EU voters not interested in the European Parliament elections. What’s behind this European Titanic?

José Manuel Barroso, in the centre, casting his ballot for the 2014 elections of the candidate of the EPP for the function of next President of the EC

José Manuel Barroso, in the centre, casting his ballot for the 2014 elections of the candidate of the EPP for the function of next President of the EC

It’s just a matter of few days, and around 350 million European voters will be called upon to choose their representatives. They are expected to go the polls to vote in elections to the European Parliament, the EU’s only directly elected body. Think about it, almost 5% of the globe’s population called to express its preference is something which could shake the entire globe. But the only thing which this huge democratic exercise is not doing, apparently, is engaging the European voters, as black clouds loom behind the stars of the Union.

Six out of 10 Europeans are “not that interested” in the European Parliament elections next week, despite huge efforts by campaign managers to make the ballot more relevant, according to a poll* released last Thursday by Ipsos MORI – second largest market research organisation in the UK. And if the average turnout at the last EU election in 2009 was 43 percent, only 35 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote during the next 22-25 May poll. The survey revealed that the greatest enthusiasm was registered in Belgium (53 percent), where voting is required by law, followed by France (44 percent) and the Netherlands (41 percent). The lowest was in Britain (27 percent) and Poland (20 percent). Ouch!

The elections will not only decide the 751 deputies who will sit in the European Parliament from 2014-2019, but more than likely determine who will lead the European Commission, which holds the right to propose legislation. And guess what the survey revealed? More than 60 percent of people do not know who any of the candidates are.

These are signs which lead to one and only sad conclusion: the EU has failed to engage the people, to attract the citizens to its project. And how did this happen? Where all this lack of faith for a Union that “brought peace, prosperity and democracy, even in difficult times,” as EU President Herman Van Rompuy said earlier this year, come from? Let’s try to explain this.

One of the main reasons is distance. The European Union feels distant to many European voters. Many think that it is some kind of “philosophical” experiment held in Brussels or Strasbourg, very far from the people’s everyday life. There’s also widespread frustration at a perceived lack of reporting of the European parliament’s activities, and resultant confusion about its scope and responsibilities. Popular perceptions of a remote, unaccountable EU elite, are expected to boost support for populist, far-right and anti-EU political parties in many member states such as France – which, we must say, has always been one of the main power engines of the Union. The EU policy makers have perhaps failed to communicate effectively that this creature, this Union, is made by people, is made for people, and that exists only through people’s support.

The second key for this alleged failure may be austerity policies, be this only a matter of perception among people, or a real terrible mistake in the EU’s economic vision. The point is that most of the EU citizens, especially in the countries which have paid “the highest price” during this time of economic crisis, see Europe as something which is all about money and parameters. Everybody feels that there’s a common frustration with the politics of austerity and inflation control. There’s also a feeling of widespread unfaith about the moves that the EU took into the countries’ policies on agriculture, patents protection, import/export regulation.

We believe that another survey released last March by Ipsos MORI can give a clear overview on the situation.
Most people across the ten countries** involved in the survey believe the European Union plays a very important role in crucial policy areas, especially the economy, agriculture and laws, where around eight out of ten feel it has influence over their country. There are differences by country – for example the Spanish the ones that feel the most that the EU has influence over the economy, jobs and the finances of their government, while the British, Germans and Polish are particularly likely to stress the influence the EU has over immigration.

On balance, people feel that the EU’s impact has been more negative than positive across all of these policy areas, according to the survey. They are particularly negative about its influence on their government – its finances and its ability to make decisions in the best interests of the country – but less so about its impact on people’s daily lives.

Moreover, the survey revealed that citizens in France, Italy and Spain are all particularly negative about the EU’s impact on the economy (74, 74, and 68 percent respectively are critical), and many feel that their economy has been damaged by the demands of austerity (75, 70, and 75 percent respectively). Over half, though, of people in Poland (59 percent), Hungary (53 percent) and Germany (52 percent) think that the EU has benefited their economy.

And here’s the biggest knot, which might be seen as one of the third main reason behind this lack of confidence in the European Union: equality. The survey told that there are also faultiness in perceptions of whether all EU member states have benefited from the Union equally. Large majorities in Spain (73 percent), Italy (71 percent) and Poland (64 percent) believe that the EU gives an unfair advantage to richer countries over poorer ones, but this falls to two out of five (39 percent) Germans. More than half (53 percent) of the voters in Britain agree that the EU gives an unfair advantage to richer European countries over poorer ones. See the economic crisis, once again, and the way the EU handled it, we should say.

There’s only one good side of the matter though. Most of the analysts from recent polls (as one held by the Guardian last week) reveal that the voters, although unhappy, have not given up with the European integration ideal, and still believe in Europe as a driver for peace and freedom. Gideon Skinner, Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI, said: “There is […] clearly some expectation that anti-European parties will do well in the upcoming European elections. However, when given the chance Britons say they prefer staying in a reduced EU rather than leaving it altogether. It is also interesting to see that in some countries such as Spain, Italy and France views are even more negative, especially on economic issues – although this again does not always translate into an automatic desire to leave the EU”.

What emerges is a fragile situation. The European Union is at a turning point now, where this election may represent either the biggest threat for integrity, or the injection this organisation needs to change now and be back to the where people need it. This is the time for the stars to show that they can shine again.

Follow @carlomotta_ on Twitter

* A total of 8,833 people were polled in Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden by Ipsos (source: Reuters)
** Between February 4th and February 18th 2014, Ipsos surveyed 7,028 respondents aged 16-64, in nine European countries (Belgium, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden) for their attitudes towards the European Union. A further 1,017 18+ people were interviewed online in the Netherlands between 18 and 20 February 2014

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