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European Parliament Vote A Test Of Member States' Faith In EU

"Vote No" written on a Dublin street ahead of last year's EU Lisbon Treaty vote.
BRUSSELS -- There can be few better illustrations of the failure of Brussels to communicate with the voters of the Europe Union than the giant TV screens that went up at two key EU sites in Brussels last month.

Both transmit 30-second video clips, recorded by EU citizens in their home countries, speaking about their concerns and expectations for Europe. The messages, recorded in a vast variety of languages, come out as an incomprehensible din, although there are English-language subtitles.

But in the EU capital, they attract almost no one's attention -- for a number of reasons.

In these elections, Brussels is the eye of the storm. Belgian voters are unlikely to pay much attention to the concerns of a person in, say, Lithuania. EU officials could theoretically be swayed by the clips, but it is not clear the messages are reaching them either.

Yet this is the best use the European Parliament could come up with for the $28 million it spent to place 33 recording booths across the EU and the two massive screens in Brussels under which pedestrians pass with barely a glance.

Although more than 375 million EU citizens are entitled to vote in elections for the European Parliament on June 4-7, polls predict that less than 45 percent of voters will use that privilege. The elections are thus likely to become another reminder of the EU's struggle to inspire its subjects.

Lack Of Real Issues

Politicians in Europe are certainly aware of this disconnect between Brussels and the voters.

In comments made recently to Reuters, Danuta Hubner, a former EU commissioner who is running for the European Parliament in Poland, admitted that getting people to go out and vote will be an achievement in and of itself.

"So the challenge for us, for all the candidates, is not only to make people vote for us, but to make people indeed just go to the polls. I think it is, in a certain way, related to the general reluctance to vote in any election in Poland," Hubner said.

"So I think in building our democracy, we didn't manage to convince people that through voting -- through using, exploiting the right to vote -- they can have [an] impact on the politics. And here they don't feel that they can have an impact on what the European Union or European Parliament decides for them."

"The Times" newspaper in Britain puts the blame squarely on Brussels in an editorial published on June 3.

"The almost complete absence of any serious debate about European issues is a colossal indictment of the European Union," the paper charged, adding that the EU has lost its purpose and is now limping "through institutional wrangles, mostly invented for the sake of having something to do."

Defense of the EU system, on the other hand, is left to sometimes lackluster figures like Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, or the even less-known Hans-Georg Poettering, the outgoing president of the European Parliament, whose only claim to fame is having remained a member of the body since direct elections began in 1979.

On June 3, Poettering issued a statement arguing the elections are of the "greatest importance," as "approximately 75 percent of" EU legislation passes through the European Parliament.

What Poettering failed to say was that the EU has no say in its member states' foreign policy, direct taxes, or immigration -- all issues that are traditionally the mainstays of the nation-state.

Issues that do fall to the European Parliament -- such as the length of the working day, quality of bathing water, or checks on chemicals used by industry -- are important, but lack the power to capture the minds of Europeans.

'Not A Good Thing'

Most Europeans themselves are expected to skip the vote. The latest polls put expected turnout levels at 43 percent -- which would be less than the all-time low of 45.7 percent recorded at the last elections in 2004.

Paradoxically, the disenchantment with all things European is highest in the countries of Eastern Europe, which, as journalist Steven King put it in the "Irish Examiner" on June 3, "were practically begging to join [the EU] only a few years ago."

There is ample evidence of this in Latvia, which is in the throes of a debilitating economic downturn. According to a recent survey, only some 28 percent of the population in that Baltic state thinks joining the EU was "a good thing."

That sense of disenchantment was echoed in Poland, where one potential voter, Zbigniew Brudek, told Reuters he felt skeptical that this week's ballot would amount to much.

"I think that these elections are not fair, because they are not honest or true, and not what Poles would wish for," Brudek said.

Eastern European countries have benefitted from tens of billions of euros' worth of EU funds since accession in 2004. But their voters may be excused for taking their cue from Ireland: even before the current economic crisis, at the height of the market bubble, Irish voters last year rejected the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which proposes to serve as a kind of EU constitution, for no clear reason -- other than not being convinced the EU is "a good thing."

Protest Vote

The outcome of another Lisbon referendum in Ireland, likely to be held in October, remains far from certain. Speaking to Reuters, economist Rossa White said that even in the current crisis, the EU remains a safe and essential port for Ireland.

"There's no doubt that being in the euro[zone] has helped us enormously. I think that being in a single-currency area has helped us from a banking point of view, because the banks have been able to swap collateral to the European Central Bank in return for liquidity," White said.

White said that being part of a common currency prevented the country's currency from coming under attack, and was a "fairly important buffer that we've had compared with previous crises, and as other smaller countries have also come under attack.

"Clearly being part of the euro on the way up was a difficulty because interest rates were a lot lower than they would have been otherwise. But now that we're in the euro area, it has definitely been a help."

But despite perceived EU successes like the eurozone, voters across Europe are set to punish the establishment. Various protest parties -- among them a variety of extremist groups in a number of countries -- are expected to do well. In Britain, the Netherlands, Hungary and Latvia, among others, voters are about to send to the European Parliament deputies from the far right, mostly running on anti-immigrant, anti-minority platforms.

From the point of view of the Brussels mainstream, a fragmented parliament without a clear center of gravity will be the worst possible outcome.

Until now, the conservatives and socialists -- the European Parliament's two largest factions -- have been able to carve up most important political appointments and perks in the EU in backroom deals. That may no longer be the case.

The fate of Barroso, who hopes to get a second five-year stint at the head of the European Commission, also depends on such a deal.

A parliament that the traditional establishment is unable to control might jeopardize the cozy status quo that currently reigns in Brussels -- and this is exactly what many of the voters who do turn out over the weekend will be hoping for.