Europe’s elections: pick a party, any party

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 8 May 2014

In a couple of weeks’ time, over 413 million European voters in 28 countries will be asked to vote for the European Parliament. Hundreds of parties, divided by political orientation and nationality, are competing for the 751 seats. This is turning out to be one of the most confusing elections imaginable, and not just to those viewing it from outside the EU.

To provide some orientation, a number of institutions are providing online services that allow voters to answer a number of political questions. Based on their answers, the websites then give an indication which party to vote for (though they stop short of calling this a recommendation).

Such election tools were pioneered a decade ago by Germany’s Federal Centre for Political Education under the name Wahl-O-Mat (“Electomat”). They are a fun way of engaging voters with political issues – and they are extremely popular. Before last year’s German federal elections, Wahl-O-Mat was asked for its advice 13.3 million times. It is not too unlikely to assume that it had an effect on the final outcome.

Theoretically, for Europe’s voters it should be possible to find their preferred party by seeking such online help. As mentioned before, there is no shortage of parties. Unfortunately, even though these are called European elections, voters can only vote for their national parties. A Swedish voter, therefore, could not elect a Portuguese candidate or an Irish party even if he wanted to.

What is even worse, going through some of the national vote-recommendations machines reveals two things: European voters in different countries are not voting on the same issues; and even with the same political orientation, you may find yourself in completely different political camps in different countries.

If you don’t believe this, try playing the game yourself. The website has links to national tests in 14 countries. Barring language barriers, you can find out in each of them where you would stand on the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, my Latvian, Bulgarian and Czech are a bit rusty. But I have tried it in a number of other languages for France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Italy. In each case, I have answered the questions from the viewpoint of a classical liberal voter: someone who believes in free markets and limited government, the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. where decisions are made at the lowest possible tier of government), and the benefits of economic integration of EU member states (which does not require political uniformity).

It was not hard to keep my answers consistent – because these are really my own personal beliefs. What was not consistent was the parties I was supposed to vote for in these different EU countries.

Quite a few questions reappeared in most national questionnaires. For example, it was a common question whether to introduce an EU-wide financial transactions tax or whether EU members should combine their armed forces. Some other questions varied. For example, in the German version voters are asked whether the EU should only subsidise organic farming, whereas in other questionnaires the focus was on cutting agriculture subsidies generally.

Perhaps understandably, Britain’s version focussed on its national relationship with the EU. Should Britain opt out of the European Arrest Warrant? Should Scotland remain in the EU if it leaves the UK? Should there be a referendum on Britain’s EU membership? Should the UK contribute to the EU bailout fund?

More weirdly, the Austrian version seriously asked whether the EU should introduce a Europe-wide smoking ban in restaurants. The problem is that the EU does not even have any legal powers to introduce such health-related directives. Besides, it is not immediately clear why such laws would need to be harmonised from Finland to Sicily. If Austria wanted to go ahead with a smoking ban, it could so without the EU.

Similarly, in the French test voters were asked whether they support an ‘unconditional right to abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy’. Again, whether abortions are legal or not is a matter of national criminal law, which the EU cannot just harmonise across the continent. It is hard to see how this would work in practice between, say, Catholic Ireland and secular France.

What this shows is that the European elections are really fought nationally on issues that have little do with what the European Union is all about. Rather, the elections appear like a test run for national elections based on national problems. There is no single European public that would express its preferences for the actions and policies of the Union.

That is bad enough but here comes the next rub. After the elections, the different national parties will group in factions within the European parliament. As it turns out, these groupings really bring parties together whose voters may not share many beliefs.

My classical liberal instincts ended me in different camps in different countries. In Britain, I was supposedly a Conservative voter – however not by a large margin. A close second and third came the eurosceptic UK Independence Party and, I could hardly believe it, the Greens (I still wonder what unites these two).

In France, I was also a supporter of the centre-right party UMP (in agreement on 17 out 30 questions), but I also had considerable overlaps with my alleged comrades from the Mouvement Socialiste Alternatif (14 out 30). In both Austria and Italy, I was shocked to be a right-wing populist (FPÖ and Lega Nord), but at least in Germany I was a liberal Free Democrat. Lucky me!

Going around Europe, I could have ended up voting for practically any political bloc with the same basic political inclinations. Something cannot be quite right then, or can it? You may say that it is an absurd test to try to find out your voting intentions in different foreign countries. But maybe what is really absurd about all this is the idea that you could unite all these different countries and pretend they should operate under the same rules.

Effective political decision-making has never really been the EU’s strength in the euro crisis. A closer look at the mode of the forthcoming European elections does not indicate that this is likely to change anytime soon. And the grand “European elections” are really quite a farcical exercise in the way they are conducted.

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