European elections: Time to bite the ballot

Paris, January 2009 : European socialist party militants distributing campaign tracts for the June elections. Photo : Vx Lentz
Paris, January 2009 : European socialist party militants distributing campaign tracts for the June elections. Photo : Vx Lentz
25 May 2009 – Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich)

The European parliament is the world's only democratically elected supranational institution. In the absence of any real debate as to why it exists, citizens view it as a preserve of the elite.

Europe has had a directly elected parliament since 1979, and in the 30 years since then its citizens have voted on its composition six times. The seventh elections are coming up in about a fortnight: a mammoth exercise in mass democracy rivalled only by elections in India. The European Parliament is the only transnational, democratically legitimised assembly in the world endowed with a decent measure of clout. In all likelihood, the members of the upcoming seventh legislature will enjoy the privilege of being the first EU representatives to be accorded truly far-reaching powers to steer and control European policy.

Who cares? Precious few, apparently. Europe’s citizens pay their political respects more reluctantly in the European elections than at any other cyclical call to cast their ballots. Even after 30 years of parliament, Europe is, in their eyes, a pseudo-democratic affair for a select few in the political élite.

Not that there’s any dearth of European revivalist preachers. The European think tank directory lists more than 52 organisations striving to whip up Euro-enthusiasm. Political parties and foundations in all 27 member states are pumping huge sums into the information market as though they were hell-bent on forcing the advent of a second Age of Enlightenment.

So now the candidates are beaming down from the posters again, the chancellor and cabinet members are proclaiming the momentous importance of the elections; there’s a little circle-of-stars flag hanging in front of the bakery, and an advertising agency is going to parade naked 20-foot-tall chickens at neighbourhood market-places to call attention to the vital importance of European consumer protection directives.

And all to so little avail. Europe cannot be translated into voter turnout. And as if that weren’t tragic enough as it is, this EP and the EU institutions are under more pressure during the campaign to justify their ongoing existence than, say, FC Bayern Munich’s manager after three straight defeats. That’s why MEPs, EU commissioners, High Representatives – in a word, the whole Euro-political élite – are actually marching around the marketplace like naked chickens, sounding off on the duty to vote, the European mission, the euro and the old long-dismantled checkpoints along the borders. That makes it sound as if all of Europe’s achievements could vanish into thin air at one fell swoop, as though voters had to pledge allegiance to the EU lest the whole house come tumbling down. In these election hours, Europe only exists as either a shimmering, glittering idyll or an undemocratic Moloch. It’s as if Germans had to decide whether to keep their constitution every time Bundestag elections come around again.

After 30 years of parliamentary history, this is a grotesque state of affairs. There are many reasons why it’s so hard to put Europe across to its citizens, but they just don’t want to hear it any more, because it’s not just institutions that have a duty to discharge. There’s a duty to be discharged by the people of Europe too, those voters who must not merely grudgingly accept the system they live in. Europe is an imposition one has to freely impose on oneself.

It would be great if these were the last European elections in which people need to be told why this unique superstate deserves a little more political attention, and why a confederation of 27 relatively small countries is very much to their advantage in a rapidly changing world.

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