Euroelections 2014 – Imagine there are elections and no one shows up

Notes on democratic legitimacy and the 2014 European Parliament Elections
by Christine Huebner.

With the Lisbon Treaty in-force, formally the European Parliament to be elected will be more influential than any of its predecessors: parliamentarians will enjoy extended right of consent with Council decisions and will have to pass the Commission’s proposed budget. Nice features, indeed, but the question is how powerful the parliamentarians will be effectively given their legitimacy with the European public. A quick proxy: Average turnout in European elections is on a steady decline – from 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. If you were to follow this trend, there would be no voters left by the 2044 elections. In Slovakia and Poland no more than a fifth of eligible voters took part in the 2009 poll. Also non-novice members such as the Netherlands, Finland and the UK boast turnouts of as low as  30-40%. Except for member states with compulsory voting, there are consistently lower numbers of voters in European compared to national elections [1].

Turnout in European Elections (2009) vs. National Elections (2007-2010)

Turnout in European Elections 2009 vs. National Elections 2007 - 2010

Click on picture to enlarge


The problem of low turnout has finally been recognized and taken its toll on Brussels. This year’s elections for the European Parliament will see a number of firsts:

Each of the new features makes the run-off for the European Parliament look more and more like any national election campaign. This is a deliberate effect: Europoliticians are aiming for the personal edge[2, 3]. It is supposed to make European politics seem less elusive, bring it closer to the people, and thereby closer to their habits of voting in national elections.

Why afraid of low turnout now?

This year’s special fright with a low voter turnout could be a token of a change of heart in Brussels and beyond. It may, however, also stem from the broader meaning of the 2014 run-off for European offices:  it is the first post-Euro-crisis election. Alongside the obvious question of who should be steering European politics in the coming years, the vote is also expected to indicate how much of a joint Europe citizens want to have. And how much nation state. In previous decades, economic prosperity buffered much of the legitimacy problem. Assuming prosperity as a proxy for some sort of output legitimacy, the validity of government arises from mere problem-solving capacity, when common interests can better be pursued together than alone (Scharpf 2006). With the Eurocrisis still in full swing, this dimension of legitimacy for European Institutions has fallen flat in the minds of many citizens.

Courting citizens for another form of legitimacy

In order to make up for this loss, Europoliticians are now calling for desperate measures to create another form of legitimacy in the last minute. No matter whether the Euro is in deep crisis or not, they want citizens to believe in the European idea to elicit any type of input legitimacy (also an idea phrased by Scharpf). The current parliament has launched a million-Euro awareness and information campaign. United Left and Christian Democrats are holding online discussions with members motivating them to submit ideas on the European programme online. The European Greens announced their first ever pan-European campaign leaders to be selected in popular vote: Ska Keller  from Germany and Frenchman José Bové. It was a move unheard of even in national politics. Not only 140.000 party members across the continent had been surveyed for the run-off. Theoretically, anyone amongst the 400 million European citizens was allowed to take a vote on who should be steering the pan-European Green campaign for this year’s elections.

‘ACT. REACT. IMPACT.’ Campaign Video of the European Parliament
(note also how the comment function is disabled for the video on Youtube)

What does it help if the key is missing?

Flattering it is yes, but not really motivating: only 22.676 people took part in the Green pre-selection of candidates – a meagre turnout of 0.05% of the population. The other parties’ efforts are not claiming any more interest and reading through the comments that the Parliament’s awareness campaign is getting via Facebook does not make for one happy Europolitician. What is the problem? It seems that in their desperate quest for attention EU-office holders have forgotten to worry about key ingredients of legitimacy: a joint public sphere, trust in collective action and a shared understanding of what democracy entails. In 1999 already, Scharpf points out that these key elements of input legitimacy typically arise from commonalities in history and culture, which a Europe of 28 does not have (yet). It is easier to understand what he means when taking a look at the dissemination of information as an example: in order to broadcast the planned TV-debate of all Eurocampaign leaders, the EU has to turn towards national stations. Despite euronews – not really a force to be reckoned with – there is simply no European media outlet that could do this job. 

It takes time and understanding to build a joint Europe

Having to go via national broadcasters, national party structures, and eventually, national parliaments does not help at creating this feeling of European commonality. Neither does a desperate last-minute awareness campaign. Just for the notice, it also does not help that national politicians are debating the idea of the European Union, when they should be agreeing on a European programme (as the German Left has this weekend). What it takes instead is a serious effort to build trust and a shared understanding of democratic institutions. And time. Rethinking citizen involvement at the European level needs to involve concrete possibilities of democratic innovations at the local level as well. It is a near-utopian idea to base a legitimate democratic super-system like the European Union on top of national democracies without forfeiting citizen involvement at any level. Instead, good ideas on how to achieve true dialogue and the education of a new generation of engaged European citizens need to take center stage. The European Union can serve as an ideal playing field for tryouts on democratic innovation that go beyond well-known elements of direct democracy. Civil society organizations and social movements can play a lead role in the quest of organizing this deliberative process and in building a European public sphere. Let’s see how many Europeans will turn then to the ballot.

Title picture: ‘European flag’ by vx_lentz (Creative Commons)



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