As exercises in democracy go, this week’s EU election rivals the United States, India and Brazil for sheer numbers. But when it comes to voter recognition it is a very different story. The lead candidates could not even dream of comparisons with Barack Obama or Narendra Modi and therein lies a problem for the European Union as it battles to make itself more relevant and accountable to its citizens. This week, from May 22-25, the 28 countries that make up the EU will elect a new European Parliament with up to 380 million voters, from western Portugal to northern Finland, choosing 751 deputies to represent them. In every European election since the first direct one was held in 1979, turnout has fallen, dropping to just 43 percent in 2009, despite four EU countries requiring voting by law. This year will be no different: pollsters expect turnout to drop to 40 percent or just below, and turnout among young voters – who politicians have worked hardest to connect with on issues such as jobs, education and training – will fall furthest.
At the same time, support for anti-EU and protest parties on the far-left and right is likely to surge, rising to 25 percent or more of the vote, from 13 percent in 2009, as people express frustration with rising unemployment and poor growth.
The irony is that never has the European Parliament had more power or ability to respond to voters’ concerns, whether about mobile phone roaming fees, tobacco legislation, bankers’ bonuses or the impact of international trade deals.
Parliament’s enormous glass-and-steel buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg are decorated with banners promoting its defence of consumer rights, and its own museum – the parliamentarium – is an unrestrained paean to its own importance.
And yet there remains a deep disconnect with the public.