May of this year will see the eighth European-wide European Parliament (EP) elections since the first were held in 1979, which will be, in the eyes of many, the most significant thus far. This election will be the one and only chance for Europe’s 500 million citizens to directly decide who will represent them in Europe for the next 5 years, what they stand for, and what the Parliament’s political direction will be.
One of the seminal arguments consistently levelled at European voting and general political involvement is the lack of information about the institutions themselves, in essence many people don’t know what they are voting – or not voting – for. So what is the EP and why does it matter?
Since 1979 the EP has been the only directly elected body of the EU at the European level, it has gained significantly in power since this time and today holds significant budgetary and co-legislative powers. It is the only Parliament in the world with two seats (Strasbourg and Brussels) and is also the most multi-lingual chamber with 24 official languages in routine usage. The Parliament’s 766 MEPs (to be reduced to a permanent level of 751 in 2014) are members of national parties directly elected for the specific purpose of representing the interests of their citizens – the only one of the EU’s four main institutions to do so.
The observed trend over previous EP elections has led to the now commonly held theory that they constitute so called ‘second-order national contests’, i.e. they that are less important to voters than national elections. This phenomenon has manifested despite the fact that European integration over past decades has been augmenting at a significant rate; meaning that even though Europe is becoming more and more significant to the lives of it’s citizenry, the significance they attach to EP elections has remained largely stagnant. This is what needs to change in 2014.
European advocates are extremely keen in the run up to May to impress upon potential voters that ‘this time is different’ – that the EP elections are worth taking seriously. They’re right, but not solely for the reasons that appear immediately obvious. First and foremost at an institutional level, the major change for this year’s Parliament is the power to ‘elect’ the President of the European Commission – the main executive body of the EU. The parties that make up the current EP are nominating candidates for the most powerful executive office in the EU, who must then be approved by a majority (376) of the MEPs. Thus for the first time, EP elections will not only decide who will sit in the Parliament, but also indirectly who will lead the Commission.
Aside from this ‘official’ change, there are several other – highly significant – reasons why the 2014 elections are worth extra attention. As all Europeans are well aware, the Union is in the midst of either a crisis or a crisis-recovery mode, dependent on the country in question, therefore this round of EP elections will be a real test for how the mainstream ruling parties have been judged throughout the past few turbulent years. With austerity in the South and bailout payments in the North, Europe is arguably more divided today than it has been in decades, however in some cases all sides appear to have reacted in a similar fashion; looking to the extremes.
European elections have, on average, recorded far lower turnouts than their national counterparts due to their perceived ‘less important’ nature, meaning that those who are motivated to vote often do so to out of a fervent desire to express strong views, not usually shared by the ‘average’ voter. This, combined with national protest votes and the proportional voting system, often leads to results which look very different in each country to the better attended national elections – with extreme parties of both the Left and Right often fairing far better.
While some of these ‘extreme’ parties are arguing for comparatively modest policies of European reform or withdrawal (e.g. UKIP), others such as the Front National in France or the True Finns in Finland (and many more) hold ideologies and policies that many find far more troublesome. If people wish to vote for these parties that is, of course, their decision. However what is of concern is that those supporting more moderate views lack the same motivation and drive to express them, which is why this time around it is imperative that everyone should exercise their democratic right to vote to achieve a balanced a representative result.
The ‘democratic deficit’ is critique consistently aimed at the European Union; a claim that as an institution it lacks democratic accountability and thus legitimacy. However, with the increasing powers of the directly elected European Parliament being introduced this year, the EU is apparently taking steps to address these concerns. EP election turnout in 2009 was an average across all Member States of 43% (34.7% in the UK) – and yet even with significantly less than half the population registering a vote, the past 5 years have seen unprecedented criticism of the European project from all corners of the continent. While ability to criticise authority is an essential part any democratic political system, so too is the vote; one without the other only tells half the story.
The onus, come May, will lie solely on the shoulders of the electorate to hold Europe up to its democratic account. No matter how you may choose to vote, it is more crucial than ever that you do so.