European elections: a turning point for European democracy?
For the eighth time since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament (EP) in 1979, the citizens of Europe, who for the most part view themselves as citizens of the Member States of the European Union (EU), will be called upon to enter the ballot box and elect their EP representatives. This clarification of a sense of national identity is important as empirical evidence has shown that all EP elections to date have been second-order elections, which implies that they were considered as less important by national parties, voters and the media. Whereas gradual reforms extending the EP’s power were meant to strengthen the democratic dimension of the European project and encourage the development of a truly legitimate democratic polity, turnout has been steadily declining. Nevertheless, because of recent institutional and contextual factors many view the upcoming EP elections in May 2014 as a game changer that could boost turnout and mark a turning point for European democracy.
Ever since the citizens of the nine countries of the European Community elected their EP representatives in direct elections for the first time, turnout levels have been steadily declining from 62 percent in 1979 to only 43 percent in 2009, a sign of democratic malaise in the European Union. Despite the progressive increases in the status and powers of the EP, turnout has diminished to a level where it can be regarded as a serious threat to the legitimacy of the European polity.
It has been established that the European elections have been met with public indifference and apathy because every round of EP elections to date has assumed the label of ‘second-order national election’, on account of being less important for the allocation of executive power than national electoral contests: they did not inﬂuence the composition or political complexion of the European Commission, let alone that of the Council of Ministers, and voters found their consequences for policymaking in the Union difﬁcult to discern. However, during the latest EP legislature, conditions that sustained this state of affairs have changed dramatically and a combination of institutional and contextual factors could potentially transform the next European vote into a watershed election.
An important innovative move is that the upcoming election will for the very first time offer the possibility for European political parties to enter the 2014 campaign with top candidates for the position of President of the European Commission. Turning the election into a de-facto race for presidency of the Commission raises the stakes and salience of the EP vote, thereby personalizing and Europeanizing the elections. This new development might hugely contribute to a European public space that has been largely absent. In 2012 the European Parliament Eurobarometer (EB/EP 77.4) tested respondents by asking them if this new procedure might encourage them to vote more willingly in the elections. More than one in two respondents (54%) said yes and would indeed feel more inclined to vote in 2014, as against 36% who said no and 15% who had no opinion. On the other hand, an important risk is that nominating candidates unable to spark citizens’ interest could further decrease participation in EP elections, as well as the democratic legitimacy of the European Union.
Nonetheless, the implications of the Lisbon Treaty’s institutional factors must be considered against the backdrop of a European context marked by the impact of the monetary, financial, economic and social crisis – a second major difference compared to previous European elections. Soaring (youth) unemployment and adamant economic stagnation have in recent years propelled massive public anger towards both national and EU politicians, whose decisions to ‘bail out’ a number of EU countries and to pursue austerity as the main path to recovery have cast serious doubt on the merits and democratic legitimacy of the political response to the crisis. As popular trust and support for the EU institutions and integration project have been plummeting, parties from across the political spectrum, with an overall populist and Eurosceptic discourse, have strengthened their appeal in many member states since the onset of the crisis.
Today, Europeans see the EU (22%) and national governments (21%) as being best placed to ‘take effective action’ against the effects of the financial and economic crisis. As a result, this will be the most interesting European election campaign to date. Findings by Ifop show that a quarter of French voters will support the far-right Front National. A Gallup Europe survey concludes that in other northern European Member States the public also does not perceive the EU as defending their interests.
In conclusion, the next EP elections will take place in a context in which ‘Europe’ has moved to the very heart of national debates, in circumstances defined by a widespread public awareness of the European Union since the Treaty of Lisbon and the Global Financial Crisis. Although it is extremely hard to predict turnout at these elections, expectations for an increase in turnout levels across the Member States are high, albeit in conditions which are promising for radical nationalist and anti-EU parties. The 2014 EP elections will definitely put the spotlight on the EU and mark a critical juncture for the democratic landscape at the EU-level, but whether reversing the 1979 trend will be a desirable scenario for political integration remains to be seen.