Commission unveils plans for noisier EU elections
By Honor Mahony
The European Commission on Tuesday (12 March) unveiled a series of proposals to make the next European elections a pan-European political event rather than an also-ran quasi national poll with an embarrassingly low turnout.
If member states implement the suggestions, voters in 2014 will know who their national party is affiliated with at the European level and who this party wants as the next President of the European Commission.
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Citizens across the EU will also all vote on one day - until now the ballot has been held on different days in some member states - and be informed about the presidential candidate through TV debates.
"It is important to get more people to vote," said citizens' commissioner Viviane Reding.
Average voter turnout has been declining since direct elections began in 1979, reaching a low point of 43 percent in 2009.
This voter apathy has become a major point of discussion and unease both due to the European Parliament's rise in law-making powers as well as the recent large increase in the European Commission's powers over national budgets.
"We are deepening European integration. We have seen in our everyday lives how important the European semester [budgetary cycle] has become and the country-specific [economic policy] recommendations," said institutional affairs commissioner Maros Sefcovic.
"That calls for more democratic scrutiny of what the European Union is engaging in. We need to ensure the participation in the European election is as high as possible," he added.
The commissioners also used recent survey data to back up the recommendations.
A eurobarometer showed that 62 percent of citizens believe turnout would be boosted by having commission President candidates and a single polling day.
Eighty-four percent say more people would go to the ballot boxes if they were more aware of the EU's impact on their lives - with European elections tending to remain stubbornly and exclusive about national issues.
Tuesday's suggestions are meant to smooth out any potential wrinkles in what is a new system for choosing the commission President, introduced with the Lisbon Treaty in late 2009.
The treaty says the EU leaders are meant to choose the next commission chief "taking into account" the EU elections. The wording, while putting pressure on national governments traditionally used to behind-closed-door haggling on who will be president of the European Commission, is not watertight.
"In politics there is always room for complication," admitted Reding.
But she added that it was important that discussions on how exactly the wording is interpreted take place now, rather than after the election.
Sefcovic, for his part, said it was "difficult to imagine that the [election] result would be completely disregarded" by EU leaders.
The commission's proposals have been welcomed by the parliament and by European political parties.
"The arrival of party political champions on the scene will dramatise the European Parliamentary election campaign across Europe," said UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff.
The parties themselves are due to nominate their presidential candidates by early 2014.
Several names are already cropping up, including that of Viviane Reding for the centre-right EPP.
The attempt to engage European voters comes as some analysts fear that dissatisfaction with Brussels austerity drive could trigger a rise in populist and fringe parties ahead of the EU vote.
The election is due to take place on a day between 22 and 25 May next year, after EU ambassadors on Tuesday agreed to move it forward from June in a bid to avoid voters' holiday plans keeping them away from the ballot box.