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Brussels warily watches voter turnout decline

Will social media help, or will it take structural reforms to engage voters?

Austrian Green Party candidates for EU elections Eva Lichtenberger (L) and Brigitte Lunacek at a news conference in Vienna Apr. 17, 2009. Despite important transnational issues, such as energy security, public health threats, there is no sign Europeans will reverse a downward trend and turn out in greater numbers June 4-7.(Herwig Prammer/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — European politicians admire many things about Barack Obama, and one of them is the way he used “social media” to pull in record numbers of voters and make them feel that he was personally devoted to making their lives better.

Can the European Parliament follow that lead? Can it tweet and Flickr itself out of obscurity?

So far, it seems it can’t.

Every five years, Europeans are called to the polls to choose the lawmakers who will control a growing proportion of the rules and regulations that govern their daily lives. (See my introduction to this year's European Parliament elections.)

And every five years the proportion of European Union citizens casting a ballot has shrunk.

Voters prefer to pay attention to national elections, even though as much as 80 percent of the legislation their country’s leaders will be required to implement now originates at the European Union level.

This year, despite enormously important transnational issues — the global economic crisis, energy security, public health threats — there is no sign Europeans will reverse the downward trend and turn out in greater numbers June 4-7.

And, some experts say, no one should be surprised. “If you’re a voter, it’s totally rational for you to be completely turned off,” said Simon Hix, a political science professor at the London School of Economics and one of the foremost analysts on voting behavior in EP elections.

While EP voter turnout is low (45.5 percent in 2004), it is still not as small as turnout for the U.S. mid-term congressional elections (36.8 percent for the House, 29.7 percent for the Senate in 2006). But, Hix said, there’s a possibility EP turnout could dip to 35 percent this year or even lower. Anything below 30 percent overall would raise “serious legitimacy questions” for the parliament, he said. Experts worry that turnout could be in the teens in some of the newer member states.

Even though the EP is the only directly elected body among the EU institutions, Hix said voters don’t feel a “direct” connection to the process. In many EU countries, people vote for a party, not a person, and the party chooses who will be sent to Brussels. With that system, Hix said, individual politicians have little incentive to appear before voters to explain their records, expound on the issues and argue that they are the best person for the job. Consequently, EP elections become mid-term referendums on the performance of national governments, Hix said. Those who do participate use their votes to punish or reward parties based on national issues.

This year's election might be even more focused on national parties than past contests as polls show voters are most concerned about unemployment and the economy, and less interested in how the EU handles foreign policy. They want government to do more for them in their everyday lives.