The lack of enthusiasm for this week’s European Parliament elections is a recurring theme in the press. In addition to a poll showing growing Euroskepticism in the UK, we see cynicism in France and apathy in Poland.
FT’s Ben Hall observes, “Whereas European integration was once seen as a multiplier of French influence across the continent and the world, many now blame it for depressing wages and lowering social standards.” On the other hand, “the economic crisis has shown the benefits of monetary union” and “France’s parties are all campaigning for a Europe that better protects its citizens from the excesses of globalisation.” But, for the French, all EU politics is local.
According to a recent study by the Fondation Robert Schuman, a thinktank, France has less influence in the European parliament than Germany or Britain because of the high turnover of its MEPs, many of whom split their time with being a mayor back home in France.
French politicians continue to see the European parliament as a launching pad for higher office at home. French MEPs proportionately have fewer chairmanships of committees, produce fewer reports and table fewer questions.
The election campaign itself has said little about the European parliament. The UMP is celebrating Mr Sarkozy’s handling of France’s EU presidency last year. Its slogan is “When Europe wants to, Europe can.” Translation: the EU can make itself count when led by someone with the energy and determination of the French president.
Meanwhile, Jan Cienski reports, “Five years after joining the European Union, Poland is one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe – but this enthusiasm is not translating into excitement for Sunday’s vote for the European parliament.” Here, though, the apathy is of the functional variety:
Over the past five years Poles have seen the advantages of belonging to the EU and many of their earlier fears have dissipated. Farmers tend to be Euro-enthusiasts because of the subsidies flowing from Brussels and the export markets they have found in western Europe.
This makes it likely that Poles will send only mainstream parties to the European parliament this year, a contrast with the situation in many other European countries where there are anxieties about extremists and nationalists taking advantage of the turmoil resulting from the global economic downturn.
An FT editorial predicts overall turnout below 45.6 percent and observes “election campaigning has been dominated by national politics, ignoring pan-European issues altogether. In some countries, most notably the UK, results are likely to be marked by a powerful showing for parties that want their governments to quit the EU immediately.”
This lack of voter enthusiasm for the European parliament is easy to understand. Thirty years after they first won the right to elect their MEPs, most Europeans still do not know who they are or what they do. Voters in most states are gripped by issues that affect their pocket books, such as tax rates and public spending. These are matters largely decided by national governments elected in national legislatures. The European parliament has a more technical remit. Arguments about the regulation of service companies or the unbundling of vertically integrated energy firms may be of vital interest to business. Nevertheless, they are never going to set the pulse of the average voter racing.
The piece goes on to point out that the EU Parliament actually is quite important and that voters therefore ought care about it. But, alas, it can only suggest that MEPs “inject a bit of drama into what they do” to help capture the public imagination.
My colleague Fran Burwell, who heads the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Relations program, notes that the general dissatisfaction with the center-right leadership across the Continent could cause the emergence of a leftist coalition and even the ouster of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. FT international affairs editor Quentin Peel agrees that the time is ripe for a protest vote but thinks we’ll be denied even that drama.
The reality is that the European left, represented in the parliament by the Party of European Socialists (PES), looks like coming a poor second in the poll to the centre-right European People’s party (EPP). It has failed to get its message across.
Part of the problem is systemic, and part is self-inflicted. The consensual decision-making of EU institutions undoubtedly blurs ideological differences. Moreover, in several European countries the centre-left is in power, such as the UK and Spain, or part of a coalition government, as in Germany, so protest voters must look elsewhere. There are also far-left parties outflanking them – particularly in Germany, France and Italy – to exploit the angry mood.
But the PES has done itself no favours. Its European manifesto is turgid and unreadable. The party has not even tried to put up an alternative candidate to challenge José Manuel Barroso, the centre-right European Commission president, who needs to win the support of MEPs to be reappointed.
Peel suggests that institutional reforms, including voting based on party lists and requiring that the president be chosen by the plurality coalition, would add interest to the process while making it more democratic. It couldn’t hurt.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.