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When Voters go EUww: The European Parliament Elections

by Forrest Barnum // Published June 5, 2009
If mere statistics reflected reality, elections to the European Parliament would be one of the grandest democratic spectacles on earth. With more than 375 million eligible voters exercising the franchise in twenty-seven nations, these are the largest transnational elections in the world, and the second largest democratic exercise of any kind, trailing only India in the number of participants. These elections are the only means for voters to directly influence the increasingly powerful institutions that comprise the European Union, adding further incentive to enthusiastically participate. The apathy and cynicism that the elections provoke can thus come as something of a surprise, as voter turnout has fallen from a reasonably healthy 62% in 1979 to a weak 45% in 2004. Fears abound that current elections will see a paltry 40% of eligible voters cast ballots, which may mean that extremist parties on the left and right win more seats and influence in the new parliament as those in the political mainstream disproportionately opt out. Why is the European project at such an impasse?

To a great extent, I believe many of the more hysterical media commentaries -- which paint the gruesome fresco of a willfully unengaged electorate turning the keys of Europe over to a horde of insensate Visigoths -- to be off the mark. Despite handwringing over extremists (who do hold a modest number of seats), projections show that the overall balance of power in the European Parliament will scarcely change when the results are tabulated. The various forms of proportional electoral systems used in European elections partially account for this; since parties gain and lose votes in concert with their share of the vote, the radical swings common to First-Past-The-Post elections rarely occur.

Given that Europe's sensible choice of electoral system is not to blame, why does turnout remain low? I suspect the answer lies in the nature of the Union itself. Variously defined by political scientists as a utopian social-engineering project, a glorified free trade zone, an intergovernmental assembly, the United States of Europe, and a bureaucratic super-state (among other things), the very complexity of the EU can isolate it from the hearts and minds of the electorate. The average voter hears only static when the alphabet soup of institutional acronyms so beloved by Brussels is served, their eyes glazing as arcane subjects key to EU policy making like  COREPER committees, Copenhagen criteria, the Council of Europe and the European Council, slither into compilations of 'eurojargon.' Engaging voters requires a fair electoral system and relevant institutions; though the EU is important, paradoxically, it is not always perceived as relevant; it is commonly portrayed as either a stifling bureaucracy or an ineffective talk shop. Like most institutions, the EU is a compromise that tends to satiate neither interventionists (desiring an activist EU) nor "Euroskeptics" – those who want to roll back the entire project. As my colleague noted in a previous post, the EU's forced attempts to seem 'hip' only drive younger voters away. The EU's future success will depend not upon cosmetic advertising, but on adopting an institutional framework as transparent and equitable as its electoral system; only then will this democracy be great in both word and deed.