Europe's Unpopular Elections Who Is to Blame for EU Voter Apathy?

Voter turnout for this week's European parliamentary election is expected to be the lowest since direct elections began 30 years ago. Is this the fault of the parliament itself? Inadequate media coverage? Or are national governments failing in their responsibility to educate the electorate?
Von Siobhán Dowling

The European election campaign is out of this world. Literally. Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne is beaming down a message from space calling on his fellow Europeans to vote in this week's European parliamentary election. "I have arranged to vote by proxy, so I won't miss out on the next European elections while I'm up here," he announced from the International Space Station in a video transmitted on Wednesday, adding somewhat unconvincingly: "Europe looks united from up here."

This plea from the cosmos is just part of a big PR offensive the European Parliament press office is hoping will get out the vote from June 4-7. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and video site YouTube have been harnessed to connect with young people; press releases are fired out on a daily if not hourly basis extolling the virtues of the European Union. Star footballers Olli Kahn, David Villa, Luis Figo have even been recruited to lure Europe's sporting fans to the voting booth.

After all that hard work, however, the looming election seems to have whipped as much excitement as a cricket match on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Ripped election posters in Lyon France.

Ripped election posters in Lyon France.

Foto: AFP

And yet, this is the world's largest exercise in trans-national democracy. An estimated 375 million voters across 27 countries are eligible to cast their votes this week for the sole institution in the EU that is directly elected by the people. The other two are the executive branch known as the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, where each of the 27 governments has an equal say.

Long derided as a kind of pointless talking shop, the European Parliament is actually a body with steadily growing powers -- or "competences" in EU-speak, with shared power on two-thirds of all legislation in the bloc. The 736 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have control over most of the EU's huge budget of over €116 billion ($164 billion), and they have an equal say with the Council of Ministers on over 70 percent of all EU laws. In addition, they can fire the entire Commission or veto its appointment, something the parliament memorably did in 2004 when it rejected the Italian nominee Rocco Buttiglione on account of his dubious views on homosexuality and women.

If the Lisbon Treaty -- an agreement designed to streamline the EU's decision-making process -- is finally ratified after an expected second referendum in Ireland, parliament will have even more muscles to flex. It will be bestowed with greater budgetary power, joint decision-making responsibility on almost all EU laws, and the right to appoint the bloc's top diplomat.

During the next legislature period, the European Parliament is expected to influence EU decisions on an ever-increasing range of issues, including trade, financial services, climate change, energy security, transportation, consumer protection and immigration.

Nevertheless, this growing might doesn't seem to have registered with the electorate. A Eurobarometer poll published in April found that only 34 percent of EU citizens definitely intended to cast votes this week. Although a more recent poll conducted by TNS Opinion in May saw this projection rise slightly to 43 percent, it still looks unlikely that a wave of democratic fervor can be whipped up before the first polling stations open on Thursday. In fact, 2009 may see the lowest turnout since the first direct elections took place 30 years ago, topping the already dismal abstention record from 2004 when only 45 percent made the effort to vote.

Gaëtane Ricard-Nihoul, secretary general of Notre Europe, a Paris-based think tank, warns against turning talk of voter apathy into a "self-fulfilling prophecy" but admits there is a "big paradox that voter turnout is getting lower while the EP is extending its powers."

Where does the fault lie? Are national leaders and parties to blame, for failing to admit how much power parliament really has? Is the media to blame for not giving sufficient air time or column inches to the intricacies of parliament's work? Is it the way the elections are organized? Or is parliament itself, with its dependency on consensus rather than conflict, a sure snooze for all but the most Europhile observers?

The most obvious reason is, off course, that no matter how people vote this week, no "EU government" is going to be reelected or defeated as would be the case in normal elections. Parliament doesn't appoint the European Commission. So as the election results come trickling in on Sunday evening, none of the current batch of commissioners will be glued to their TV screens, hoping to amass enough votes for their political survival. Martin Schulz, the German MEP who chairs the Socialist group in parliament, decries this state of affairs. "The election outcome ought to determine the makeup of the Commission," he told SPIEGEL in a recent interview. "The separation of powers we are familiar with from the nation-state doesn't exist."

'The European Parliament Is Invisible'

Another turn-off for voters may be that parliament has no say on the most pressing issues in a recession-torn Europe -- taxation and spending, health and education. As such, there are many parts of the lives of EU citizens that will remain completely untouched by the election.

"No choice is being made, there is no obvious relevance," argues Mark Franklin, Professor of Comparative Politics at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. "Why does anyone vote at all? Why would someone bother to take the 15 minutes to vote for something with no apparent purpose?" he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Franklin argues that parliament is to all intents and purposes "invisible."

