17th Apr 2021

The twin problems of European elections

  • Turnout hovered near the 30 percent mark in several member states in the last elections in 2004. (Photo: Wikipedia)

With the next European elections less than a year away, MEPs and their political parties are already thinking about attention-getting themes and turnout, the twin problems that have dogged the EU assembly since direct elections began in 1979.

But next year's June vote has been elevated to something of a milestone with Brussels for the first time trying to create what has so far remained an elusive entity: a European political space.

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It took the political earthquakes of the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed EU constitution in 2005 to make EU officials really tackle the gap between what Brussels believes it is doing and what citizens perceive it to be doing.

One of the results of this political soul-searching is that for the 2009 elections, European political parties, of which there are 10, will have the benefit of EU money to finance political campaigns.

The other main innovation is the setting up of political foundations designed to get people talking about issues that affect Europeans across the bloc.

EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom has said that the point of the measures - which were approved by MEPs late in 2007 after being proposed by the European Commission - "is not to ask everybody to love the European Union but to say: 'There is something going on, you had better participate'."

But the question remains whether the parties will be able to find pan-European themes that galvanise people into going and voting. In several member states, turnout hovered around the 30 percent mark in 2004.

A referendum on the EU treaty

Climate change and globalisation are issues that can be considered to affect virtually all of Europe's nearly 500 million citizens. But until now, the European elections, which take place across all member states on the same day, tend to be national affairs dominated by local issues, with citizens unconvinced that what MEPs do directly affect them.

This is a constant source of irritation to euro-deputies, who in reality wield a lot of clout in several legislative areas - particularly concerning the internal market - but who are often elected into office by only a sliver of the electorate.

Bar an unlikely swing towards something like what looks like a European demos, the 2009 elections are likely to uphold the dispiriting patterns of the past.

But there are two elements that may set the 2009 elections apart. The first is the general state of European awareness levels following Ireland's rejection of the EU's Lisbon treaty.

On the back of this, Declan Ganley, head of Libertas, the most high-profile of the anti-treaty groups in the run up to the Irish No in June, has indicated he may contest the elections by fielding a pan-European team of anti-Lisbon candidates.

Mr Ganley's decision is expected to rest on how EU governments respond to the Irish vote.

"The European elections next year might provide the platform to, if you like, be a proxy referendum on the Lisbon treaty. If they don't listen to the fact that the Lisbon treaty is dead, maybe the citizens of Europe will decide to give their politicians a referendum - one they may not be seeking, but to give it to them anyway," he said in Washington in July.

The other factor that could play a role in mobilising voters is the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. He has said he is interested in holding onto the job for a second term provided that he has the "support of member states and the European Parliament."

He has already received the backing of some big guns from his centre-right political family - including the leaders of France and Italy - meaning that political groups in the EU assembly could campaign on his record as commission leader so far, giving an arguably more European theme to the elections.

Mr Barroso's statement about having the support of the European Parliament effectively means that the centre-right European People's Party will have to maintain its dominance in the house for the next legislature.

This gives the centre-right a person to campaign for while providing other parties – such as the Socialists – a person to campaign against and giving EU citizens as a whole something tangible to think about on their way to the ballot box.

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