Reaching the Reluctant Voter: Challenges for the European Parliamentary Elections
Thirty Years of Electing the Parliament
Thirty years ago, a group of nine European nations in a club called the European Community organized the first direct elections for a European Parliament. As designed, that Parliament would represent the people of the member states and would act as a balancer of power in dealing with the European Commission in Brussels. And all of this, some dreamers believed, would someday lead to a United States of Europe with an executive branch of government held in check by a legislative body and overseen by a judicial branch, a European Court of Justice. That day may still be a long way away but the fact is that the European Parliament now has more than 700 Members representing 27 countries in the second-largest democratically elected body in the world.
Every five years since that first election in 1979, there has been an election for the European Parliament. The size of the population of the member states determines the number of Parliamentarians each country has in the Parliament. Germany's population of 82 million is the largest in the EU, which results in 99 people representing the Federal Republic of Germany, also the largest number of representatives. And that can translate into a lot of influence, which is why the German political parties are investing a lot of time and money into the campaign leading up the next European elections on June 7. It can translate into committee chairs or other points of pressure when it comes to shaping the legislative agenda.
European Voter Apathy
Yet there is a contradiction in this picture of politics in Europe. While the Parliament and the European Commission have been steadily growing in power over the past three decades, the voters - not only in Germany but across Europe - have shown decreasing interest in the elections and some resentment against Brussels. There are worries that the declining level of voter turnout may even be lower than the last round in 2004 when it was only 45 percent in the EU and 43 percent in Germany (down from 66 percent in 1979). The problem with energizing voters is that they are less familiar with the candidates presented by each of the parties in their campaigns, and that they don't really know a lot about how the European Union works - be it in the Parliament in Strasbourg or in the European Commission in Brussels. Added to that is the political mood of uncertainty and distrust directed at their national governments, especially now at a time of economic insecurity. But the fact is that the majority of laws and administrative rules which affect the citizens of the European Union are determined in the European Parliament. And if there is a successful end to the long negotiations surrounding further reforms in the EU, under the rubric of the Lisbon Treaty, that power and influence will be enlarged further. The concern about that treaty has led to a lawsuit filed at the German Supreme Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) in Karlsruhe about the constitutionality of that treaty and whether Germany can sign on to it. The expectation is that the court will rule in favor, but the verdict is still outstanding and not expected to be returned until late summer.
Preparing for September's Election
In this year of many local, state, and federal elections in Germany, the political parties are jockeying for position for both the June 7 European elections as well as those to follow. Just as was argued by some in Berlin following the reelection of President Horst Köhler, the results of these elections can be used by the parties to demonstrate their strength at home with an eye on the September 27 national elections. A better weather vane for the parties in Germany however may be the several local elections also taking place on June 7, which will measure the pull of the parties where it counts: closer to home. Some argue that these European elections are mostly measures of how the voters feel about their local or national governments anyway. In 2004, the governing Social Democrats under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder took a huge hit at a time when the he was trying to push through economic reforms and the Christian Democrats, under then-opposition leader Angela Merkel, cleaned up nicely. Whether that will happen this time around is questionable.
It is therefore interesting to see how the Social Democrats are using the campaign posters for June 7 to highlight Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will run against Chancellor Merkel in September. Each of the parties is picking their people or their highlighted issues to see which direction the political winds are blowing. While Merkel is running on her own popularity, the Free Democrats are putting their money on issues like privacy, whereas the Greens have an interesting poster which carries a new slogan: WUMS, which stands for "Wirtschaft und Umwelt, menschlich und sozial" (economy, environment, human, and social). The Left Party has even issued posters in English with three words: "Make Capitalism History." [click here to view samples of these posters]
The Next Phase for Europe
Whether anyone will remember these slogans or issues in late September is not probable. What is probable is that the European Union will continue to evolve, one way or the other, as it has for the past thirty years, with fits and starts along the way. Voters in Germany and elsewhere still seem to feel that overall the European idea is a good one, but fixing the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of the EU remains a challenge for both the voters and those seeking their vote. Germany can play a major role in determining what the European agenda is to be. In a speech this week in Berlin, Chancellor Merkel emphasized that Europe's priorities should be to deepen the Union as opposed to further expanding it. Yet if her public and those of other European states remain disinterested in politics at the European level, it will take more than an election campaign to deepen their support of the next phase for Europe.