Thursday, May 1, 2014

‘YOUrope Needs YOU’ Again – But What For?: A Critical Assessment of the European Parliament’s Attempt to Induce Greater Voter Participation

Grace Annan

The EU is subject to a significant change of personnel soon. Between May and November 2014, top positions in the European Parliament (EP) and subsequently the European Commission (EC) are available for successful candidates. Courtesy of the Lisbon Treaty, voters at the EP elections in May 2014 will considerably influence the choice of the next EC president as the party with the most seats will nominate the EC president for the first time in the EU’s history. Or will they? What is the true influence of voters in the choice of a post as powerful as EC president?

‘YOUrope Needs YOU’ again…
Despite billing them as different this time, questions do remain about the extent to which the 2014 EP elections are truly reducing the democratic deficit and enhancing the clout of voters to directly influence EU decision-making.

On the upside, the change of EC president nomination has brought ambitious and willing candidates earlier to the fore than previously, thus making it easier for those outside the EU bubble to familiarise themselves with top candidates early on. Apart from that, however, where is the great innovation for voters these polls?

The promoters of the 2014 EP elections may present the EP’s rise in power as fairly new. However, the clout of the EP has been rising gradually throughout the history of the European Community, culminating in the start of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. Indeed, the EP already had significant powers as regards the nomination of the EC’s college of Commissioners before the Lisbon Treaty as the case of the Italian candidate Rocco Buttiglione in 2004 shows.

… belatedly?
The main question regarding the new nomination arrangements should be: Who really benefits from it – the principal (i.e. voters across the EU) or the agent (i.e. the MEPs)?

The new voting system does the EP a lot of favours but does not change a great deal for ordinary voters in terms of decision-making power. The latest attempt by promoters of the EP elections to lure voters to the polls may be innovative. However, it comes quite late in the ongoing redefinition of EU institutional ties. Voters may understandably feel a bit like guests of honour at a party that is already in full swing since 2009. What is left for them to do? The EP has already taken very well to the EU’s era post-Lisbon Treaty as the vote on the SWIFT agreement in 2010 and on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in 2012 showed. Admittedly, EU citizens played a large role in the latter case. However, their clout in EU decision-making was arguably more channelled and thus meaningful to reducing the democratic deficit than the indirect vote of the next EC president-candidate.

A Political Choice for an Apolitical Post?
There is a further problem with the presentation of voters in the driving seat as regards the nomination of the next EC president. This move clashes with the official presentation of the EC president and college. Both are supposed to be politically neutral. Therefore, how can a procedure steeped in party politics such as EP elections produce the nominee of an apolitical post? Nor will the future EC president have a considerable moral clout over his/her college: Both are chosen indirectly – very indirectly – by ordinary voters.

Not even a political scandal could enhance the voters’ direct influence over the next EC president and his/her college. If the college had to stand down, there would not be any fresh EP elections. ‘Just as well,’ UK commentators may say with a glimpse at the level of voter turnout at EP elections. Of all the countries that joined before 2004, the UK has the lowest voter turnout at EP elections; only one in three usually go to the polls.

This Time It’s Different…
So what are voters really being asked for in the 2014 EP elections? The usual, to be blunt: To choose the next set of determined MEPs to challenge the Council, European Council and the Commission. The main difference is that the EP’s powers have been bolstered considerably since the 2009 EP elections. The incoming EP will most likely continue to make use of its newly-won powers to challenge draft texts and proposals – be they in banking, health, online activity or else. But that is not something which the results of the 2014 EP elections are ushering in. Rather, it is something the EP can thank the Lisbon Treaty for.

‘YOUrope Needs YOU’ is a slogan from 2008 promoted by the European Students’ Forum (AEGEE) to induce greater interest in EU affairs among teenagers; see: http://www.projects.aegee.org/youropeneedsyou/index.php?url=/info/details