A dull European election seems inevitable

Tomorrow, Europeans will go to the polls to elect candidates to represent them at the European Parliament.  Or, more accurately, about 40% of the eligible voters will go to the polls.  In apathetic-sceptic Britain, turnout is expected to be about 30%.

The low turnout figures reflect a general malaise with the European parliament and democracy in Brussels.  During the heady days of the early elections, we saw chart-topping percentages like 62% & 59%.   Since then, turnout has been steadily falling, down to 43% at the last election – 35% in the UK.

In no small part, this is because the elections are boring.  There are plenty of reasons for this.

The first is that Brussels seems removed from our lives.  Seeing the raw fury in a commuter’s eyes as she spits out “can you move down the carriage!?” has taught me it’s easier to get fired up about the injustice right in front of you.   When conducting research in Brussels I found that most people preferred to let the professionals in various interest groups speak on their behalf in Brussels, farming out their voice to civil society groups with a sprinkling of clicktivism.

It doesn’t help that the candidates are overwhelmingly dull.  Possibly the most watched speech in the European parliament’s history is Nigel Farage being extremely rude about Herman van Rompuy. Who? You ask.  Well quite.  Nige sums it up: “Who are you? … No-one in Europe had ever heard of you!”  (Rompuy was President of the EU).  Even if his speech was rude, the European Parliament is hardly a hotbed of charisma.  Being an MEP is not an especially desirable position for the politically ambitious, so stronger candidates go to national parliaments rather than Strasbourg, leaving debates lacklustre.  I’d almost take a bit of sleaze just to spice things up; If Herman was caught with his trousers down the chance to splash “Rompuy-pumpy” all over the headlines would be too good to turn down, and we’d at least hear something about what was going on Brussels.

The campaigns can also be dull because the Parliament itself doesn’t propose any legislation, so no one can campaign with a grand idea – MEPs don’t typically take policy ideas with them to Strasbourg.  They review, revise and approve legislation – important work, but does not make for interesting campaigning – “I am a competent reviewer of legal clauses” isn’t exactly “I have a dream.”  This is a shame.  As the parliament has grown in significance within the European system, its MEPs have become more influential stakeholders; a campaigning European parliament could, if it wanted to, take matters to the Commission and be proactive in influencing the European policy space.  Having things to rally around is a route to engaged voters.

In the UK, national political parties share some of the blame for voter disengagement.   Sheltering in my South London bunker, I’ve been subjected to a blitzkrieg of leaflets for the local and European elections, most of which make scant reference to Europe.  Labour, one of the worst offenders, packed their leaflet full of policy pledges for national government – Wandsworth Council will not freeze energy prices, and neither will the European Parliament.  The leaflet actively encourages us to treat the election like a popularity poll for the Coalition: “This election is your chance to show David Cameron what you think of his A&E crisis.”   If national parties, who control candidate selection and the organisation of MEPs, don’t take the election seriously, can anyone else be expected to?   Political parties need to take European issues to citizens.  They aren’t always that interested in hearing it, but if politicians don’t make the effort they never will be.

As for tomorrow’s election: It’s not clear what will happen. My only hope is that the likely sharp rise in the number of anti-Europe and extreme MEPs will give some of the established party groups the kicking they need to plan how they can get voters to take this process seriously. Otherwise we risk continuing to see the Nigel Farages of this world gaining influence in Brussels, and using it for no good at all.