Parliament without a people

Published in On Line Opinion (Fortitude Valley), 10 June 2009

If only European elections were as entertaining as the Eurovision song contest … When the good, the bad, and the ugly of Europe’s would-be pop stars come together, SBS dedicates a whole night to this odd spectacle. At times, you wonder when in history did the Europeans lose taste, but occasionally there is a genuine surprise like this year’s Norwegian winner Fairytale.

For last weekend’s elections to the European Parliament, there were no such positive surprises. SBS didn’t report for hours, no fairytales were be spun, and Norway, still not a member of the European Union, did not take part in these elections anyway. La Norvège: zéro points.

The elections for the European Parliament are at least as bizarre as the song contest. And just as nobody can remember last year’s Eurovision winners, the results of the EU elections are likely be forgotten soon after they are declared.

In the 27 member states of the European Union, some 375 million people are eligible to vote. It is not quite democracy on an Indian scale, but there are twice the number of voters than in US presidential elections. Besides, it is the largest trans-national election in the world. Unfortunately, things are not nearly as grand as these numbers suggest.

The problems with the European Parliament are manifold. For a start, it is a Parliament whose members are virtually unknown to a wider audience. Even in Europe, not many people would have heard of Hans-Gert Pöttering, who is not only one of the longest serving MEPs but also the Parliament’s current president. And outside their own countries, who would know the likes of Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the leading candidate of the Spanish socialists, or Ulrike Lunacek, who heads the Austrian Greens?

To add some colour, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi nominated former Miss Italy contestant Barbara Matera, a 27-year-old actress with no political background, to run for his party The People of Freedom. Perhaps he should have also changed the name of the party to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But such publicity stunts are unlikely to solve the next big problem for the European Parliament: the voters simply don’t care. At the last elections in 2004, a mere 45.6 per cent of the electorate cast their ballot. Despite the European Union spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign promoting the elections, this year’s turnout was even lower at 42.94 per cent.

It is not difficult to understand this voter apathy. With the candidates as obscure as the European Union itself, the elections do not assume any great importance at the European level. In fact, even the national campaigns suggest that Europe’s elections are fought on national issues rather than on some genuinely European questions.

In Germany, the elections are largely seen as a test run for the country’s general election in September. In Britain, the result was interpreted as a verdict on beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is simultaneously struggling with the expenses scandal and a gargantuan budget deficit. In Italy, the European elections are a vote of confidence on Berlusconi following rumours about his private life. Yet in no single country are the European elections actually about Europe.

European voters sense that their votes do not really matter in Brussels and Strasbourg, the two places between which Parliament moves back and forth like a travelling circus. In some way, the voters are right. Whatever the result of the election, Parliament still cannot choose the President of the European Commission, the EU government. It still cannot initiate laws, either. As a Parliament, it is all too often at the mercy of the executive.

In another sense, though, Parliament does matter. Most Europeans are unaware of the fact that between 70 and 80 per cent of all new laws in Europe originate from the European Union and its Parliament. The only role remaining for national legislatures like the French Assemblée Nationale or the German Bundestag is to translate these laws into national Acts of Parliament.

This process of European legislation has accelerated in recent decades, and according to the EU’s reform plans Parliament will have an even greater role in drafting legislation in the future. Proponents of these changes claim that they will make the European Union more democratic. In fact, they may achieve quite the opposite.

For any Parliament to function properly, it takes more than just an electorate to elect members every few years. It is at least as important to keep an eye on them once they are elected, and for this task it takes both public interest and continued media scrutiny. Both these elements are currently missing in Europe.

As opinion polls show, Europeans are far from passionate about European politics. When given the chance to vote on further integration, they usually vote against it. More than half a century of European Union politics has failed to create a European people, a demos. Consequently, there is no European public, either. Newspapers, radio, and TV programs are national affairs with limited international coverage.

A democracy is unlikely to flourish where there is no demos. And without a true democracy, even a Parliament full of best intentions can only be an empty shell at best. At worst, this so-called “European” Parliament only serves to undermine parliamentary democracy.

Already, the European Parliament is passing regulations for almost every aspect of life: from electric ovens to in-vitro fertilisation, from cable cars to intellectual property rights. If such regulations were introduced at the national level, at least there would be public debates on the merits of the proposals. If the same regulations get introduced via Brussels, bureaucrats, politicians and lobbyists can run the show almost undisturbed. This way, parliamentary democracy is gradually eroding, and Europe as a whole is becoming a much more bureaucratic and regulated place.

There is no doubt the European elections are lacking the glitz and glamour of the Eurovision song contest, but they are almost as pointless. Fairytales never happen in the European Union.