Euroelections 2014 — Imagine there are elections and no one shows up

Notes on demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­cy and the 2014 Euro­pean Par­lia­ment Elections

By Chris­tine Huebner.

With the Lis­bon Treaty in-force, for­mal­ly the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment to be elect­ed will be more influ­en­tial than any of its pre­de­ces­sors: par­lia­men­tar­i­ans will enjoy extend­ed right of con­sent with Coun­cil deci­sions and will have to pass the Commission’s pro­posed bud­get. Nice fea­tures, indeed, but the ques­tion is how pow­er­ful the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans will be effec­tive­ly giv­en their legit­i­ma­cy with the Euro­pean pub­lic. A quick proxy: Aver­age turnout in Euro­pean elec­tions is on a steady decline — from 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. If you were to fol­low this trend, there would be no vot­ers left by the 2044 elec­tions. In Slo­va­kia and Poland no more than a fifth of eli­gi­ble vot­ers took part in the 2009 poll. Also non-novice mem­bers such as the Nether­lands, Fin­land and the UK boast turnouts of as low as  30–40%. Except for mem­ber states with com­pul­so­ry vot­ing, there are con­sis­tent­ly low­er num­bers of vot­ers in Euro­pean com­pared to nation­al elec­tions [1].

Turnout in Euro­pean Elec­tions (2009) vs. Nation­al Elec­tions (2007–2010)

Turnout in European Elections 2009 vs. National Elections 2007 - 2010

Click on pic­ture to enlarge


The prob­lem of low turnout has final­ly been rec­og­nized and tak­en its toll on Brus­sels. This year’s elec­tions for the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment will see a num­ber of firsts:

Each of the new fea­tures makes the run-off for the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment look more and more like any nation­al elec­tion cam­paign. This is a delib­er­ate effect: Europoliti­cians are aim­ing for the per­son­al edge[2, 3]. It is sup­posed to make Euro­pean pol­i­tics seem less elu­sive, bring it clos­er to the peo­ple, and there­by clos­er to their habits of vot­ing in nation­al elections.

Why afraid of low turnout now?

This year’s spe­cial fright with a low vot­er turnout could be a token of a change of heart in Brus­sels and beyond. It may, how­ev­er, also stem from the broad­er mean­ing of the 2014 run-off for Euro­pean offices:  it is the first post-Euro-cri­sis elec­tion. Along­side the obvi­ous ques­tion of who should be steer­ing Euro­pean pol­i­tics in the com­ing years, the vote is also expect­ed to indi­cate how much of a joint Europe cit­i­zens want to have. And how much nation state. In pre­vi­ous decades, eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty buffered much of the legit­i­ma­cy prob­lem. Assum­ing pros­per­i­ty as a proxy for some sort of out­put legit­i­ma­cy, the valid­i­ty of gov­ern­ment aris­es from mere prob­lem-solv­ing capac­i­ty, when com­mon inter­ests can bet­ter be pur­sued togeth­er than alone (Scharpf 2006). With the Euro­cri­sis still in full swing, this dimen­sion of legit­i­ma­cy for Euro­pean Insti­tu­tions has fall­en flat in the minds of many citizens.

Court­ing cit­i­zens for anoth­er form of legitimacy

In order to make up for this loss, Europoliti­cians are now call­ing for des­per­ate mea­sures to cre­ate anoth­er form of legit­i­ma­cy in the last minute. No mat­ter whether the Euro is in deep cri­sis or not, they want cit­i­zens to believe in the Euro­pean idea to elic­it any type of input legit­i­ma­cy (also an idea phrased by Scharpf). The cur­rent par­lia­ment has launched a mil­lion-Euro aware­ness and infor­ma­tion cam­paign. Unit­ed Left and Chris­t­ian Democ­rats are hold­ing online dis­cus­sions with mem­bers moti­vat­ing them to sub­mit ideas on the Euro­pean pro­gramme online. The Euro­pean Greens announced their first ever pan-Euro­pean cam­paign lead­ers to be select­ed in pop­u­lar vote: Ska Keller  from Ger­many and French­man José Bové. It was a move unheard of even in nation­al pol­i­tics. Not only 140.000 par­ty mem­bers across the con­ti­nent had been sur­veyed for the run-off. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, any­one amongst the 400 mil­lion Euro­pean cit­i­zens was allowed to take a vote on who should be steer­ing the pan-Euro­pean Green cam­paign for this year’s elections.


‘ACT. REACT. IMPACT.’ Cam­paign Video of the Euro­pean Parliament
(note also how the com­ment func­tion is dis­abled for the video on Youtube)

What does it help if the key is missing?

Flat­ter­ing it is yes, but not real­ly moti­vat­ing: only 22.676 peo­ple took part in the Green pre-selec­tion of can­di­dates – a mea­gre turnout of 0.05% of the pop­u­la­tion. The oth­er par­ties’ efforts are not claim­ing any more inter­est and read­ing through the com­ments that the Parliament’s aware­ness cam­paign is get­ting via Face­book does not make for one hap­py Europoliti­cian. What is the prob­lem? It seems that in their des­per­ate quest for atten­tion EU-office hold­ers have for­got­ten to wor­ry about key ingre­di­ents of legit­i­ma­cy: a joint pub­lic sphere, trust in col­lec­tive action and a shared under­stand­ing of what democ­ra­cy entails. In 1999 already, Scharpf points out that these key ele­ments of input legit­i­ma­cy typ­i­cal­ly arise from com­mon­al­i­ties in his­to­ry and cul­ture, which a Europe of 28 does not have (yet). It is eas­i­er to under­stand what he means when tak­ing a look at the dis­sem­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion as an exam­ple: in order to broad­cast the planned TV-debate of all Euro­cam­paign lead­ers, the EU has to turn towards nation­al sta­tions. Despite euronews – not real­ly a force to be reck­oned with — there is sim­ply no Euro­pean media out­let that could do this job. 

It takes time and under­stand­ing to build a joint Europe

Hav­ing to go via nation­al broad­cast­ers, nation­al par­ty struc­tures, and even­tu­al­ly, nation­al par­lia­ments does not help at cre­at­ing this feel­ing of Euro­pean com­mon­al­i­ty. Nei­ther does a des­per­ate last-minute aware­ness cam­paign. Just for the notice, it also does not help that nation­al politi­cians are debat­ing the idea of the Euro­pean Union, when they should be agree­ing on a Euro­pean pro­gramme (as the Ger­man Left has this week­end). What it takes instead is a seri­ous effort to build trust and a shared under­stand­ing of demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions. And time. Rethink­ing cit­i­zen involve­ment at the Euro­pean lev­el needs to involve con­crete pos­si­bil­i­ties of demo­c­ra­t­ic inno­va­tions at the local lev­el as well. It is a near-utopi­an idea to base a legit­i­mate demo­c­ra­t­ic super-sys­tem like the Euro­pean Union on top of nation­al democ­ra­cies with­out for­feit­ing cit­i­zen involve­ment at any lev­el. Instead, good ideas on how to achieve true dia­logue and the edu­ca­tion of a new gen­er­a­tion of engaged Euro­pean cit­i­zens need to take cen­ter stage. The Euro­pean Union can serve as an ide­al play­ing field for try­outs on demo­c­ra­t­ic inno­va­tion that go beyond well-known ele­ments of direct democ­ra­cy. Civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions and social move­ments can play a lead role in the quest of orga­niz­ing this delib­er­a­tive process and in build­ing a Euro­pean pub­lic sphere. Let’s see how many Euro­peans will turn then to the ballot.

Title pic­ture: ‘Euro­pean flag’ by vx_lentz (Cre­ative Commons)

Chris­tine Hueb­n­er is a found­ing part­ner at d|part. She guides the team in ques­tions of study design and choice of research meth­ods. She is also a doc­tor­al researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh, where she explores the views of young peo­ple on cit­i­zen­ship, iden­ti­ty and polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. Chris­tine has pub­lished wide­ly on the par­tic­i­pa­tion of young peo­ple, on the chang­ing nature of civic and demo­c­ra­t­ic engage­ment and on ques­tions of polit­i­cal legitimacy.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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