What do members of the European Parliament (MEPs) actually do? Most of the 375 million or so people eligible to vote in the European elections on June 4-7 probably have only a hazy idea, or none at all, which explains why voter turnout throughout the European Union is likely to be disastrously low. Thirty years ago, when the first elections to the parliament were held, almost two-thirds of the electorate voted, but over the years, participation has dropped steadily. This year it may be 30%.
Europe’s politicians are by and large proud of the EU and the way it has both grown and deepened. But it is also the EU’s growing complexity that is at the root of voters’ waning enthusiasm, so their indifference is a matter for serious concern.
The European elections are themselves curious and unsatisfactory; there are no obvious EU-wide issues that people can vote for or against, and, with the average MEP’s constituency numbering well over half a million people, the vote is not a test of personal popularity, either. In most parts of Europe, the elections will be an opportunity for protest votes on national issues.
Paradoxically, though, great deal hangs on the elections’ outcome. The number of seats won by the socialists and centre-right parties is likely to influence the make-up of the next European Commission – and thus the EU’s political agenda until 2014.
But you wouldn’t know this from the low level of media interest. Most journalists, like national electorates, have little understanding of the significant shift in Europe’s political decision-making over the last 20 years. They hang on to the outdated notion that their national parliaments make all key decisions, when in reality some four-fifths of the policies that determine Europe’s future are taken in Brussels and then rubber-stamped by national parliamentarians. A glance at any EU member state’s parliamentary calendar shows that lawmaking there is largely confined to domestic issues. The specialist MEPs, on the other hand, use their expertise and their steadily increasing powers to exert a good deal of influence on EU legislation.
But this does not mean that the European Parliament is a “real” parliament. It can’t raise taxes, declare war, or sack a government (even though in theory it can dismiss all the members of the European Commission en masse, the so-called “nuclear option” that is unlikely ever to be used). More to the point, perhaps, the European Parliament doesn’t really work on the same basis of left-right politics as national parliaments do; it deals in practicalities more than ideologies.
For all that, the European Parliament’s importance goes far beyond its members’ technical expertise on complex issues, or its usefulness as a democratic fig leaf for an EU decision-making process that is dominated by inter-governmental horse-trading. The parliament has been able to claw greater power for itself because it is the only mechanism Europe has for questioning and challenging EU policy proposals, and ironing out the sometimes clumsy and high-handed diktats of Brussels’ officialdom.
Unfortunately, however, the European Parliament is fairly inept at selling itself to public opinion. A recent Gallup poll showed that 36% of people questioned in all 27 EU countries no longer trust the parliament, with the only consolation being that even more, 37%, now mistrust the European Commission. Of those who said they wouldn’t be voting in this year’s European elections, 64% cited “lack of information” as the reason, with 62% complaining that their vote “wouldn’t change anything.”
This feeling of ignorance coupled with powerlessness is not entirely the European Parliament’s fault. The combination of high politics and grinding technical detail makes EU policymaking a much less interesting spectacle than national politics, and of course there’s the added problem that so many of the players are unknown foreigners. But, even when the parliament does make an effort to connect with voters, the ponderous bureaucratic culture of its permanent officials tends to spoil things. Last year, the parliament launched a lamentably amateurish Web-TV broadcasting service whose large budget was spent not on good programming but on doing everything in all the EU’s official languages.
So what is to be done? Many of the 736 EU parliamentarians are unsung heroes who risk being seen more and more as a problem rather than a solution to the EU’s ills. Rather than tinkering, perhaps the EU should boldly create an American-style bicameral system by turning the parliament into a House of Representatives and electing a Senate to replace the Council of Ministers, with two senators per member state. But that is probably far too revolutionary for an EU that took 50 years to fashion today’s unsatisfactorily hybrid decision-making structures.