Europe’s Big, Boring Election

by Andrew Feldman:

“I live near Heathrow airport, and I’m worried about the planned expansion,” explained a concerned development-conscious voter. “What are your positions on that?”

“The Conservative party claims to be a non-racial party, but your mayor just canceled African Liberation Day celebrations,” protested an upset African-British man.

Candidates for the European Parliament were taking some heat in Committee Room 14 of Britain’s House of Commons. But the questions being asked, though important, were not at all related to the European Union (EU) or its powers. And so while these exchanges might look like evidence of EU democracy in action, their outward appearance belies a less straightforward reality.

A Democratic Evolution

For the first 20 years following its inception in 1952, the EU’s precursor organizations had no directly elected institutions. In an effort to combat perceptions that it was too removed from ordinary citizens, the EU’s appointed advisory body was renamed the European Parliament, and in 1979 the first direct elections were held to choose its members.

In the last 30 years, the Parliament has changed remarkably. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have fought hard to gain more power for the body, a development which has led members to take their jobs more seriously. MEPs are now selected democratically based on proportional representation, just as governments are chosen in most EU member states. The Parliament now wields power almost equal to that of the EU’s other legislative body, the Council of Ministers composed of a representative from the government of each member state.

Yet as the European Parliament has been evolving into a true legislative body, turnout in parliamentary elections has been steadily decreasing, from 63 percent in 1979 to just over 43 percent in elections this past June, according to the Parliament’s official election statistics.

Talk to Me

The EU was determined to catch the attention of the public in advance of the June 2009 elections. In the months before the voting, large EU-sponsored advertisements plastered across European subways and
billboards prodded voters to think about the issues facing the EU: “What kind of borders do we want?” asked one poster contrasting images of a low hedge and a stone wall. “How should we produce our energy?” prompted one with symbols representing different types of energy. If not for the seriousness of issues at stake, these efforts would be laughable for their failure to stir even moderate voter interest, let alone increase turnout.

The frustration with the lack of interest was palpable. Newspapers ran mournful editorials by EU insiders, but few covered debates about EU-related issues seriously. In the final weeks before the elections, MEPs conceded that, despite their efforts, things had changed little from the previous election in 2004.

And so, at election time the Eu and its citizens found themselves in a reversal of the usual roles played by democratic governments and voters. The Eu explained to voters, with a hint of exasperation, that it wanted their input. Voters responded on Election Day by staying home in record numbers.

What Are They Thinking?

Some MEPs acknowledge that the European Parliament has failed to live up to democratic expectations. John Purvis, a retiring Conservative MEP, explained to the Globalist, “It’s perfectly democratic in design, but it’s debatable whether turnout and lack of interest make it democratic in practice.” Others MEPs defend the Parliament, praising its transparency relative to the secretive Council, or pointing to the radical change the EP has undergone in the last two decades. What most MEPs seemed to agree on is the public ignorance about the workings of the Parliament and the EU. “It’s a problem that people really just don’t understand the system,” said Fiona Hall, a British Liberal Democrat MEP.

And that ignorance was apparent in conversations with voters across England. Lack of public knowledge about politics is not unique to the EU, but its extent is somewhat astounding. Even politically-aware voters struggled to recall basics facts about the functioning of the European Parliament. And a significant number of voters had simply never heard of the body that is supposed to be voting on their behalf.

A New Way Forward?

While many MEPs lauded the European Parliament’s more democratic features, the leading scholarly consensus is that the Eu is facing a challenge of democracy: the “democratic deficit.” One of the world’s leading Eu scholars has some ideas on how to fix the situation. “There is no battle for control of political power and the policy agenda at the European level,” wrote Professor Simon Hix in his most recent book, What’s Wrong with the EU and How to Fix It. Voters vote in EP elections based on whether they like their current government rather than on European issues such as EU immigration policy.

This means that MEPs do not have to give much thought to election results when deciding how to vote in Parliament, and consequently policy outcomes are only weakly linked to the elections. But Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics, believes that the framework for a European democracy exists. “The treaties put everything in place already,” he explained in his London office. “Everything that needs to change is behavioral.” He believes that if the party that wins the elections received disproportional power in the Parliament, and if the elections had significant influence on the makeup of the EU’s executive branch, the elections would become more significant and would force parties to educate voters on the importance of the EU in their daily lives.

As evidence, Hix cited the recent legislation on the telecoms industry, which was partway through the parliament when the past session ended. The package dealt with potentially explosive rules on when Internet access could be denied to those suspect of piracy, but it only received limited attention in the media. Hix pointed out that if this had been examined at a national level, as it was in France, there could have been a large public debate. “Would there be media coverage of this? Would there be lobbying? Of course there would be!”

The Road Ahead

The Eu is fond of claiming that these past elections were the largest example of transnational democracy ever, but that’s not quite true. Truly democratic elections foster public debate, educate voters about key issues, and legitimize the political system. And the European Parliament elections did none of those three things.

While the reigning political elite does not seem to particularly attached to the status quo, and indeed expresses openness to reform, it lacks a sense of urgency. Nobody feels that the legitimacy of the Parliament or the union as a whole has been called into question. And as long as this is the case, there is no reason to expect a push for reform.

Those like Hix are right about the potential for democratic politics within the current Eu framework. But it will take more than cosmetic changes to achieve that goal. Meaningful reforms that make the EU more democratic, and thus more political, will face complaints that the EU is leaving behind its glory days as an apolitical body dedicated to the common good. But those days are numbered anyway, as the EU must grapple with important but inherently political issues such as immigration and foreign affairs if it wishes to remain relevant to European affairs. Given that the history of the EU is largely a history of leaders constantly forced to reinvent the European project, maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

Andrew Feldman is a junior Political Science major. His research was funded in part by grants from the Council of Masters and the Yale Program in European Union Studies.