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Lessons Of The European Parliament Elections

I recently ran for a seat in the European Parliament from Italy's Italia Dei Valori party. I lost. And with record-low turnout across the continent and some disappointing results, many analysts are saying that Europe lost as well.

Although it is probably too early to offer a comprehensive analysis of the elections, my experience points to some lessons that emerged during the campaign and which may offer some warnings for the future.

For one thing, although some two-thirds of the activity of the national legislatures of European Union member states is driven by or affected by Europe-wide legislation, the European Parliament campaign was remarkably inward-looking and oriented toward national issues.

The coverage was dominated by endless gossip concerning whatever pretty-scantily-clad-young-candidate-of-dubious-morality happened to be at the center of attention on a given day. Or whatever entertainment figure was revealed to be having some kind of affair with a federal politician.

There are many examples of this sort of thing, from Lithuania's Arunas Valinksas and his party of all-stars, to Romania's Elena Basescu. Italy's own Silvio Berlusconi tried to nominate a slate of Lolitas for Strasbourg and that triggered a national scandal when his wife, Veronica Lario, publicly applied for a divorce and accused the prime minister of engaging in improper relationships with minors.

In this context, it is also worth mentioning the candidacy of Emanuele Filiberto, a prince of the House of Savoy and favorite guest on Italian talk shows.

Much Coverage, Little Interest

Such candidates were a dream for the media -- producing sky-high ratings without boring audiences with actual political positions, programs, or issues.

In Italy, there is a law that theoretically guarantees that each political party be granted equal access to the media. But under the law, parties themselves have the right to determine who represents them, meaning that some candidates can be ignored while more telegenic candidates are seen everywhere.

In my own case, I was granted barely 10 minutes of time on a local television station in Turin (and that only because of my good personal relations with the local party boss there) while some of my competitors appeared on nationally broadcast programs practically every day.

In Italy, with a potential constituency of more than 14 million voters, it is obvious that access to the national media is essential -- and I'm sure this is equally true of many other countries.

Despite the intense interest generated by many of the more scandalous candidates, the turnout for the elections was the lowest ever, continuing a lamentable downward trend in public interest.

EU institutions generally, and the European Parliament in particular, seem far away from average Europeans. Average people have only a poor understanding of what these bodies do, partly as a result of the general lack of accountability on the political and Eurocratic levels.

The yet-to-be-ratified Lisbon Treaty contains mechanisms designed to improve accountability and give the parliament more power vis-a-vis the European Commission, but even that is likely too little and will be hard to explain to average European citizens.

European Values

In addition, we are living in a time of profound social, economic, and political transformation. And for many people, that means it is an age of fear. Fear, in turn, breeds extremism, a search for scapegoats, the erection of barriers.

The elections demonstrated this amply in the form of support for anti-Europe, anti-everything, and anti-everyone parties, including racist and xenophobic parties like Romania Mare, the British National Party, the Freedom Party (Netherlands), the Jobbik party (Hungary), and extremists across the former socialist-bloc countries.

The rise of the extreme right (which is partly an effect of apathy among more reasonable voters) has pushed mainstream parties toward the right. The government in Italy has recently sent would-be migrants back to Libya without proper screening under pressure from the Northern League and other right-wing extremists, to take just one example.

It is a dangerous moment for European integrationists and those who believe in the common European dream. We must admit that there are EU states -- including Italy -- that are far from ideally democratic, and are run instead by opaque oligarchies protecting their own nebulous interests.

But it may not be too late -- there may yet be a core of European states that remember the values and the vision that brought the EU together in the first place. Those states may yet be able to educate their peoples about how the EU can promote these values, which I believe most average Europeans share.

Europeans are proud to be Europeans and are, I am certain, ready to stand up for the common dream. But there is no more time for political theatrics and endless chatting.

Massimo Bernacconi is an operational expert at the Eurocontrol agency in Prague and represents the Italia Dei Valori party at the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party Council. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL