Posted on 16. May 2014
Very soon European citizens will cast their vote to elect 751 MEPs representing 500 million people in 28 member states. Strictly speaking, these are not the first EU elections, yet two factors make them primary. To begin with, these are the first elections since Europe started to suffer the crisis. In addition to that, for the first time the electorate will have a direct say in choosing the president of the European Commission, thanks to the changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. To put it simply, the elected MEPs will vote a president.
The political groups have presented their candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission, and these have been taking part in numerous debates. On May 9th, José Bové (Green Party / European Free Alliance), Jean-Claude Juncker (People Party), Martin Schulz (Socialists) and Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals) participated in a debate at the State of the Union Conference in Florence.
A major concern on the table throughout this debate was the turnout, since polls predict a percentage as low as 20-30%. This is certainly worrying. Elections are a crucial element for democracy, but they only work if people vote. Changes in the Lisbon Treaty aim to give more power to the Parliament as the only directly elected institution of the EU. But if the turnout plummets, wouldn’t it be more legitimate to have a president voted by the EU Council, where all Heads of Member States gather?
From a technical point of view, this might make sense. If the turnout is higher for national elections than for European elections, then the EU Council members can claim they are more representative of the vox populi of their respective countries than MEPs. However, this would be based on a wrong assumption that the voters want the same politicians to rule both their nations and the EU, even when these elections take place at different moments and the political programmes are not necessarily alike. Besides, this would diminish the relevance of the EU elections. After all, if both national and supranational institutions were ruled by the same people, why should citizens bother to vote twice?
Therefore, even if the turnout is low, giving people the opportunity to directly affect the election of the President of the EU Commission is an achievement for democracy in itself. It makes the functioning of EU institutions more transparent and open to European citizens.
There are still many more democratic steps ahead. For example: What about a ‘one citizen one vote’ policy? What about casting votes for European party lists, instead of national party lists? Could the President of the Commission be elected directly by the voters, instead of by the MEPs? Yet, even if there are many improvements to be made regarding the European elections, the way to articulate our stance is voting.
So let’s go vote.
This reflection is a follow up on the debates started at the fourth edition of the State of the Union Conference at the European University Institute in Florence. Learn more about the participation of FutureLab Europe here.