When and where? 22 – 25 May 2014, in all the 28 EU member states
Europeans, grab your bright new 2014 schedule planners because you have an important rendez-vous next spring! If you are one of the 400 million EU citizens who have the right to vote, between 22 and 25 May you will be called to have your say in the world’s largest transnational democratic ballot: the elections to the European Parliament. Please, don’t yawn, don’t frown, don’t groan! And don’t dismiss your personal role in this complicated institutional maze that is the European Union. Reassuring messages have been sent to you from Strasbourg and Brussels: “You have the power to decide!” as “This time it’s different!”.
Different indeed! But not necessarily for the same reasons as those considered by the designers of the electoral campaign. Europe is in dire straits, as the British-American historian Walter Laqueur states in his book “After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent.” The 2014 EP elections are to be held in the 50-shadows-of-grey landscape of the deepest economic recession that Europeans have had to endure since the Second World War. Starting in 2010, many EU states’ governments have made the reduction of public deﬁcits their one-and-only policy priority. Public spending, especially social spending, has been declared “government enemy number one”. German-mandated austerity became the new religion.
In Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Portugal unemployment rates sky-rocketed with severe human consequences. If you live in one of these countries and are one of the 37.4 million young EU citizens who will vote for the first time in 2014, there’s a good chance that you are unemployed. Once a land of prosperity, social solidarity and human rights protection, the EU now faces deepening poverty, expanding homelessness and child deprivation with long-term effects. As stated in the Council of Europe Human Rights commissioner’s report, the whole spectrum of human rights has been profoundly affected in the last four years of crisis, mostly the right to decent work and to an adequate standard of living and social security.
So, May 2014’s EP elections can really be different! With trust in the EU institutions and governments at an all-time record low, and with European executives close to being guilty of human rights abuses against their own citizens, as the CoE’s report suggests, the strengthened appeal of populist and Eurosceptic discourse could make the 2014 EP elections a game-changer for European democracy.
Firstly, in participation terms: since 1979, EP elections have seen a consistent decrease in turnout. The next EP ballot might be the first that reverses this familiar pattern and triggers citizens’ real interest in participation. Albeit, alas, not in the way that would satisfy Europe’s founding fathers. As the EU is seen as being ‘part of the problem’, in the current crisis conditions are particularly auspicious for the electoral success of the anti-EU political camp. Be it the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain, the 5 Star Movement in Italy or the National Front in France, the parties wanting to redefine the European system have seen their scores edging higher and higher.
Secondly, in terms of drama. Political-arena drama. The 2014 EP ballot could be the first to feature real electoral tension. as the first European poll to be held since the 2009 entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, May 2014’s electoral race will see EU-level political parties designate ‘top candidates’ for the Presidency of the European Commission and competition across member states to back those candidates. Putting faces to the electoral race could personalise and Europeanise the elections, raise the salience and stakes of the EP vote. Implementing a more transparent and democratic nomination process of the future President of the European executive could not only be a way of increasing the interest of European citizens in EP elections, but also a way of enhancing the legitimacy of the successful incumbent, of filling the long-decried democratic deficit of the European Union.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the candidate of the European political party that wins most votes in 2014 will automatically become the head of the European Commission. Since it is the European Council that actually chooses the Commission chief, the well-known, secretive “horse-trading” among the 28 is not to be excluded. Frau Merkel will have her say and so will Monsieur Hollande. But, according to the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2014 the European Council should take into consideration the results of the poll.
Viviane Reding, Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofstadt, Olli Rehn, José Luis Zapatero, Margot Wallström, Helle Thorning Schmidt, Donald Tusk, Sergei Stanishev, José Sócrates, Pascal Lamy, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, etc. The list of potential candidates to the position of President of the European Commission is full of high-profile, respected politicians. EU-level parties have yet to organise primary elections to pick up the women and men who can best incarnate their ethos and ambitions for Europe in those troubled times.
“Quo vadis, Europe?”, we will ask them, once we know who’s really in the game. “Where does Europe go, from here?”. “Who will lead it, apart from, of course, Angela Merkel?” And we will confront them with Walter Laqueur’s blunt warning: “The EU may survive the current crisis, but what about the next one and the one after that? It is no longer a given that the majority of Europeans want to continue to the end of the path to a political union. The first stabs at moving away from that concept are unmistakable. Nothing is without an alternative in history and politics.”
All things considered, the 2014 EP elections could truly be different!