During the last European Parliament election in 2009, fewer than half of Europe’s voters bothered to show up at the ballot box. What’s the EU doing to increase voter turnout – and what are its chances of success? For decades, the European Parliament in Brussels was seen as the place to put old politicians out to pasture. No wonder, then, that European citizens hardly spare much thought for Europe and its institutions. The numbers bear this out: Since the very first European election in 1979, voter turnout has steadily dropped. In 2009, only 43.3 percent of Germans exercised their right to vote, a figure also reflected in the average European turnout. The country with the lowest turnout was Slovakia, at 20 percent. There are many reasons that explain this voter disinterest, chief among them being that most European citizens aren’t familiar with the duties of the European Parliament and the extent of its authority. They’re unaware of how decisions made in Brussels and Strasbourg influence their daily lives.
For Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the parliament, part of the problem is that the focus is rarely on Brussels. Instead, she told DW, the spotlight is always first directed on the individual member states, even though the crises of the last few years have made clear to European citizens the continent-wide scale of Europe’s problems. She thinks there just isn’t enough room in the debate for European issues or personalities.
“The differences between the various parties in Brussels are still rarely noticed by the European public,” said Daniela Kietz, an associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). She believes that it’s the duty of the national parties to make European politics more visible.
For Derk Jan Eppink, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and vice-chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, it’s clear that European citizens need a real choice. In the early days, he said, every European citizen, whether German, French, Dutch or from another member state, was a supporter of the EU. But today there are not only different views on how Europe should be structured, but even parties in the parliament that speak out against Europe.