European Parliament Elections; (Don't) Keep Calm & Go Vote

The World

Old man VotingEuropean Parliament (EP) elections will be taking place across EU member states in the mid-end of May, almost a month from now.  Attendance in these elections is important for two reasons; first, following the financial/ sovereign debt crisis and its devastating knock-on effects on society and the economy.  An opportunity has arisen for paradigm-shifting changes to take place within the EU’s political core; as such the representation of Europe’s citizens’ views is particularly important.  This applies both for the national as well as the EU level. 

Second, the EP has is now a co-legislator along with the Council and the Commission, from ending roaming charges across the EU, to the financial transaction tax: it can impact policy and even veto legislative proposals.  This makes it a significant institutional actor that can impact the face of EU integration; accelerate, stall, guide.  The rise of the right wing as a result of little political debate across Europe threatens not only the future of the EU but that of you and me within our countries.  The EP needs more than “Mickey Mouse” or racist members, hidden under the banner of “concerned patriots”.

European Parliament elections have generally been treated as second rate elections, with lower attendance.  Voters use it more as gallop-poll to disapprove or (more rarely) approve of government policy.  As a result, they have often produced “Mikey Mouse” Members of the European Parliament (MEP); MEPs who largely spend the majority of their time in the coffee areas of the EP (and there are a few).  In addition, the size and variety of national interests within the EP’s Political Parties (or Groups) created very loose coalitions that were not able to resist Commission proposals.  Finally, as that the EP had very little impact on policy, due to lack of institutional provisions, citizens found little incentive go and vote for it.  However, this depicts a much different reality of the EP than the current one.

Drastic shifts have taken place within the EP over the past decade that have given it significant powers; both formal and informal.  On one hand, Political Groups within the EP have been observing increasing cohesion both in voting patterns as well as political common ground.  This has empowered the strength of the vote in total, making the voice of the MEPs and of political parties that enter the EP stronger.  On the other hand, the EP has gained significant powers through the Lisbon Treaty that put it on par along with the Commission and the Council and debate over legislative proposals.  Moreover, this applies for almost the entirety of policy areas excluding areas that are less Europeanized, e.g. defence.

This means that MEPs represent not only national interests but also political views; paying closer attention to candidates’ political background a good idea. Parties that rise often to gain the “protest-vote” represent non-cohesive political arguments rather than a political force forward.  This explains to a degree the support that far-right parties have gained over the past few years across Europe.  Though they lack a coherent political view (within and across them) or a dodgy ones (bordering and surpassing xenophobia and/ or racism); they have gained higher gallop-polls than established parties (e.g. UK, France).  To an extent the absence of overall serious political dialogue has added to the issue.  But if Europe requires political dialogue, especially about/ at the EU level, voters have an additional responsibility in trying to raise the quality of the debate, outside of and within institutions. 

In addition, the EP deals with issues that can be highly technical and politicized such as online data protection.  MEPs that handle and debate these portfolios should have the capabilities to negotiate your views.  Intra-Institutional legislative procedures require a qualitatively different set of negotiation skills that include the ability to counter-propose effectively rather than simply reject proposals.

Democracy is a dynamic process; voting once every 5 years (or 4 for national/ local) is part of a much larger network that is representative democracy.  This includes protests, strikes, policy papers, contacting your MEP/ MP/ mayor, supporting/ forming not-for-profit public interest groups and so on.  The institutional setting is a significant part of the democracy-puzzle as it acts as central forum where different points of view and subjects can be discussed, resolved, promoted; from human rights to nuclear energy.  As such though at hard times we might lose faith in these institutions in the end it is the voters that control who gets to go in and who does not. 

Moreover, whether you are in favour of the status quo or (more likely) wish to change it, by not voting immediately two things happen.  First, you reduce the validity (representativeness) and the strength one of the channels that voice the public’s opinion.  In other words the far-right extremist next to you gets more say and institutional powers for the next 5 years (perhaps we should not wait and see how that goes).  This makes a parliament that is both not supported by voters and gives representative power to people you do not agree with.

In light of the crisis, the powers of the EP and the opportunities for change ahead.  These elections are probably one of the most important ones ever for the EU, its Member States and its 500 million citizens.  At this point voting is not just an option but a responsibility.

Picture: BBC

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