Can Europe Make It?

Mistrust and lack of knowledge: two reasons for this state of apathy

Maria Antica
31 March 2014

If one looks at the European Parliamentary elections over the years, it is striking that the turnout gets lower and lower: from 62 percent in 1979 (when the EU had only nine members) to 43 percent in 2009. The European context and institutions have changed ever since and become more and more complex in their processes and institutional prerogatives. It has become harder and harder for the large, uninitiated public, not versed in "Brussels language" to understand the bureaucratic logic and for the European officials to explain them.

But, in search of some explanation on what exactly determines voters to come (or not) to the ballot boxes in European elections, it’s hard to detect one simple, overall hypothesis, as a lot factors determine voting behaviour: from the historical heritage and democratic experience each country has, to the electoral systems, civic engagement and education, the way media influences public opinion, or the way politicians put an emphasis on European matters. There are legitimate fears that, especially during times of crisis such as the one we face, citizens will care even less about what’s going on for the people they send to Brussels. They feel that they can’t really influence politics and decisions and produce the change they want or need.

On the other hand, there are growing fears that those who will vote will send in extreme right or left wing parties. These parties could have a blasting effect on the European structure as we know it and on its future directions. Claims are made that a state of apathy is on the rise, especially among young people, and that beyond the risk of changing the EU’s direction, the legitimacy of the European project as a whole could be at risk. It appears the state of so-called apathy that characterizes a large part of Europe’s citizens needs to be addressed, but so does a more active public willing to vote for those whom they feel can address their prime concerns (immigration, to name only one) and influence politics at the EU’s core. If we want to overcome the risks of lack of legitimacy and salvage the European project, then we must consider both these sets of people.

No doubt, after the 2009 elections one can’t ignore the joint efforts of all the EU’s institutions in trying to come closer to the citizens they represent, be it through social media channels, polls and research to find out trends and solutions. Actually, as we speak, there are a lot of initiatives, dialogue platforms (online and offline), conferences, events and projects that try to meet people’s need of a better understanding of how the EU works and how they can make a change. Every day people sign petitions, send emails to their MEPs, and call for action in the wake of a legislative project that is to be voted and so on.

Among the EU’s efforts to get closer to its citizens is building up a sense of European identity and networks, but this is done mostly among young people as it is assumed that they can be educated more easily to go in this direction and will after all be the voters of tomorrow. Programmes such as Erasmus + or Youth in Action are extremely active and visible and those involved do have a great things to say about them. Out of the almost a million and a half likes the European Parliament has on Facebook, most of them come from people aged 18-34 years old. However, the same research done by the EU after the 2009 elections showed that students and young people were among the biggest demographic categories of citizens that didn’t go to vote, while most of the votes came from people over 50 years old.

Two preliminary conclusions arise from these facts. Firstly, projects addressing youth should start to focus more on political aspects and put a greater emphasis on education for active citizenship engagement with the tools our democracies already have and continue to have. Youth issues should be better represented by those who want a seat in the EP - an active dialogue being essential in this process.

Secondly, a reconnection with the rest of the voters is needed through the already classic channels of dialogue (mostly mainstream media). For the latter, efforts are not that easy for two reasons: national media, especially when it comes to television channels, seem to have a lower level of interest in EU matters, unless they can get something sensational out of it. But they also address the issues this category of people are mostly interested in (jobs, unemployment, growth, agriculture, regulations etc) in a mostly alarmist way. Better informed people do make better choices and, hopefully, will be more responsible as an understanding of the past decisions will lead to more reasonable decisions and opinions.

Beyond the fact that EU needs to be better understood by its citizens, the apathy that people are accused of doesn’t come only from a lack of knowledge but rather by a state of mistrust caused by their own national politics and the way European topics are treated by their country's politicians. As long as EP elections are seen as "second order national elections", as Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt named them, with approaches that make the EU seem like an outsider with whom we need to comply  or as the bad guy that does whatever it pleases for irrational reasons without really caring for EU citizens’ needs, then this is what will be reflected across entire societies.

But, as long as the EU can’t really influence this national arena, what it can do is to try and have a coherent set of rules and criteria that political parties need to have in mind in order to select and propose their own candidates for the EP, so that situations such as the ones in Romania can be avoided (the biggest political parties here have proposed on their lists candidates based on friendships, sympathies and how much they love their wives and kids).

The EP is not a Sacred Cow with safe jobs for any of them but a place where decisions that will influence Europe’s future will be taken. Clear and transparent selection, as well as comprehensive programmes, values and projects are more important, and having these available could reverse the state of mistrust people have in domestic politics, as well as in the European ones.

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