European Parliament Elections: the challenge posed by a low turnout, by Leonardo Miguel Alles

The European Union (EU) is an association of states, a recent political entity compared to national states that took centuries to be formed. Charles Tilly’s book, “Coercion, Capital and European States: Ad 990 – 1992” shows how war and finances played a pivotal role back then. However, times have changed. War is no longer an option for uniting the peoples of the continent. Notwithstanding, the current process entails a variety of new challenges.

After World War II, European countries decided to integrate in order to avoid another military conflict. In 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established and had among its institutions the “Common Assembly”, the first precedent of the EU Parliament. Without legislative powers, this was a consultative assembly of 78 parliamentarians from the national parliaments of member states. In the late 1950’s, the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), led the ECSC Common Assembly to be shared by these communities. Under the name of ‘European Parliamentary Assembly, composed by 142 members, the assembly held its first session in Strasbourg in March 1958. Another name change took place in March 1962, this time to the current ‘European Parliament’(RAFAELLI, 2014).

Since its first elections in 1979, the EU Parliament has experienced a gradual decrease in turnouts (see the chart below). The results of polls from last May 22-25 showed the second lowest civic engagement of its history, only 43,09%. This is a serious issue taking into account the competencies of the Parliament such as electing the President of the EU Commission, approving laws, budgets and treaties. In addition, many right wing parties were elected for the Parliament. For instance, in France the National Front (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, received 24.8% of the vote to become the country’s largest party in the European Parliament (24 out of 75 French members of the European Parliament). The FN is known for its willingness to reduce the powers of the EU. Thus, the labelled “europtimists” will have to work together to balance the new “eurosceptics” in Brussels and Strasbourg (FRANCE 24, 2014a).

UK political info

Source: UK Political Info

The outcome of the last European Parliament elections demonstrated that most Europeans are not fully engaged with the communitarian institution. Many reasons can explain this result. First, citizens are unaware or skeptical about the EU. In times of economic crises, nationals policies might seem more adequate, in the eyes of the average citizen, to address difficulties. Second, many still consider the European Union a top-down phenomenon, created by national elites. Another driver for the civic engagement decline in the last polls could be framed as a protest vote against national policies, especially as seen in France, which already experienced a similar situation during the 1980’s. Fourth, the democratic gap, illustrated by the fact that only the EU Parliament is directly elected by the people. These are some of the obstacles that member states and communitarian institutions will have to address in the next elections.

Since institutional campaigns such as “Act, react, impact” (FRANCE 24, 2014b) didn’t seem to have worked as expected, how to engage more Europeans in the regional policy? There is a vast range of suggestions on the table, especially by comparing different political regimes. Although all EU member states are democracies, dealing with the system in a regional framework is challenging, perhaps similar to those faced by societies with recent democratic regimes. For instance, the German NGO Transparency International develops and implements many strategies in order to improve civic engagement in former URSS countries. Such actions could also be applied on regional grounds. First, hosting seminars and training courses focusing the youth of every member country, once they will soon take part in the political process. These lectures about the EU should take place at school, by explaining what are the benefits for the country and the region as whole. Second, raise voters awareness before elections, by fostering debates on TV channels. Third, traditional political parties should pay more attention to the communitarian institutions, because many of them implemented campaigns too close to elections. No wonder, parties that began their campaigns earlier were successful at the polls. Besides, it would be helpful to devote a full day in the region for elections, once every country has a different date.

It is important to highlight that many citizens didn’t vote as a form of protest due to the lack of credibility of political parties. This is an usual phenomenon in many countries. Nevertheless, there are democracies in which voting is compulsory, i.e., voting is not only a right, but a duty as well. Such policy addresses the issue of democratic legitimacy, once the elected candidate represents the majority of voters, and not only those of mobilized groups. Countries like Brazil, where voting is compulsory impose different measures in order to make people comply with the voting system. The absent voters who don’t justify their absence will not be able to apply for a passport nor for public jobs. In the European case, I strongly believe that this policy would not receive much support, because it is not the tradition in most European countries (ELECTORAL COMMISSION, 2006), where freedom of speech can also be framed of freedom of not speak.

The Communitarian agencies will have to improve their efforts with members states and attempt different strategies to increase attendance in the next election in 2019. There is no magic formula, but of course, such transition towards better civic engagement is likely to work as long as the future approach respects cultural traditions concerning the political system.

References

FRANCE24 (2014a). A look at the European Parliament’s eurosceptic parties. Available at:[http://www.france24.com/en/20140527-europe-pictures-european-parliament-eurosceptic-parties-fn-ukip/….]. Accessed June 24, 2104.

FRANCE24 (2014b). What does France’s far-right EU poll shocker really mean? Available at:[http://www.france24.com/en/20140526-france-eu-election-marine-le-pen-national-front/]. Accessed June 24, 2104.

RAFFAELLI, Rosa (2014). The European Parliament: Historical Background. Available at: [http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ftu/pdf/en/FTU_1.3.1.pdf]. Accessed June 24, 2104.

The ELECTORAL COMMISSION (2006). Research report, June 2006. Compulsory Voting around the world. Available at: [http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/electoral_commission_pdf_file/0020/16157/ECCompV….]. Accessed June 24, 2104.

UK POLITICAL INFO (2014). European Parliament election turnout 1979 – 2014.Available at: [http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm]. Accessed June 24, 2104.

Leonardo Miguel Alles is Master in International Relations by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul – UFRGS (leonardo.alles@hotmail.com)

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