Jean Quatremer has today penned a rather depressing post (in French) about how abstention from voting is likely to reach a new high in the European Parliament elections 4-7 June this year. How, he bemoans, can this be the case for the EP alors même que ses pouvoirs n’ont cessé de se renforcer, au point désormais d’égaler ceux du Conseil des ministres? Essentially why is this happening when the EP’s powers have increased?
Let me try to answer that.
First of all these EP elections are taking place against a backdrop of disenfranchisement and disengagement with politics right across Europe. Election turnout has been edging downwards in most European countries, and has been especially low in the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. In essence this is not a uniquely EU-level problem. EP elections are also still essentially second order national elections, with very little in terms of trans-national campaigns.
Secondly, while the European Parliment has undoubtedly gained power, I don’t think this is a power that is remotely comprehensible for voters. What is different in Europe now because the EPP-ED has been the largest political group since 2004? I can’t tell you and I’m an EU politics geek. Amending the services directive has been one of the EP’s big successes since 2004 but is any voter going to understand it, or any candidate going to even try to explain it to a voter?
So while I agree with Quartremer that the European Parliament has more power than ever, that does not translate into reasons to vote. It’s not power that is measurable or comprehensible. The EP can spend as much money as it likes on slick advertising campaigns to boost turnout and team up with MTV for an initiative called Can You Hear Me Europe? but the essential problem remains unchanged.
Jon, You say “Amending the services directive has been one of the EP’s big successes since 2004”, and there are plenty in the Parliament who would say that, but is it really true? Even the Economic and Social Committee (who they?) claim that they were the first to bring the parties round the table and come up with the ideas that formed the basis of the final directive. But it’s all basically spin.
It was clear after the heat generated on the issue, in the French referendum campaign in particular, that the Commission’s proposal (particuarly when the Commission had changed and Bolkestein and co weren’t around to defend it) wasn’t going to be adopted by either Parliament or Council without significant changes. I would question whether the final outcome owes any more to Parliament than to the Council…it takes two to tango and all that.
What it does illustrate is the ever-increasing move of Parliamentary business from the public arena of committees (ok, there was always plenty of discussions in the (coffee) bars and in small groups which were neither minuted or public) to private meetings involving a small number of MEPs, the Council Presidency and the Commission. More and more significant legislative decisions are taken behind closed doors and presented as a package to be approved by the relevant committee and rubber-stamped in plenary. If you like, conciliation, fomally the final step in the codecision process is taking place informally (i.e. without the time limits and formal requirements) earlier and earlier in the process.
Perhaps it’s idealistic to imagine things otherwise, but it appears that the Parliament is now more than ever focused on getting legislation adopted rather than on discussing its merits. If everything’s pre-cooked before the Commission even adopts a proposal, of course, it’s almost certain to be adopted, but it seems to me that Parliament needs to take a step back from its default position that all legislative proposals from the Commission are destined to become legislation, with a few “trophy” amendments to show Parliament has muscles. More questioning of the Commission’s aims and whether legislating is even the best approach, never mind in the form of the specific proposal, would surely demonstrate the Parliament’s worth more than a handful of technical amendments.
I could be wrong, but as I understand it turnout in national elections in Poland, Latvia etc. is lower than in Western Europe. Same for EP elections.
Hey Jon, do you mean to say that voter turnout is falling especially fast in the new EU entrant countries, rather than that the turnout is especially low? Although their voter turnout rates are dropping rapidly compared to where they were in the 90’s, don’t most Eastern European countries still have election turnouts that are much higher than those in Western Europe?
So, I think, Monika, you confirm my words – the decision is in the hand of member states (member states’s governments) foremost and the voters react on it only.
From my point of view as a reporter in Brussels the trouble is also in the decision making process of the EU. First I report that “The European Commission is proposing law X”, then I have to tell the readers “The European Parliament agreed to law X which I wrote about 6 months ago, but I still don’t know if it’s going to come into life because the member countries still have to agree”. Anybody awake yet?
I believe the greatest problem is that the voters do not know why they should vote their representatives in the European parliament. The parliament is not that one who makes a policy in the EU (the national (executive) politicians have the power in their hands) and the voters feel it at the least if they know it not exactly. Similar situation is in the Czech republic: there the parliament is bicameral, it consist of two chambers – the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The more mighty of them is the first one – its deputies authorize laws whereas the senators can only amend a proposal or reject it, but the last word is on lower house’s side – most of senators objections are overvoted by it. This power domination of the lower house reflects upon election turnout – when the deputies of the lower house are voted, voters turnout is appreciable greater (though not very great in last years) then in senate elections.The voters come to a ballot box when “something is at stake”. In addiditon: in almost all European states the government is constituted after parliament election; in the EU it happens not (the Comission is not a true government and the voters know it).
Good post – I fear that the reality in the UK may be that most people think that the EP’s a talking shop, and that’s why they either don’t vote or treat it as a mid-term referendum on national political issues.
And when they do find out what powers the EP has, let alone the extent of the areas in which the EU overall can act, it’s not unusual for them to be afraid and react eurosceptically.
It doesn’t have to be this way of course. But are you aware of any UK political party that really considers it to be vital to their interests to address this? Let alone any mainstream media outlet? It’s useful to be able to bash faceless “Europe”.
So a mixture of ignorance and scepticism. But that’s not so different to the view towards politics overall in the UK – who really knows which political level has responsibility for the things that affect them? But while those in the Westminster village probably believe that everyone has a soft spot for the Palace of Westminster, there does seem to be a growing sense of “them” and “us”, even for national MPs – although some might still regard their MP as a decent bloke (still usually bloke, I’m afraid). The multi-member constituencies for the EP elections makes this personal “ours is all right really” link impossible.
Dan Hannan’s Brown-bashing a few weeks back has perhaps raised the profile of the EP, and probably secured his personal name-recognition with a few more of the voters in his region (although we don’t have a mechanism in our EP electoral system to vote for individuals within party lists), but I’m not sure it’ll do much to up turnout overall, even for the sceptic or phobic parties.
It’s a bit depressing really.
The absence of candidates for the Commission Presidency and visible pan-European campaigns for them is one of the reasons for a lack of interest and enthusiasm, as well as the absence of lively media interest.
Prime ministers Socrates, Zapatero and Brown have visibly emasculated the potential campaigns for the European elections, but so have a number of their colleagues although less visibly.
In my country (Finland) the leading newspapers write fairly often and mainly intelligently about EU affairs, but the public does not seem to notice and its knowledge is rudimentary.
Jean Quatremer was right about the rising importance of the European Parliament, but he was a bit hasty in pronouncing it an equal to the Council. It is true with regard to ‘Community legislation’ (codecision), but not concerning the long term budget, the CAP, foreign, security and defence policy, areas of justice and home affairs etc. And the member states sit on institutional reform.