While the European Parliament (EP) is taking its annual summer-break, its MEPs will hardly have time to enjoy their holiday. With only some 250 days to go until the European Parliament elections, the candidates will obviously already be planning their electoral campaigns. While 250 days may seem an adequate time to eloquently explain to the electorate your policy recommendations, it is argued that MEPs will have a lot more to do. Since the last election in 2009, it seems that the European Parliament is still struggling with its institutional outlook. The last few months have revealed that many European citizens are still unaware about the European Parliament and many still have a very one-sided prejudiced view about its members. If MEPs do not want to see European elections written off as second-order, then they will need to tackle two issues urgently in the following months: Image and Importance.
In the first place, the members of the European Parliament are still facing an identity crisis. MEPs are still seen by many Europeans as money-grabbing, lazy politicians, who mostly spend their time in luxurious Brussels-based hotels and restaurants. As a result, Europeans took matters in their own hands to put a halt to this kind of behaviour. To review the work-attitude of MEPs, websites such as votewatch.eu and mepranking.eu were launched. These websites offer the European citizens so-called “rankings” which show to what extent MEPs have taken part in roll-call voting and the number of plenary sessions they have attended. Since the publication of these rankings, reports on them have been pouring out in European media. E.g. Only a month ago, the British European Movement wrote an extensive article in which they attacked UKIP-members and its infamous leader Nigel Farage for their poor attendance records. The issue even became a topic in parliament itself when, during a heated debate, Guy Verhofstadt, president of the ALDE Group, accused Nigel Farage of never attending the fisheries committee and thereby “cheating on his own citizens”. Not only attendance records, but also the so-called “subsistance allowance” came to the attention of the press. This fee can be claimed by members of Parliament for their daily expenses (eg travel costs), even though no proof of expenditure is necessary. A video of the Dutch weblog “Geen Stijl” went viral when MEP Raffaelle Baldassarre (European People’s Party) was caught claiming a 300 euros fee only to leave the plenary session minutes later. When confronted with this, Baldassarre became aggressive, pushing the Dutch interviewer and hitting his microphone. Again, similar reports on this are found throughout European newspapers.
One can only conclude that this issue has never been out of the press since the last parliamentary election in 2009. MEPs, now more than ever, see themselves forced to bring as much transparency as possible into their work ethic to successfully gain the electorate’s vote. Therefore, one can be certain that a significant amount of European citizens will check upon their candidate’s attendance record before leaving for the polling station in May.
Secondly, it seems that after so many years a significant amount of European citizens are still unaware about the European Parliament and to what extent it can play a decisive role in contemporary Europe. This was seen again in the latest Eurobarometer-report. While the report was cheered by the European Commission, highlighting the declining pessimism of Europeans about the economic crisis, the report also revealed that knowledge of the European Parliament is still somewhat disappointing. Even though the European Union never seemed out of the news, due to the economic crisis, an average of 10% of respondents still said they had not heard of the European Parliament. In the UK and Italy, even 15% and 16% of respondents respectively were unaware about the Parliament. Numbers took a turn for the worse when knowledge of the European election process was tested. Eurobarometer revealed that an average of 48% of respondents did not know that members of Parliament are directly elected by the citizens of each member state. While awareness of Parliament varied little since the last election, knowledge of the election process has been in constant decline (59% to 52%). If the European Union is not able to turn this around, then it really needs to consider reforming their public relations strategy.
However, the election is still some 250 days away. A lot can still happen which would stir up the election polls in May. Nevertheless, one can be sure about one thing. Those MEPs who are able to shake off their negative public image and who can convince their electorate of the importance of the European Parliament, have a good chance of regaining their seat in the next parliamentary term.