Can Europe Make It?

As long as the EU remains mired in its own abstractions, voter apathy will continue

Marcus How
1 April 2014

When engaging in free association about the European elections, ‘voter apathy’ is probably one of the first thoughts that spring to mind. There’s really no argument to be had about this. At the 2009 elections, the average turnout across the bloc was 43%, the lowest level yet. Turnout will surely register at a similar level in the upcoming elections.

The question is why such apathy exists. Sure, there’s the whole idea that the European Parliament is a cypher for the democratic deficit that apparently exists in the EU. What’s more, it’s distant. The overall quality of the representatives tends to be mediocre at best. Engage in free association about an MEP, and thoughts of loose eggs lolling around enjoying languorous lunches on expenses may well spring to mind.

But the roots of apathy run deeper than any of this, to the argument that the EU generates apathy by its very nature. Wolfgang Münchau recently touched on this idea in his weekly FT column, arguing that the EU primarily exists as a “technical facilitator”. Where its responsibilities are clearly defined, it works well, such as in the areas of competition law, trade policy and environmental obligations – but these areas are abstract as far as the electorate are concerned. At present, the EU is engaged in fostering convergence and integration between member states, while national governments remain in control of the policy packages that actually whet voter appetites.

Besides its technocratic role, a fundamental principle of the EU is the notion of ‘subsidiarity’. This obscure term originated in ideas of how the Vatican ought to organise its parishes across the world; namely, via decentralisation. Decisions are to be taken at the lowest level possible. In this sense, the EU preserves autonomy at the local level, albeit at the expense of its own visible influence on the daily lives of ordinary people. Where it is visible is in the regulations that small businesses run up against and resent, for the very reason that they are rules and that they can’t really be changed. And where businesses and localities receive funding from the EU – through structural funds, for example – the payments are indirect, passing through national governments.

As such, the EU guarantees its own abstraction. Its advocates can’t sell it through talking about how it improves economic efficiency between member states. The post-war mantra of ‘let’s cooperate rather than invade each other’ has lost its relevance for younger generations. Academic talk of how the world is experiencing a global shift in the power balance – and that Europe needs to unite to protect its collective interests – is just that: academic.

An alternative avenue would be to sell a social democratic vision of an EU that guarantees the rights of workers, consumers, depositors (ahem, banking union) and investors. It could control (part of) the welfare net, and demand minimum standards from public services. 

However, the realisation of such a vision is unlikely for three reasons. First of all, it would demand further centralisation, and national governments (and electorates) don’t like power transfers for fear of losing autonomy over local affairs. Second, whilst it isn’t radically social democratic (actually, it would align the structure of the EU more with the US), not everyone across the mainstream political spectrum would agree with it.

Finally, this vision doesn’t bring us any closer to crafting a European identity that a majority of people can accept, and strive towards realising. The vision may well improve economic efficiency across the bloc. It may mitigate the effects of future financial crises. But just because the numbers add up doesn’t mean that reality will conform to the final result. In human affairs, the wildcard of emotion and irrationality is omnipresent; sometimes, aligned stars just don’t click. I accept that football is an intelligent, intricate sport, full of innovative strategy; but, for reasons unknown to me, I still find it mind-numbingly boring.

Elsewhere, what it is to be ‘European’ is a nebulous concept that has little traction with most people, who stick to that which they can identify with; namely, the culture they were raised in. Even those who don’t relate to a particular culture probably couldn’t say what it is to be European without betraying their political convictions. I was born and raised in the UK but my maternal side of the family are Austrian. We spoke German at home and ate a lot of Austrian cuisine. Vienna was a haven of familial warmth and nostalgia, as opposed to commuter belt Essex – which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t and still isn’t. But as I’ve gotten older, although I don’t relate much to the UK, I don’t feel fully at one with Austria. So what am I? Probably ‘European’ – but that’s an identity spawned from feeling culturally stateless, which makes it easier to advocate policies that some people may argue are destructive of their cultures.

So it seems that a way of overcoming apathy is through crafting a European identity. But that solution raises more questions than it answers. How do you craft such an identity without either, a) arbitrarily pissing people off, or b) becoming like me (and dooming the project as a result)?

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