Where now for the European Parliament?
It was the most expensive communications campaign in the history of the European Parliament, marked by the lowest turnout on record.The thirty years’ anniversary of direct elections to the European Parliament confirmed an incessant downward trend of citizen participation, reaching new lows of 43% across Europe. “This is bad for Parliament, bad for the institutions, bad for Europe,” predicted former Secretary General, Julian Priestly.
A deflated-looking Martin Schulz, leader of the European Socialist group, was forlorn when addressing the hemicycle press conference live from Berlin. He had been hoping to become the next President of the European Parliament, in another EPP-ED / PES agreement to split the five year presidency between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists over the course of the next legislature, an ambition that now seems unlikely to be fulfilled.
Mr Schulz put the result down to wipe-outs in several EU countries, where Socialist governments have taken a bashing on domestic issues, despite being in the depths of an economic recession fuelled by free-market liberal economic policies. Graham Watson, leader of the European liberal group ALDE acknowledged that “no political group had electrified the electorate” and had three solutions for raising turnout. Namely, that all future commissioners should be selected from European Parliament members; that a percentage of MEPs should canvass on pan-European lists; and that the Commission-funded Euronews channel should acquire public service broadcasting status in each of the 27 EU member states.
Outgoing EPP-ED President, Hans-Gert Poettering, said future improved democratic participation by electors depended on greater cooperation between political parties, MEPs and the media. For him, more reporting of the work of the Parliament was needed to increase awareness of its importance and activities.
The GUE /NGL European United Left President, Francis Wurtz, opined that “too many citizens are fearful of how the EU is developing”, and added, starkly, “Europe is not doing well at all at the moment.” When citizens sense that their vote is disregarded – as in the cases of the European Constitution and Lisbon Treaty referenda – it leaves the impression that Europe isn’t listening to them and will do what it wants anyway, he suggested.
If the solutions to the electoral participation remain mixed and uncertain, what is now clear is that the low turnout raises the spectre of yet another EU crisis – that of the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament itself. As it eagerly looks forward to the acquisition of even more powers if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified by Ireland and other states, one wonders if, given the current level of popular support despite millions of Euros spent in its promotion, this is appropriate.
Perhaps the way in which the European Parliament is reported might need revising. For years, the communication policy has been to credit “the European Parliament” when legislation is amended, adopted or rejected. So that European voters know who’s acting in alignment with their belief systems and who’s not, it might bring clarity if the differences between the approaches of political parties, their voting decisions and patterns were separated out and made explicit. Because after all, when you go into a polling booth on the day, there’s no box for ticking “European Parliament”.
In the heel of the hunt, your choice is between this political party or that one, and knowledge of how the different parties have voted - for or against, and compared to one another - on components of legislation during the term is one of the most testing aspects of activity to decipher. In conclusion, those policy choices which have to date been glossed over and kept relatively vague in the interests of the collective “Parliament” should be forced out into the limelight and made conspicuous and clear to all. Then it might dawn on voters the European decisions that are being made by the various political parties holding seats, and be more willing to vote for where their interests lie.
**Turnout down from 45.47% in 2004 across Europe
Dr. NoelleAnne O'Sullivan is a political blogger with years of experience in the EU institutions.