European elections are usually no big affair. They lack the drama of national ballots and most Europeans simply do not see how it affects them in the way local politics would. Since the first European parliamentary election in 1979 turnout has fallen from 62% to just 43% in 2009, and current predictions are not encouraging. With turnout set to dwindle below 40% this May, Europe seems to have fallen out of love with the European project. Or has it?
That is precisely the question Europeans will go to the polls on May 22nd-25th to answer. This is also why this time around European elections do matter. After five years of crisis and a slow-going recovery, these elections have turned into a referendum of sorts for the support of EU integration. While Euroscepticism is nothing new, it is certainly growing in most countries and its correlation with the increase in unemployment is not exactly surprising. Many Europeans, especially in the South, blame Brussels for their woes.
Two factors will be crucial for these European elections: first, overall participation, and second, the share of the vote won by protest parties. The most pessimistic stats predict up to a third of the vote going to Nikolaos Michaloliakos’s Golden Dawn in Greece, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the like. Of course, EU advocates’ biggest fear is that this mass of extreme, anti-immigration, populist parties, only united in their loathing of the EU, will benefit from the current socioeconomic situation.
This is also the impression I got at NCVO’s ‘Europe Day MEP hustings for London’, a meeting chaired by Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO’s Chief Executive, where many New Europeans had the opportunity to pose questions to a panel of MEP candidates for London from all the major parties. The panel included Marina Yannakoudakis from the Conservatives, Seb Dance from Labour, Jonathan Fryer from the Liberal Democrats, and Jean Lambert from the Greens. The UKIP contender was invited but declined to attend.
It is remarkable that none of the candidates at the event seemed to call on people to vote for their own party as much as they tried to raise awareness about how important going out to vote on May 22nd really is. It is a big deal, especially in the UK, a country with a longstanding tradition of Euroscepticism and where UKIP enjoys growing support. Inquiries about the Roma community and the treatment of Polish citizens in the UK really asserted the importance of immigration as UKIP’s main political weapon. On top of this, apathy among the rest of the population only serves to inflate UKIP’s share of the vote.
While Euroscepticism and immigration were definitely the main issues, questions were also raised about day-to-day matters such as health and consumer policies, green infrastructure in London or the dismal unemployment situation facing young people in Europe. Indeed, a survey conducted for our project, ‘Reconnecting UK Youth to Europe’, found that young British people believe that youth unemployment should be the EU’s number one priority.
Aside from these issues, a significant part of the talk indirectly focused on the European Parliament’s lack of legitimacy in the eyes of European citizens. Only around 10% of the potential 380 million Europeans eligible to choose the 751 MEPs can name a MEP from their own region. Even if this can partly be blamed on the fact that most countries favour a ‘closed list’ system, the figure also shows how unengaged Europeans feel with the whole electoral process.
Although successive modifications of the Treaties have put the European Parliament on almost equal footing with the Council of the EU in the procedure to pass laws proposed by the European Commission, the truth is that complaints about a lack of real democracy in the European institutions stand their ground. After all, elections rarely change much: whether run by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) or the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Parliament’s actions barely change course. On top of that, EU law writing is an intrinsically complex and not very transparent procedure, dependent on compromises between many players, a lot of which are not even within the institutions.
At the NCVO event, these concerns took the form of questions regarding the enormous influence of big companies and the possibility of improving citizens’ and NGOs’ access to decision-making processes. Various candidates suggested forming coalitions of charities, NGOs or even citizens to reach greater lobbying power in the EU. Seb Dance mentioned the importance of changing people’s perception of MEPs as ‘unreachable figures’; apparently it is actually quite easy to reach out to individual MEPs who could be partial to a specific cause and decide to champion it in the European Parliament.
The conclusion beyond this event is that work is definitely needed to eliminate the gap between civil society and the EU institutions. Evidently this will not happen overnight. However, a first step in this direction, especially considering the very narrow race for the European elections in the UK and the real possibility that UKIP will win the majority of the votes, would be for you to make sure you vote and make your voice heard.
If you wish to contact me about anything in this post, please e-mail me at Beatriz.JambrinaCanseco@euclidnetwork.eu.