As impressive as this event may sound to many of us, even more people just do not seem to care. According to the first predictions by the most recent Eurobarometer study (number 303) special edition on the EP elections, interest in the upcoming elections is likely to experience a record of 66% of abstention rate across the union. This seems to confirm the fears of many national and supranational policy-makers and observers, based on the steadily decreasing turnout at EP elections since its first elections in 1979 with 63%, falling to 45% in 2004.
Many had hoped that especially new member states who joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 would show more enthusiasm, having perceived the tangible benefits of the EU, such as investments in infrastructure, education, labour flexibility etc. In reality however, according to the Eurobarometer only 17% of Poles are certain to vote, this being the lowest figure in the EU. But ‘old’ member states do not seem to know better, with only 21% of Austrians, 22% of Britons, and 24% of Portuguese intending to hit the ballots. The most populated EU member, Germany, is predicted to see 43 % of its citizens vote. France and the Netherlands, the two states who had rejected the Constitutional Treaty, seem to be far above EU average, with 47% predicted turnout. However, the only countries in which a majority of voters are predicted to attend the elections are Malta and Denmark with an estimated 56%, Luxembourg with 62%, and Belgium with 70%. Why is interest in the EP elections decreasing ?
Why do only 1 out of 3 Europeans care ?
- Campaign poster for the European elections in the UK
Nevertheless, according to Eurobarometer, only 22% of Britons intend to vote.
According to the Eurobarometer study, the following issues seem to be the cause of such a result : Euroscepticism does not seem to be the (major) problem, as only 1 out of 5 do not intend to vote because they are opposed to the construction of a European community. Rather, it is the institution’s role and image people do not seem to value.
In fact, almost two thirds feel they do not have enough knowledge about the role of Members of European Parliament (MEP) and about European affairs in general, especially in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Portugal and Great Britain. EU citizens traditionally perceive the European Parliament as too weak, because policy-making at EU level is dominated by executive actors (the national ministers in the Council and the government appointees in the Commission), while citizens are used to a stronger role of the parliament at national level. Not only does the Commission have the role of the executive, but also the Council has more legislative power than the European Parliament. Moreover, the executives’ actions at the European level seem to be beyond national governments’ control, unlike the ministers and bureaucrats at the national level.
All in all, the institutions can still seem too complex and not transparent. However, the role of the European Parliament in the legislative process has been increased significantly since the Maastricht Treaty introduced the co-decision procedure, whereby legislation cannot be passed without a majority in both, the Council and the Parliament ; and the Lisbon Treaty may reinforce this trend. But, according to the figures, presently institutions’ roles and functions still seem not to be clear enough. Alternatively, maybe European citizens just do not inform themselves enough. And this in turn is caused by their lack of interest in the EU.
Indeed, what is even more worrying for the sake of (European) democracy is that nearly one third feels their vote will not change anything, most importantly in Bulgaria, Austria, and Latvia. Already based on the 1999 European elections, the BBC claimed that ‘democracy is in trouble’ considering that in the UK 11 million votes were counted at the elections, while 23 million votes were cast in the 2002 Big Brother season. Due to the EU’s distant and complex image, its institutions also seem to have increasingly less legitimacy, and citizens are clearly more interested in domestic affairs. This has further been highlighted in the Eurobarometer study as citizens chose issues which concern them most directly, for the European Parliament’s agenda. More precisely, the economic crisis seems to shape citizens’ interests : 57% of citizens want the campaign to address rising unemployment, followed by economic growth (52%). In contrast, issues such as immigration, terrorism, criminality or climate change are among topics which are voted to be given less priority.
Can you hear me, Europe ?
Can such an outcome still be prevented between now and June ? The European Commission is trying to convince particularly young Europeans to refrain from abstaining, as only 18% of Europeans aged between 18 and 25 voted at the last elections. Several initiatives have been launched to prevent the repetition of such a trend. Most of them operate online, the internet counting as the most proximate media to youngsters : Members of the social networking website Facebook can support or learn more about candidates by adding them as ‘friends’. Alternatively, members can become fans of the EP on whose profile they can access links to further information websites or articles on European policies. Another interactive source of information is ‘EUtube’, an EU channel by YouTube, enabling the posting of videos on the EU and for debates. Several other projects have been set up by individual EU members, such as the texting or e-mailing service offered by the German information desk of the EP, as a reminder for the elections. Probably the most prominent project has been recently started by the European Commission in collaboration with MTV’s network channels, with the motto ‘Can you hear me, Europe ?’. Young people can post messages, tweets and videos on the campaign’s website to express their dreams and concerns. A series of TV adverts will promote the website on all MTV channels. The highlight was the ‘big shout’, consisting of young people gathered in the centres of Prague, Berlin and Milan on the 30th of April, collectively shouting : ‘Can you hear me, Europe ?’ Thousands of young people joined the shout in other European capitals.
Those are beautiful and highly important projects, since young Europeans are of course the future of Europe, and also because the media’s role in involving citizens in European affairs is crucial. In fact, the recent Eurobarometer study showed that only 36% of citizens, mostly in Great Britain, France and Belgium, had read or seen a topic related to the European Parliament in their regular media.
Of course the European Union will face difficulties in increasing enthusiasm for political participation among European citizens as long as it is not considered accountable and representative by the voters themselves. National governments still count as the most proximate accountable policy-makers to citizens, and most Europeans do not feel primarily ‘European’ but German, French, Italian, or Czech... Especially with the potential rise of protectionism due to the economic crisis, the European Union does not seem to move towards further political integration. However, whoever feels that the EU is the way towards co-operation and solidarity should realize that the EU’s democracy will primarily be strengthened through participation in its direct elections. Before everyone hides in his own nest, Eurobarometer’s predicted figures should serve as a big wake-up call to remind us that casting your vote at the European Parliamentary elections is the way out of national protectionism and a move towards something hopefully bigger and more powerful.