Stephen Gilmore, Lola Boom, Mohamed El Khalouki, Tibo Duhamel, Ilaria Cassani, Melanie Weber, Maren Schmid, Eléna Lefèbvre
This week’s elections to the European parliament are of critical importance. Not only will they set the course for the EU over the next five years, but they will help to shape the longer-term future of the European project.
Europe is confronted with a series of fundamental, intertwined challenges. There is the continued rise of far-right and anti-EU forces, who are consistently polling well in many member states and, according to some projections, could win more than one-third of the seats at the next election. We can also see substantial discontent with politics more generally, notably in movements such as the Gilets Jaunes in France.
Perhaps even more pervasive, and arguably a contributing factor to both of these issues, is a widespread lack of knowledge about how the EU operates – highly problematic considering, in the understated words of academic Bo Laursen and Chiara Valentini, the EU’s “considerable influence on European citizens’ daily lives”.
In this light, cliché though it may be, these European Parliament elections look like being the most important for a generation. The significance of voting cannot be overstated. Yet, if we look at the data since 1979, there is an obvious and pronounced downward trend in turnout across the continent as a whole. In 2014, countries such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic didn’t even hit 20% turnout.
Percentage turnout at European elections since 1979. (Source: TNS/Scytl in cooperation with the European Parliament)
Credit where it’s due, pro-EU forces have not stood idly by in the face of potentially existential threats to the European project as we know it. EU institutions allied with private citizens have developed a range of initiatives aimed at increasing EU awareness and engagement. What Europe Does For Me is a website launched by the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, to build awareness on the role of Europe in citizen’s daily lives.
To counter low turnout and what has been described in academic literature as a ‘communication deficit’, the European Parliament launched the This Time I’m Voting campaign, supported by more than 300,000 volunteers across Europe organising events to encourage people to vote. Under this umbrella, French teacher Valérie Thatcher walked 751km from Lyon to Brussels to draw attention to the importance of the upcoming elections.
It has often been argued that European Parliament elections are second-order elections, in that they have not enjoyed the same importance and relevance among political parties, voters and media as national elections. Election campaigns have often been conducted according to national political agendas and voters have tended to use the European elections as an opportunity to punish domestic governing parties.
Therefore, in an attempt to Europeanise the contest, the 2014 EP elections saw the nomination by each European party grouping of so-called Spitzenkandidaten for the presidency of the European Commission. In a similar vein, this year’s elections have seen the rise of pan-continental political movements, such as DiEM25 and Volt Europa, though it must be said such movements are not exclusively pro-EU.
Lead candidates, Spitzenkandidat debate, 15 May 2019. (Credit: EPRS)
The success of these measures will be a matter for debate, to some degree borne out by the election results, but there can be no doubt that the EU recognises the scale of the challenge it faces. To this end, thoughts have already turned in some quarters to post-election responses, albeit some wiser than others.
One of the surprise positives of increased anti-EU sentiment, according to renowned EU law expert and political activist, Alberto Alemanno, is that to a large extent it has forced parties which previously could remain ambiguous on Europe to take a public position, one way or the other. The worst thing, however, that pro-EU parties could do after the election would be to simply align themselves against those forces that seek to weaken or dismantle the union. This would be short-sighted, not least because it would alienate a large swathe of the European electorate, only fuelling the accusation that the EU is a cosy club, remote and unresponsive.
Instead, there must be a genuine desire to reach out and address concerns expressed at the election, in a way that is tangible to communities on the ground. This will involve robust discussion, and disagreement, among those committed to the EU about the best way forward for the union. The record of austerity, for example, of the sort meted out by the troika on Greece and others, must be properly interrogated. If the European political establishment circles the wagons and tries its best to shut out the newcomers, there will be further, perhaps larger, bumps in the road ahead.
This is not to say the EU must backtrack or become defensive. It needs to be bolder. Alberto Alemanno, in a recent talk at the VUB, spoke of how pro-EU forces might Europeanise not just the elections but the policy environment in Europe. So not only do European political parties need to be allowed to campaign for European elections across member states, we need to demonstrate more clearly the shared problems affecting citizens from Finland to Portugal, Ireland to Croatia. These may range from more localised issues – perhaps increased urbanisation of our workforce and infrastructure – to pan-continental challenges such as climate change and the ever-increasing influx of refugees this will inevitably generate.
The prize for voting
All this is up for grabs come polling day: your chance to shape the future of the EU. Not convinced the EU’s worth the effort? Consider this: the EU is at the forefront of environmental protection measures, helping to lead the charge for a ban on single-use plastics, more efficient waste management, decarbonisation technologies, greater biodiversity protection, and tougher air quality regulations. It has abolished roaming charges and has guaranteed reciprocal access to healthcare for all its citizens.
More than those achievements, though, at heart the EU is an idea: it embodies the shared desire of its members’ states to live and work together in peace, the memory of bloody conflict still all-too-fresh. Every citizen has the right to live, work, study, love and prosper in 28 different countries. Erasmus and its successor programmes have enriched the lives of millions of EU citizens since its inception in 1987, and it is set to expand further in the next five years.
These are the stakes. 74% of young Europeans have a positive view of the EU – but only 21% are certain they’ll vote. Your vote matters. Make it count. Because if not now, when?
Dennison, S., & Zerka, P. (2019). The 2019 European election: How anti-European plan to wreck Europe and what can be done to stop it [report]. Retrieved from: https://www.ecfr.eu/specials/scorecard/the_2019_European_election
Laursen, B., & Valentini, C. (2015). Mediatization and government communication: press work in the European Parliament. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 20(1), 26-44.
European Parliament. (2019). Results of the 2014 European elections [data report]. Retrieved from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/turnout.html
Anderson, P. J., & McLeod, A. (2004). The Great Non‐Communicator? The Mass Communication Deficit of the European Parliament and its Press Directorate. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 42(5), 897-9
European Parliamentary Research Service. (2019) Election of the President of the European Commission: Understanding the Spitzenkandidaten process [briefing paper]. Retrieved from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2018/630264/EPRS_BRI(2018)630264_EN.pdf