“Just” 43 per cent of voters across the EU took part in the European elections last week, smashing the record for low turnout and stimulating much gnashing of teeth across the continent as well as in Brussels, where the usual chorus of complaints from MEPs that their important work is completely ignored outside of Brussels (and, for one week a month, Strasbourg) has been louder than ever.
Yet to me the surprise is that the figure remains so high. There seem to be three very good reasons for low voter turnout at Euro-elections. First, most people across the EU regard themselves as citizens of their own country before they regard themselves as European. Their national parliaments are much closer to home; they conduct their business in the language spoken by voters – so it is little surprise that national elections should prove a greater draw.
Second, while the work of the European parliament has become more important over the years, particularly in scrutinising legislation and acting as a check on the Commission, it remains true that for most of the issues that voters really care about – taxation, education, healthcare – the parliament’s role is limited to non-existent. It is not even capable of initiating its own legislation: that role is the sole preserve of the Commission. It is national parliaments that make the decisions that matter to people.
Or, rather, it is national governments, which brings me to the third point: because MEPs do not form a government, it’s difficult for voters in Euro-elections to feel that sense of event that marks elections to national parliaments. In Britain, when we vote in general elections, we are providing a party with a mandate to govern the country for the next five years, assuming one of them achieves an overall majority. When we kick a party out of office and elect another in its place, the removal vans are at No 10 the very next day. It’s all rather exciting, and there is an obvious, tangible link between the act of voting and changes to the way we are governed. The European elections don’t really have anything to compare with this. So it looks like the relative success of centre-right parties last week means that Jose Manuel Barroso is now a bit more likely than he was to get his second term as President of the Commission. Well, whoopee-doo.
Of course, we should not dismiss the secondary problem that lower turnout seems to have contributed to the electoral success of looney-tune parties across the EU. And it is at least paradoxical that turnout at elections for the European parliament has declined roughly in inverse proportion to the growth of the parliament’s powers.
But when almost one in two voters across the EU – which amounts to, it’s worth reminding ourselves, 161 million people — find it worth their time to cast a vote in an election for a parliament that is remote politically and in most cases geographically, has little powers over the things that matter to them, and that does not have any executive authority – to me, that’s little short of a democratic miracle.
Tom Nuttall is editor at the European Council of Foreign Relations