This invisibility enabled the elections to become so-called "second-order" elections, where voters often choose either not to turn out at all, to vote for extremists they would never support in national elections or to sanction unpopular governments. In Britain for example, the Labour Party government is expected to get a thrashing this week. The far-right British National Party could gain its first seat in the European Parliament. In Germany, on the other hand, the vote will be regarded as the dress rehearsal for national elections in September.

Yet this invisibility is partly a result of parliament's absence in most of Europe's media. Most news on the European Union tends to be about how it affects national interests. "People only get a picture of the national political scene. There is no Europe-wide political scene," Franklin argues.

'The Media Is in a Vicious Circle'

For Andrew Duff, a British MEP for the Liberal Democrats, the lack of a Europe-wide press corps is a big part of the problem. "The press is generally driven by stories that come out of Berlin and Paris," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Brussels correspondents face a great struggle to place stories," he says.

"The media is in a vicious circle," Ricard-Nihoul of Notre Europe argues. "It assumes that European issues are boring for the citizens," and then in turn it becomes "an obstacle between the citizens and the EU."

That obstacle is quantifiable. Susan Banducci, a political scientist at the University of Exeter in Britain has conducted research on how media coverage influences turnout in the European elections. "There is a clear link between the visibility of the European Parliament in the news and the probability of voting," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. In 2004, Banducci conducted a study of the two most popular TV news programs in each EU member state. She found a huge variation between countries. Programs in Greece, Slovakia, Denmark, Austria and Malta mention the EU in around 20 percent of their stories, compared to only 2 to 3 percent in Germany. Eurobarometer polls conducted for the European Union have repeatedly shown that most Europeans get their information from television. And Banducci says that research her team conducted in 1999 and 2004 "found that in countries that had a higher level of attention, turnout did increase."

Of course the Byzantine inner workings of the European Union don't make it particularly easy for journalists to pitch a story to their editors and producers.

Much of the work done in Brussels and Strasbourg is achieved as a result of consensus and compromise between the parliamentary groups, entities that are largely unknown to the voters. There are seven main groups around which the various MEPs coalesce. The biggest is the center-right European People's Party (EPP), followed by the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) and the centrist, pro-free market Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The Greens, a smaller conservative grouping, a far-left group and the euro-skeptics account for the other four. The search for common ground amongst the various groups might make sense politically, but it lacks the dramatic cut and thrust of most national parliaments. "We have to be consensual to achieve a majority and combat the council," Duff admits, "I wouldn't exaggerate it though. There are splits along partisan lines."

Ricard-Nihoul argues that the European Parliament needs to deviate from this consensual approach in order to make things more exciting. She wants the different European parliamentary groups to have the power to propose their own candidates for the post of president of the Commission, currently occupied by Jose Manuel Barroso. "This would increase politicization and personalization. You can vote for a party that supports a candidate you like for president."

'A Trans-National Constituency'

Banducci agrees. Parliament could do with a bit more confrontation. "When there is something at stake, then the media becomes interested. It then filters down to the citizens," she says. "Having the commission elected by the parliament would be a good start."

Duff disagrees, maintaining that this would turn the EU into a presidential system rather than a parliamentary one. Instead, he sees a radical shake-up of the electoral system as the best means to generate interest. Duff, who is the European Parliament's rapporteur on electoral reform, submitted his recommendations late last year. "We want a trans-national constituency across the 27 states to elect a proportion of the MEPs," he says, arguing that this would "oblige us to address the EU dimension of politics."

For Franklin of the European University Institute, another factor in the disconnect between voters and Europe is the way national governments act one way when they gather in Brussels for the Council of Ministers meetings, and then another for their domestic audiences back home. "The real decisions are made in secret. We never hear what the ministers said at the meeting," he says, adding: "It is utterly unconscionable." Franklin would like to see the council open itself up "so that no minister can come home saying 'I fought for the national interest,' with no mention of the compromise that had to be made."

However, as national governments cede more and more power to Brussels and Strasbourg they of course have a vested interest in at least presenting themselves to the folks back home as still being the key decision-makers. "National politicians don't want to give up the pretence of power," Franklin argues. "They think they can promise the earth, but the majority of decisions are made in Brussels."

For Ricard-Nihoul leaders and parties who insist on focusing on national issues are failing in their responsibility to the electorate. Especially in the current economic crisis, people have to see that "European solutions are dominant and that the EU is the only relevant level for a response."

Duff thinks EU citizens have actually become quite canny about the growing influence of the EU in their lives. People may be "extremely poorly informed about how the EU works," he says, but they are "very intelligent at understanding that integration is far greater and more important than national political parties."

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