21st Feb 2024


Without candidates, who will blog about EU elections?

  • Obama energised the US elections. Europe also needs strong candidates to wake up its electorate (Photo: EUobserver)

These are tough times for the European Union. Its much needed constitutional reform lies grubby and in tatters after the Irish referendum, with great uncertainty as to how, when or if it can ever again be put on the rails.

The union's great initiative on climate change is also under pressure. Even as the UN struggles this week in Poznan for future agreement on limiting carbon emissions, several member states, led by Italy, are desperate to resile from European commitments already entered into.

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Carmakers have forced the legislators to water down curbs on emission limits. It remains to be seen whether concessions will be made to heavy industry, removing the burden of actually having to purchase permissions to pollute. Otherwise, say the steel makers, we shall uproot our blast furnaces and ship them to China, where those in charge are less particular about such things as carbon.

And then there is the recession and the European Commission's much vaunted €200 billion financial stimulus announced just over a week ago.

This would have injected, mainly from the coffers of member states, around 1.5 per cent of Europe's GDP into cash tills all the way from Crete to Connemara. It was heralded with great fanfare and accompanied by messages of how the commission would be flexible in allowing states to borrow and overspend - at least until the day of reckoning came in 2011.

Now it appears that member states, taking their lead this time from Germany, have said they would prefer to keep their powder dry and the money in their own pockets, or rather in their own banks. One almost feels sorry for European Commission president, Mr Barroso.

Marechal Foch

I was reminded of the splendid quotation attributed to Marechal Foch, the French commander in the First World War. "Mon centre cède. Ma droite recule. Situation excellente. J'attaque! [My centre is giving way. My right is retreating. Excellent position. I shall attack]."

Indeed! When adversity strikes and the situation worsens there may be no alternative. The only question for the European Union in following Mr Foch's advice is "where, and how?'

Well, we are but seven months away from the elections to the European Parliament next June. There are constant references in the outpourings of the European Institutions.

I even noticed a new blogging competition yesterday run by the European Journalism Centre and a photographic competition run by the European Parliament. The subject is being raised in schools and on information tours to Brussels, in fact it is mentioned all the time.

Even the now defunct - proposed as an online political forum to facilitate exchange and debate among national parliamentarians on the future of the EU - was intended to boost interest and participation in the European elections of 2009.

And yet such steps, when you think about them, are just background: the sort of atmospheric hiss that comes over a badly-tuned loudspeaker.

These initiatives are all right in themselves and as far as they go - but really they don't go very far. They cannot disguise the awful fact that the political foreground is largely empty and silent.

At a time when the politicians and the parties who aim to count on the European stage should be setting out their stalls, gearing themselves up with speeches, encouraging support, setting out the issues and their broad visions for the future, settling on who they would like to see appointed to high-ranking European offices and encouraging us towards partisanship and cutting debates across the dinner table, there is only deafening silence.

With Europe reeling under the impact of world events, leadership and vision have never been more important.

Both national leaders and we ordinary folk need to be persuaded to keep the head of the European ship facing into the wind, to keep going forward, to weather the storm, rather than to take refuge in saying "every person, every nation for themselves."

It is because external conditions are so adverse that we should now be demanding a clear lead from those parties who aim for success next June.

Inspiration wanted

If Barack Obama, a mere candidate then for the Democratic Party nomination, can come to Berlin and attract 200,000 people to hear him, then surely we should be capable of producing politicians in Europe who can draw a respectable fraction of this number? And if we can't, why?

Why should we need to "boost interest and participation in" the European elections at all? Why do we fear that turnout in some countries will be so low as to threaten the democratic legitimacy of those elected?

It is because politics in Europe and debate in Europe has simply become so stultified and dull, extinguished by the well-meaning and ordered hand of bureaucracy.

Politics was always about people and will always be about people, because ultimately we place our trust and our judgement in people.

It matters who is chosen - that there should be direct connection between electors and elected. There must be debate. Having a blogging competition to promote elections to the European Parliament will be a futile activity unless we have people to blog about: to praise and lambast.

Learning from America

Let the European political groups then, each choose a candidate for President of the European Commission and for the post of High Representative.

Let them assume also the Lisbon treaty will be implemented and let them present a candidate for European President.

I know it is the Council of Ministers who choose, but they are required to take account of Europe's elected representatives. Let us see whom the parties nominate and let the nominees raise the banner for the political group that supported them.

That would boost interest and participation in the European elections and would bring at last the untidy noise of democracy to the European stage.

We know we have got it wrong when our senior European politicians prefer to serve in the non-elected commission, or even in national government, rather than in the currently anodyne European Parliament, even though that body is (theoretically at least) the second most important legislature in the world.

With Europe facing so many difficulties, on so many fronts, it is indeed time to attack and to attack politically.

It is time for politicians to put themselves up for election, make speeches in Berlin, and to lead from the front. This is one area in which we can indeed learn from America.

Peter Sain ley Berry is an independent commentator on European affairs


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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