Reasons to care about the European Parliament elections

BRUSSELS — Candidates are off and running in the race to be one of the 736 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The June 4 through June 7 balloting will be the largest transnational election in history, with 375 million people across 27 countries eligible to help send delegates to Brussels.

Long maligned as powerless, the EP actually is very influential in a multinational government whose decisions increasingly impact citizens’ lives (EU regulations have had an effect on consumer products and services from mobile phone plans to feta cheese).

For the next five years, the EP — the only part of the European Union bureaucracy directly elected by voters — will be responsible for drafting an ever-increasing number of laws and regulations that member states must observe. It must approve the entire EU budget and has the right to force the resignation of members of the EU executive branch, the European Commission. The EP’s influence will grow if the Lisbon reform treaty is ratified by all member states.

Already, notes the EP’s promotional material, the parliament’s votes “shape final EU legislation that influences our everyday life, be it the food on our plates, the cost of our shopping, the quality of the air we breathe, or the safety of our children’s toys.”

Who wouldn’t want to have their say over these critical issues?

Apparently, the majority of EU voters.

One of the biggest problems the European Parliament has is that few of the almost half-billion people whose lives it governs seem to care much about choosing its members. Turnout has fallen consistently in the 30 years that direct EP elections have been held, from 62 percent in 1979 to 48 percent in 2004.

No one is predicting an upswing this year — in general. Specialized parties — some of which are actually anti-EU, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party — might be able to mobilize their voters and win a share of seats disproportionate to their support among the general population.

While that causes concern among EU observers, there is also evidence that such “eurosceptic” groups are genuinely winning wider support for their views and leaving the fringe. One of the splashiest examples is the new Libertas Party, which evolved from the successful opposition to the Lisbon reform treaty in Ireland.

Libertas, under the chairmanship of the Irishman Declan Ganley, is currently launching branches of the party, or joining with similarly minded affiliate organizations all across Europe. It bills itself as the “pan-European people’s movement for more democracy, accountability and transparency in the EU.” Libertas claims that this week it had more hits on its website than any other political party in the entire world, “leaving even the U.S. Democratic Party website trailing.”

Meanwhile, the more established political blocs are hoping to maintain comfortable margins over the newcomers and special-interest groups. Once elected, MEPs generally fold into these larger groups rather than continuing to identify with their countries and national parties.

The biggest bloc is the center-right European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED), including the German Christian Democrats and the British Conservative Party, followed by the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES), trailed by the Alliance of Liberals Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Several other groups also exist, such as the environmentally oriented Greens and the right-wing Union for Europe of the Nations, which each claim a few dozen MEPs. One group of EU critics founded in 2004, Independence and Democracy, now boasts 22 members.

Thirty members remain outside these groups.

Acknowledging the dearth of interest in the mainstream European parties, and presuming that it can be changed, the EP has allocated 18 million euros (almost $25 million) to sell itself to voters with the help of public-relations firms, celebrities, television stations and social media. The potential voter can peruse a plethora of Web pages that both provide information and give users the opportunity to ask questions.

The slogan — “European elections — it’s your choice!” — is being translated and subtitled in 34 languages for use across the continent on posters, stickers, billboards and in broadcasting. Campaigners hope to inspire citizens to invest themselves in the issues, rather than just prod them to fulfill their civic duty to cast a ballot.

EU polling finds the electorate most concerned about consumer protection and public health issues — and polls were conducted before the H1N1 flu outbreak — with coordination of economic policies coming in second and unified security and defense policy coming in third. As a sign of the times, just six months ago the issue of fiscal policy ranked only sixth while security was first.

Voters complain that they don’t understand what the EP does and therefore do not feel engaged. It can be hard to decipher how anything works in Brussels’ tangled bureaucracy, and understanding it does not necessarily make it more inspiring.

Much of what happens here is only interesting to a specialized audience, even if it is relevant to a vastly wider one. It’s therefore not surprising that, regardless of what the transnational European issues of greatest concern to voters are, the contests for MEPs in their home countries tend to center on domestic issues that will not be part of the winner’s mandate. Ironically, the majority of laws implemented by national governments — possibly as high as 80 percent — begin at the EU level.

Much of the EP’s PR effort, therefore, is trying to bring home to voters the notion that the work in faraway Brussels — or Strasbourg, where parliament meets one week per month — has an impact on them. A special Elections 2009 section on the parliamentary website highlights recent examples of debates in parliament, such as how long maternity and paternity leaves should be throughout the EU, whether there should be more regulation on the Internet and what kind of laws could help ease the bite of the economic crisis.

The EP has a joint project with MTV to increase the participation of voters between the ages of 18 and 24, whose turnout was just 40 percent last time. Launched last month, the campaign doesn’t overestimate its audience’s level of engagement: “Did you know that the European elections are almost here?” the official website queries. “Did you even know that there were European elections?”

Those were more than just rhetorical questions in a survey undertaken by the EU’s own statistical agency, Eurobarometer, at the beginning of this year, and the answers didn’t bode well for turnout. Only 32 percent of respondents knew there was a vote this year and 53 percent said they are not interested.

Read more about the European elections:

The Irish seek a way back into Europe

The European Parliament elections as beauty pageant

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