Monday 18 May 2009

Europeanisation of European elections?

With 109 blog posts to date in his series on the European Parliament elections 2009, Julien Frisch has done more than several professional organisations combined to inspire a pan-European debate on the upcoming greatest transnational poll ever, with 375 million potential voters.

Frisch’s latest post in the series, European Parliament elections 2009 (109): Looking back at 1999 and 2004, concluded that the core messages from 1999, 2004 and 2009 would not change much from the initial assessment:

“The campaign was focused on national topics, the candidates where not known, and the only true European references in the electoral manifestos where similar across all major parties: More democracy, more transparency, better connection to the citizens.”

According to Frisch, the only differences in 2009 “will be two additional countries, Libertas, and the emergence of large-scale internet campaigning. Maybe a glimpse at the institutional EP campaign, too. But the conclusions will be very close to those we got in the past.”

In other words, campaigns and elections European in name, but hardly in reality.


30 year perspective

Even in a longer, 30 year perspective, and with a scientific approach, the Europeanisation of the European elections seems to be a slow process indeed.

We turn to the journal Integration 2/09 (April 2009), published by IEP Institut für Europäische Politik, and the article written by Jürgen Mittag and Claudia Hülsken: Von Sekundärwahlen zu europäisierten Wahlen? 30 Jahre Direktwahlen zum Europäischen Parlament.

Since 1979, the European elections on 4 to 7 June 2009 are the seventh. The elections are still perceived as second-order elections by voters, apt to punish the domestic ruling parties, by political parties with short and less funded campaigns than in national elections and by media seldom bothering with European level challenges.

There is more continuity than change, but indirectly, the disparate results converge when the political groups are formed in the European Parliament.

(For assessments of the EP political groups, you could read for instance the following blog posts: European Parliament: Political groups run the show and European Parliament Political Groups.)


Why are the European elections only marginally European?

Despite slowly increasing powers for the European Parliament, voter participation has been declining. Some explanations for this paradox:

• Voters are not allowed to set the course for government of the European Union. The significance of minor shifts within the European Parliament is hardly enough to inspire voters.
• There is an almost total silence on the future organisation of Europe beyond the inadequate Lisbon Treaty.
• There is a lack of serious and open European level political debate on decisive and divisive issues, such as influence in world affairs, defence, taxation and budget, the borders of Europe, the Doha round, economic governance and financial regulation, environment and energy, the future of subsidies-driven agriculture, the internal market, economic reform and social rights. The real decisions are taken, within treaty limitations, by the European Council and Council formations.
• The heads of state or government (and national party leaders) have clearly shown that the EU is their union, not a union of citizens. They have revoked even the minimal concession they made to EU citizens to be able to influence the election of the President of the Commission in 2009.
• There is neither a single day for the European elections, nor a uniform election procedure.
• There is no statute for truly pan-European political parties.
• The European level parties and their political foundations have managed to secure considerable EP funding, but they have failed to field candidates for the Commission Presidency.
• The Europarties have produced uninspiring election manifestos, but their efforts to mobilise voters are feeble and sporadic.
• The Europarties’ foundations are nearly invisible in the debate.
• There are more PR campaigns for voter participation than political campaigns on issues.
• National political parties and media decline to educate voters on truly European challenges. Instead they campaign and report within their respective comfort zones, leaving voters drowsy and unimpressed.

The resulting low level of participation is but a symptom. The deeper problem is the low quality of participation, from head of state or government to the apathetic voter: the lack of European leadership and consciousness.

Ralf Grahn


  1. Thanks for this, Ralf. It is the clearest explanation I have seen so far of - not the EU elections - but of the political failure that is the current EU.

    As you note, the EU is not a union of citizens. Most agreements (between EU member leaders) are reached through corridor meetings and "behind closed doors" negotiations between leaders.

    Everyone "inside" the EU appears to be happy for this situation to continue- the rudderless Commission, the Parliament, and the Council of Ministers (of course).

  2. French Derek and Citizen of Europe,

    I don't see the European Union as a total failure; it does some good within its borders and outside.

    Politically: It saddens me that thinking about the European elections leads me to conclusions so radically different from the world-view of our national leaders and the ones working in or with the institutions as they are today.

    It is like seeing a dear person come down with a serious disease, which can be cured only by a profound change of lifestyle, but seeing no signs of even recognition.

    If anything, the contorted passage of the Lisbon Treaty has illustrated the "hobbled giant" bound by multiple unanimity rules, and the intergovernmental traits have become stronger during these last years.

    Scant hope for the near future, when the leading countries have become less 'European' lately:

    Sarkozy seems driven by ego, a Gaullist projection of France as Europe and a penchant for private deals with one or two leaders.

    Germany has become more German.

    Popular opinion and probable government action in the UK point towards integration in reverse, in the country which has historically acted as a break on reform at every stage of European integration, since at least the establishment of the Council of Europe and the OEEC.

    Only two aspects offer some hope for the future:

    After enough humiliations internationally, European leaders may some day realise that their fiefdoms are not up to the task without an effective European Union.

    Current governance is legitimate for an international organisation, but not for a political union.

  3. Ralf

    My concern is not so much that the EU is a failure - it clearly is not. My concern is about the way in which national political leaders have misappropriated the EU. It has become a private club, for their use only.

    In both the UK and in France (perhaps in others too) decisions are more and more being taken behind closed doors by a small elite of Ministers. This phenomenon is observable in the EU as well. The legislative - ie Members of Parliament are being treated as ciphers. The Commission is expected to "fall in line" (and under Barroso has done so). The EU citizen appears not to be granted even cipher status: if anything, when they complain they are treated as a nuisance.

    Whist there are pressure groups exercising some influence, they are usually pursuing their own interests (not always in the best interests of the EU citizen). How do/can we - the citizens of Europe - claim back democracy?

  4. French Derek,

    Our diagnosis is the same.

    As I see it, the only way for us EU citizens is actually to claim democracy, do it loudly and try to explain why.


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