As the euro-elections are over, pro-Europeans are worried with the outcome and see the big gains anti-EU parties have made as a danger to the European project and its core values. On the other hand, those who voted for the ‘anti-establishment’ parties hope they can actually bring the change they want and have these representatives keep their word. No matter their narratives (irrational EU bureaucrats, incomprehensible and heavy laws, immigrants, lazy Southerners, criminal Eastern Europeans and gays) all votes given to far right/left parties and the higher number of seats they won do make room for larger debates that can reinforce or reshape the “European project” and help make it more euro-democratic (or less) and hopefully bring it closer to “regular” citizens.
Thinking of the euro-sceptic parties’ voters as somewhat irrational, irresponsible or against the illustrious European structure is, from the start, wrong. Within a democracy, people’s choices are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they simply represent their options at a given time, based on their level of information or understanding, involvement, political and economic context and beliefs. If a certain party managed to grasp their attention and get their votes, than that means the others didn’t do enough, over time, to gain people’s trust and make a strong case for their projects and values. As a consequence, the latest elections were, in fact, a test given to the European project and institutions as a whole and a penalty vote for those large parties that ‘didn’t make it through’ the economic crises.
After all, citizens who voted for parties such as UKIP or Front National simply ‘acted, reacted and impacted’ the electoral outcome and their votes are as valid as those where ‘anti-establishment’ parties weren’t that successful. If the number of those not understanding what EU does and what is the positive impact for their lives is now larger it means there are still things to be done and that an overly paternalistic attitude (‘we’ debate, decide and change, ‘we know better’) is detrimental to the European Parliament and Commission as it makes it harder to be accepted by a much larger number of people.
Europe’s legitimacy doesn’t come only from a higher turnout. ‘Regular citizens’ need to take part in those debates concerning major decisions, have a way to give them a voice that can be heard beyond and between the electoral campaigns so that such far rightist/leftist ‘earthquakes’ can be avoided. For that matter, the EU needs to reconsider its citizens’ oriented, direct democratic participation tools in an effort to make European citizens feel empowered, as voting is not the only way of keeping the European project either alive, representative or legitimate.
Such initiatives are already in place but their functionality still needs improving: petitioning the EP, complaining to the European Ombudsman or European Citizen’s Initiative system (ECI). As NACAB’s study, Active in Europe: Premises for a More Participatory European Civil Society suggests the three tools European citizens can access ‘are still confined to lack of information, lack of awareness and no significant media interest’, even though they can actually contribute to decreasing the growing gap between citizens and the EU-based decision-making process.
This contributes also to having a weak notion of EU citizenship in most member states and, consequently, to a low level of understanding of its functioning and benefits. Steps to changing this status quo don’t fall only under the EP or European institutions, national governments or the media but, as the study suggests, a strengthened connection with the Civil Society Organizations that can put more pressure on EU institutions in order to ask for more transparency, openness and can act as a binding agent between EU and the citizens.
There is no doubt that EU still has a lot to do to perfect itself and those supporters of the European project have reasons enough to worry about the current state of affairs, after the euro-elections. As with any other democratic system, it is an ongoing process, with ups and downs, depending on whose voice gets to be heard louder. This time, euro-sceptics managed to grasp people’s votes, no matter what the underlying reasons were.
However, what others have called a crisis is, in fact, a call to invest in more efforts to make the EU more appealing and, more than that, really democratic and close to the citizens. And even though a more direct democracy can’t satisfy everybody in the end as it still works on the majoritarian rule, the EU needs to be more inclusive and have more participatory tools, accessible and well known. This way, not only the state of legitimacy and citizen’s trust would be higher (easy to be counted by taking a look at the turnout level and the way direct democracy tools are used) but also the number of those who understand that not all problems come from the “others” (e.g. shifting the blame towards EU, immigrants or any other nationalistic topic).
As I see it, the rise in number of the Euro-sceptic parties makes room for more in depth debates that can actually reach a higher number of people (especially those who voted for them), increasing the burden for those who believe that the EU needs to remain united. However, even the latter need to be open to criticism and dialogue as not all requests coming from these people and parties are irrational and without legitimacy.
*Slogan used during European Parliament’s information campaign towards the 2014 Euro-elections.