Edited by Elvira Krithari
Translated by Gigi Papoulias
“Who’s f@#*ing European elections?” In a loose interpretation, a commercial by the Swedish communist party (which quickly became viral) beckons voters to stay home and have sex instead of going to their polling stations.
Looking at the diagram which shows voter participation since 1979, when the first European elections were held, to 2014, one can confirm that Sweden’s communist party is simply taking advantage of open windows. In every Euro parliament election participation has constantly decreased.
“The increase in voter abstention is related to the accession of new countries where voting is not compulsory,” Polidevkis Papadopoulos, a journalist and sociologist of European issues tells SOLOMON MAG. He reminds us that in 1979, voting was mandatory in three of the EU countries (Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg), which accounted for 26% of the European electorate.
This percentage was reduced by five points after the abolition of the mandatory vote in Italy in the 1990s, which, according to Mr. Papadopoulos, may have contributed significantly to the reduction of the overall stake.
Nowadays, voting is compulsory in just five countries (out of 28), one of which is Greece, where participation, which is clearly lower today than in the 1980s, traditionally exceeds the EU average.
Eastern Europe stays away from the polls
Mr. Papadopoulos notes one of the paradoxes of the European elections – the high abstention rates in the countries of Eastern Europe, which have earnestly desired and succeeded in joining the EU in its successive enlargements (2004, 2007 and 2013).
Yet, it’s not that strange, he explains, because in these countries “the vote is not considered to be sanctified” because the memory of the “contrived elections” of the Communist past is still alive, while “there is great liquidity on the political scene, which prevents strong identification with certain parties.”
Brussels is “far away”
In regards to the general picture of the EU, according to Stefanos Loukopoulos, political scientist and co-founder of Vouliwatch, many people are disappointed by the EU and in particular the economic model of the past two decades, culminating in the handling of the recent global financial crisis.
An economic model which, as he notes, “has led a large proportion of Europeans to economic insecurity, has increased instead of reducing the economic distances between the north and south and has created significant social inequalities. In simple terms, the shift from a Keynesian economic model to that of laissez-faire has negatively affected not only the economies of the Member States but also the sense of security and social justice that the EU once provided.”
As Polidevkis Papadopoulos explains, “the image of the EU with lobbies of interest, of which only 15% are related to ecological issues or human and other rights, ‘revolving doors’ (the fact that executives from large corporations occupy important offices and vice versa) and its bureaucratic function – is repulsive for citizens.”
What do you know about the European Parliament?
The initiative Vouliwatch created YouVoteEU, a program funded by the European Commission in order to encourage people to vote in upcoming elections.
The program, Mr. Loukopoulos notes, “also acts as a voting advisor: by taking a quiz, citizens can find out which candidates ‘fit’ them most.” Taking the quiz, one realizes that the issues that are a controversy in Brussels are far from the pre-election conflicts in Greece, which focus on domestic issues. Similarly, in almost all countries, citizens tend to cast their votes according to criteria based on their national political issues.
Also, what contributes to this is the citizens’ lack of knowledge regarding the role of the European Parliament. “The level of information that citizens receive about the role and responsibilities of the European Parliament cannot be exported precisely through the specific program, but I can only say that, unfortunately, it is quite low,” Mr. Loukopoulos adds.
To vote or not to vote?
What the “average voter” (according to journalistic jargon), does not know is that the powers of the European Parliament are gradually growing. As Mr. Papadopoulos reports, the European Parliament may not have a say in important decisions (fiscal policy, security and defense, etc), but it “co-decides on about 85% of our daily lives.”
It also approves and amends legislative proposals and decides on the European Union budget, a matter of great importance for bridging the dual divide: increasing inequalities within Europe as a whole and increasing North-South disparity.
What, however, can be done to overlook, as citizens, the complex and quite opaque institutional and operational framework of the EU and ignore the “sirens” of abstention?
“The member states’ leadership should cease to grasp the achievements and positive projects of the EU and contribute more to informing citizens about how important the EU is in their everyday lives,” Mr. Loukopoulos said. On the other hand, he adds, “the EU, which today looks remote and complicated, should make significant steps towards further democratization of its institutions, enhancing transparency, and adopting economic policies that will not cause fear, but will provide security to European citizens.”
Of course, everyone’s overall assessment remains the same: one in two Europeans will most likely find “something better to do” instead of heading to the European ballot box, heeding the advice of the Swedish communists.
Perhaps the only warning bell and motivation to participate in the electoral process, is the emerging rise of the xenophobic far-right. Another challenge for the battered EU, but mainly a challenge to citizens who possess historical memory.