptic groups but rather national governments.