May 2014 European elections: why should it be different this time?

By Luis Bouza García


Luis Bouza García, Academic Coordinator of the European General Studies of the College of Europe, writes, in this edition of our Newsletter, about the absenteeism in the European Parliament elections. How to make the European Parliament a stronger institution closer to the citizens? The May 2014 Parliament elections are key because, among other things, they will influence on the next European Commission’s President election. Stay up to date with your knowledge on the EU throughout 2014 by participating in our professional training programmes: all the latest EU developments in your hands!


The European Parliament constitutes a paradox in that the increasing power it has acquired since its first direct election in 1979 has been met by increasing indifference from the public in the form of abstention’.

I recently sat by chance in a plane with a College of Europe alumnus of my own promotion (Copernicus) who happens to work at the European Parliament (EP). After exchanging news of common friends I told him about a paper I recently wrote on how to tackle youth absenteeism in the elections to the European Parliament. When he asked me to summarise my conclusions and recommendations he was shocked by my remark that national leaders should publicly debate the main policy decisions in the EP. He interrupted me to say "Luis, that's already done, national leaders and the chairman of the European Council come to the EP before and after the Councils". Even though this is not exactly what I meant, I think that the anecdote is telling about the lack of visibility of the EP. If someone teaching and researching on European politics vaguely remembers about the EP in holding the European Council to account, there are high chances that the general public is not aware of the role of the Parliament in the EU.


If we were to ask the average European citizen who has the power in the EU he or she is likely to identify the German Chancellor, the British Prime Minister or “Brussels”, an alleged shortcut for the European Commission, but is unlikely to think of the EP. And yet, the EP is the co-legislator in most EU policies. We just need to think of the governance of the EU crisis: although most reporting has concentrated on the intergovernmental dimension, the EP has a vital role in essential debates such as should banks contribute to their own bail out, or should transactions be taxed?


This tells us however that influence is not always matched by visibility. The European Parliament constitutes a paradox in that the increasing power it has acquired since its first direct election in 1979 has been met by increasing indifference from the public in the form of abstention. Political parties have also failed to live up to the expectations of a democratic pan-European competition as they have turned EU elections into second order national ones rather than into a chance to define a European political project. The reasons are complex, but have to do with history – the EP was a powerless institution for years – institutional design – the EP is a co-legislator but does not have the right to initiate legislation – political leadership – parties still have a tendency to nominate candidates in the end of their career – and communication – the EP agenda setting is disconnected from national media. However, these can be summarised in the fact that unlike the vast majority of Parliaments in EU member states – the declining role of Parliaments is lamented in comparative political literature – the EP does not elect a government.


The EU institutions and political parties have tried to address precisely the last question by linking the result of the EU election and the election of the next President of the Commission. From the institutional point of view, the Treaty foresees that the President of the Commission must be chosen taking the election result into account. Furthermore political parties have promised to include this provision in the competition strategies, by announcing their candidates for this office in advance and involving that person in their campaign strategy. So the next EU elections of May 2014 should be about choosing a president of the Commission.


What should we then expect from these elections in terms of interest of the public, the media and national parties? I’m afraid EU parties candidates are not enough to change the dynamics of disinterest. First of all the president of the Commission, being a powerful individual and a salient figure in European politics, is not the equivalent of a prime minister. He – to date no female has occupied this position – has no say about the composition of the college of commissioners who are appointed by national governments. Furthermore the media and allegedly the public are unlikely to get interested by a competition among “Brussels insiders” who may know EU politics well but are not known by the public. If we assume politics is increasingly personalised the name and stature of the candidates in question will be important. Furthermore, having a common candidate is in itself a small incentive for national political parties to change their campaigning attitude: even if they commit to support the common candidate, they will still most likely campaign along national government and opposition cleavages.


Does that mean that the next EU elections are doomed to meet public indifference? Not necessarily, although maybe not for the reasons most parties expect. EU integration is increasingly politicised and at the centre of national politics. This is particularly true in the countries hit more strongly by the crisis of the euro, but also in some other large member states such as Germany and the UK. Currently the fear is that this may cause voters to choose Eurosceptic and populist parties. It is however also a chance for “mainstream” parties to finally engage voters with their projects for EU integration, clearly outlining the sacrifices and trade-offs they are willing to make for which benefits.


By Luis Bouza García, Academic Coordinator of the European General Studies of the College of Europe.

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