Why is it that the European elections do not generate the same interest as national elections and how can this problem be addressed? Europa United contributor Yannis Karamitsios proposes some solutions.
The interest for the European Parliament (EP) elections is traditionally lower that the one for the national elections. The turnout of the 2014 election was 42% at EU level. In Poland and Slovakia it was roughly 24% and 14% respectively, much less than half of the turnout of the last national parliamentary polls in those countries. This is no surprise. All politics is local, as Americans tend to say. Ordinary people are in a position to mention two or three ministers of their national governments, four or five members of their national parliaments or one or two national legal acts that have affected their lives. To the contrary, many of them cannot reckon a single Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from their country, never mind a legislative act of the EP.
As a result, many citizens only vote for the EP elections on the basis of the national political timing and not due to European concerns. A lot of Greeks, for instance, are expected to vote on 26 May 2019 for “Nea Dimokratia”, the right-wing opposition, simply to bruise SYRIZA, the left-wing government. Many voters in Poland are expected to do the same in favour or against the ruling PiS party. No European agenda exists in their heads. If asked, many of them would not be able to mention a single EU issue that is at stake in 2019.
It is therefore a big question how to increase people’s interest in the EP elections, and -equally important- how to make these elections more European than national. Not an easy mission.
Roles for the Parliament, the MEPs, the media and the civil society
The EP itself must make the first move. Its prime task should be to remind people that roughly 60% of national legislation in the EU member states is first voted in Strasbourg or Brussels. It must launch sustained information campaigns, 12 months per year, to inform the citizens in each EU member state about the acts that it has voted, the reports it has published and the most actual questions it has addressed to the Commission and the other EU institutions. This should be done in a simple and exciting manner, without the notorious ‘Eurospeak’ jargon.
A bit of more charisma or excitement with their work would also help. Take for example the speeches of Guy Verhofstadt, when he gave a hard time to Brexiteers, the Italian prime minister or east European populist leaders. They have become viral on social media and have grasped the attention of everyone following European politics. No matter whether we like Mr. Verhofstadt or not, he has brought to the EP sessions a much missed feeling of a show.
The news media should also do their part. Reporting about the EP votes on issues like the amendment of an air pollution directive, is admittedly not the most exciting topic. But clear and friendly presentation helps. New air pollution thresholds voted in Strasbourg could be presented by a national or local newspaper as something very relevant for everyday life in Dublin or Bucharest. Regular interviews with local MEPs, or even life style stories and gossips about the EP political universe, could better captivate people’s imagination and interest.
Finally, civil society must also play its role. Campaigners should use all tools available to make European politics more attractive to the common European citizen: signing of petitions, participation in EU projects and more dynamic use of social media. We should actively join get-out-and-vote campaigns like EP’s “This Time I am voting”. And we should launch or engage in debates about EP activities, when we sense that they lead the European society toward a particular direction that we might view as critically right or wrong.
The importance of the big picture
European politics, like the politics on all levels, cannot be always highly interesting. In smooth times, they can be technical and dull. But in times of crises, real or perceived, people become much more intrigued and polarised. The same seems to be happening now, where the big picture of the EU is split between two camps: europhiles and euroscepticists, with all the nuances within and between them. That development should be maybe welcome. A “battleground EP” could be good for democracy and Europe. It might prove as the beginning of making European elections European again.