MEPs trying to woo disillusioned voters

Opinion: A low poll could sink Schulz’s gambit

German Social Democrat Martin Schulz: engaged in a “slightly democratic” gambit. Photograph: Reuters

German Social Democrat Martin Schulz: engaged in a “slightly democratic” gambit. Photograph: Reuters


For years the struggle between Europe’s institutions has been one of the real dynamics of EU politics, although often wrongly seen as peripheral to the “sexier” clashes between states or their leaders, or the rise of Europhobic parties, the likely headline story of the looming European elections.

MEPs, once members of a toothless talking shop, have in successive treaties wrung new rights for themselves to share in legislative decision-making, though not yet in initiating laws, and to have a final say on EU budgets, though without a say on how money is raised. They have also leveraged their powers to exercise some control over the European Commission nomination process.

The result has been the emergence of a complex system of inter-institutional bargaining between MEPs, the commission and member states/the Council of Ministers, and a shift in the EU’s balance of powers towards elect- ed representatives. For MEPs the issue is only partly about new powers – just as crucial is the desire to give their own institution credibility as a body with real teeth and legitimacy in the eyes of sceptical voters and to answer the challenge of the union’s democratic deficit.

Political ‘land-grab’
The parliament’s president, German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, is engaged in what former senator Eugene Regan has described as a political “land-grab” – a slightly constitutional attempt to turn this May’s elections into an election for the presidency of the commission.

Schulz has interpreted a treaty provision that requires the council to take account of MEPs’ views in picking the next commission president to persuade the parliament’s parties to nominate their own candidates, himself included, and to use the election as a way of establishing their mandate.

Most of the parties have agreed and even the reluctant conservative European People’s Party is likely to do so at its forthcoming Dublin conference. The council and the member states, it is argued, may not like their nomination prerogative being usurped, but will have little choice but to accept the “people’s choice”.

If, that is, the people show sufficient interest to give MEPs a reasonable mandate. And that is no given.

Turnout is the best measure we have of voter engagement and the worrying trend suggests that the increased powers and centrality of the European Parliament to EU decision-making has left voters unimpressed. On the contrary, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the accrual of new powers and voter turnout. From 1979, the first direct elections to the parliament, to 2009, turnout throughout the expanding EU dropped from 62 to 43 per cent, an average of three percentage points each election.

In most member states in 2004 (the Republic not included), less than half of those turning out at national elections showed up to European polls. In 2009 just over one in three British voters turned out, while in Slovakia and Lithuania only one in five did so.

Voter alienation
Irish European election turnout has been helped by running polls on the same day as local elections. This was so for the last three elections – in 2009, 2004 and 1999 – when turnout ranged from 50 to 59 per cent. But it remains below general election levels, which since 1948 only dropped into the 60s in 1989, recovering to 70 per cent in 2011. In 1994, however, only 44 per cent bothered to vote here in the standalone European vote, suggesting the same underlying alienation of voters manifested throughout the EU.

Results like that across the union once more could sink the Schulz gambit.

But his initiative is a welcome attempt to give a new “relevance” to the elections. A contest around named figures and different visions for the EU, it is argued, will give faces to a bland election and help convince voters that voting can make a difference. It can turn the elections from a series of national beauty contests or referendums on national governments’ performance into a genuine argument about where Europe is going.

The president of Florence’s European University Institute, Prof Joseph Weiler, in Dublin this week at the Institute of International and European Affairs, argued that what matters to disillusioned voters is not the fact that MEPs have new theoretical powers but their perception of “two deep flaws in European democracy”: accountability – voters have no sense that, in participating in the election, “they can throw the scoundrels out”, as they can at national level; and absence of representation – there is no sense that a particular vote will result in any specific policy outcome.

Weiler describes the process as “governance without government”, in which no MEP can claim that their own or their party’s performance is “tied to the prospect of re-election”.

“Voters are not fools,” he says, applauding the Schulz initiative as at least an attempt to bridge the perception gap.

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