Voting for Europe

Low turnout levels in the EU elections will only be reversed by greater transparency

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

More than 350 million voters are called to the ballot box this June 4th-7th, making these the second biggest democratic elections in the world after India (numerically speaking). These elections will mark a watershed, for two reasons, neither of which are cause for much pride exactly.

First of all, if the polls are right, the turnout is shaping up to be so low that the EU’s democratic legitimacy is going to take a battering; this is especially the case in Central and Eastern Europe, where the results of the last elections of 2004 were already devastating (16% turnout in Slovakia, 20% in Poland and so on successively). In normal circumstances, a disappointing turnout needn’t represent an insurmountable obstacle. But the problem in the European context is that turnout levels are not only low, they have been dropping continuously since 1979 when the first direct elections were held. Back then, 63% of Europeans voted; by 2004, that figure had fallen to 45%. Even worse still, turnout levels have been falling in inverse proportion to the powers of the European Parliament (the more powers, the lower the turnout), offering a paradox which is hard to assimilate. So really, these elections ought to be the last in which the big story is that the turnout is down again.

Secondly, these should also be the last elections where the result is known in advance. The Party of European Socialists enjoys an ideological cohesion and larger share of the vote than the European People’s Party, yet it has renounced its right to present a candidate to the presidency of the European Commission. At the same time, governments like that of Spain have gone public with their intention of supporting the re-election of current President of the Commission Barroso. In the absence of national competition over Europe, and in the absence of European competition over Europe, the incentives for voting with in a European frame of in mind would not appear to be very high. In this context, it is all too easy to understand voters wondering “Why vote?” first and foremost and only then the secondary question “Who to vote for?”

A key element related to turn-out is transparency. Knowing exactly what each party stands for and how each MEP votes can be very useful.  The multilingual webpage http://www.euprofiler.eu/ asks citizens to respond to thirty questions related to immigration, welfare expenditure, taxes and Europe’s borders. Once the questionnaire has been completed, information on the stance of 300 political parties on the same issues, previously collected by a team of 130 researchers, is used to tell each user which party comes closest to his/her interests, and to what extent as a percentage. Information such as whether parties in other member States are more in line with your interests, or which party best represents you as an EU immigrant with the right to a vote in Spain, can also be ascertained. This is all done in a very slick visual presentation; first of all by positioning each party and voter somewhere on an ideological (left-right) and European (more or less European) axis; and then subsequently on a ‘spider’s web’ with seven points (immigration, citizen security, taxes, environment, social expenditure, values and the economy). More than half a million people have already completed the questionnaire in the search for the party which comes closest to their own position. The page is put together very well, the questionnaire can be done in very little time, and the results can lead to quite a few surprises.

Another important aspect of the elections is related to the work of the Euro MPs. A few weeks ago, Flavien Deltort, former assistant of Italian MEP Marco Capatto, caused an enormous uproar when he launched a webpage (http://www.parlorama.eu/) offering a league table of the best and worst MEPs (through pretty crude in its methodology, it has to be said) based on information such as attendance at parliamentary sessions, the number of initiatives proposed or work on committees.

Some grumble about the demoralising effect this kind of information can have (especially in an electoral context like Europe’s, already adverse enough in itself). However, opacity is simply not an option. As the scandal surrounding the expenses system of British MPs has highlighted, transparency is a key element in all political systems; democracy is robbed of any real content if there in no possibility of exercising control over our representatives, both prospective and retrospective. Transparency not only legitimises institutions and benefits citizens; it is also works in favour of those politicians who take their job seriously, because in this way their efforts are recognised. It affects political parties most particularly; they will increasingly find it difficult to send representatives either incapable or unwilling to role up their sleeves and get in amongst the thick of the action at the European Parliament. It must surely be of interest to Italians to know that nine out of the twenty worst MEPs on the webpage are from Italy. And the knowledge that some of the most self-righteous Euro-sceptics like Italy’s Umberto Bossi, France’s Philippe de Villiers or the UK’s John Whittaker, are also amongst those who least attend the European Parliament to defend their ideas, is no doubt of some interest as well.

Curious to find out what your MEPs do exactly? Web-pages like http://www.votewatch.eu/, compiled according to more scientific criteria, offer a highly detailed picture of the intense work of each MEP, as well as their ideological orientation in their voting, the frequency with which they break ranks from party or group discipline, and what their parliamentary initiatives consist of exactly. It also provides detailed information on how each MEP voted on specific issues (the return directive, the 65 hour working week, or the famous Bolkenstein directive).

But all of this information is really quite useless without some kind of context. The absence of a truly European mass media on one hand, and the poor quality of the national debate on Europe at home on the other, can leave one feeling all too easily isolated. Fortunately, a grand European conversation is in full swing on the web: http://www.cafebabel.com/ is published simultaneously in six languages, whilst http://www.eurotopics.net/ and http://www.presseurop.eu/ offer summaries and translations of the most important stories in the European press, so we can keep up to date with what other European citizens are reading and discussing.

Unlike many national parliaments, where MPs could be easily substituted by automatic voting machines, the life of a MEP is remarkably complicated. Despite being held in disrepute by the whole of Europe, the work of a (good) European parliamentarian is enormously demanding; it requires that MEPs work very intensively in their political groupings, present initiatives and coordinate reports in the heart of committees, try their best to influence the Commission and governments, and build coalitions and negotiate with several parties at once. All of this without neglecting their constituencies at home. The best MEPs are enormously influential, which is why it’s good to know who they are and what they’re doing. When all is said and done, they are working for you.

The Parliament which emerges form these elections will be highly influential, especially if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified and comes into effect. It is in all our interests to take it seriously. [email protected]

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow