Feature

European Union: Why voters are so disenchanted

Economic unease contributed to the low voter turnout for the recent European Parliament elections.

Another European Parliament election, another record low turnout, said Adriana Cerretelli in Italy’s Il Sole 24 Ore. We’ve been electing representatives to the European Union’s legislative body about every five years since 1979, and the turnout has been steadily declining. Across the 27 nations that now make up the EU, voter sentiment ranges “from apathy to outright hostility.” For the most recent elections, which ended last weekend, turnout was just 43 percent. The results didn’t change much: The center-right European People’s Party will still have the largest share of seats, followed by the European Socialists. But there were some gains by far-right parties, including a few that are explicitly opposed to the EU. The bad attitude is puzzling, given that the union has brought so many benefits to each member country, including the euro currency, “the fight against inflation and megadeficits, passport-free travel, safety standards, and environmental protections.” Apparently all the voters see is a cold and intrusive bureaucracy.

Voters have good reason to be disillusioned, said Vicente Navarro in Spain’s Publico. The EU has hurt their wallets. In the 15 countries that made up the union before 2004, when it began taking in Eastern European members, unemployment has been growing steadily since the 1980s. At the same time, working conditions have deteriorated. Worst of all, “social inequality” has grown enormously—that is, the income gap has widened. All of these economic ills are the “direct result of policies implemented by EU institutions, in particular the European Commission” and the European Central Bank. The EU directs economic policy to benefit capital investors, not to create jobs. So it’s no wonder many working-class people don’t vote, while “a certain fringe” of them supports far-right parties in the mistaken belief “that nationalist and anti-immigration policies will compensate for the scarcity of secure employment within the EU.”

If the EU had taken the lead in combating the global financial crisis, voters might have paid attention, said France’s Le Monde in an editorial. “Europeans have only one thought in mind right now: the crisis.” But the EU “has played almost no role in managing the trauma.” All we had was a bunch of separate national plans, which European Commission head José Manuel Barroso of Portugal “gave a vague European coating.” Barroso is “devoid of political and economic imagination” and is not the man to lead the union back to prosperity. Yet the newly elected European Parliament has already signaled its intention to reappoint him. No wonder voters consider the body a joke.

The irony is that the European Parliament is more powerful than ever, said Heribert Prantl in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. We used to say voter apathy was a result of “the democracy deficit”—most EU decisions were made by the European Commission, an unelected elite, and the European Parliament had very little power. But that has now changed. The Lisbon Treaty, adopted in 2007 but not yet ratified by all members, transformed the EU into a real transnational democracy in which the legislature has significant power. It’s almost tragic. Fewer and fewer people vote for a body that has “more and more impact on their lives.”

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