TCS Daily

Vox Europa

By Waldemar Ingdahl - June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The recent elections for the European parliament sent a very distinct message from the voters. They distrust the present political system, along with most of the sitting governments around Europe.

The overall voter turnout rate of about 44 percent set a new record for low participation since direct election of MEPs started in 1979. In the UK the Labour party took a beating, as did the SPD in Germany. In France, President Jacques Chirac's party UPM received just 16.6 percent of the votes. In Sweden the social-democratic party turned in its most abysmal performance ever, even worse when considering its support in the total electorate. There is something wrong when the biggest party collects votes from only 8.8 percent of the total electorate.

The elections also saw successful showings by several Euro-skeptic parties, including the UK Independence Party and Sweden's Junilistan.

Those few voters who actually showed up generally did so in order to express dissatisfaction with their ruling governments or to protest against the EU (although we saw some examples of the opposite, like in Spain and Greece, but those countries have newly elected governments). In general, though, all parties- be they left or right- stand discredited by the election results.

Of course, the results sent shock waves through Brussels, where too many people interpret them as either proof that the EU parliament does not matter to the electorate since it has too little power, or that voters are not educated enough about the EU's importance.

These are two very dangerous views. The voters are actually rather well educated about what the EU does and are aware that the European Parliament's political role is increasing. They understand rather well that they do not like or feel indifferent about the EU's present institutions. Notice that the EU-skeptical parties often made progress, not parties that wish their country to leave the Union flat out (except perhaps in the UK). This is a good thing; as it could spark a new political debate with constructive criticism, and help formulate clearer alternatives of what we want this union of ours to do.

The low turnout was not the voters' fault, and to a certain degree it was not the politicians' fault either. It's the system, stupid!

This is a crisis of legitimacy for how the political processes have been formed up to this point in the EU, with its vague concepts of finalité politique, and top down decisions. This is because the concept of democracy has changed a great deal in society, but it has not changed in the establishment.

Europeans are now much more accustomed to choosing more freely, in their daily lives, mainly thanks to the interactivity of the internet. They demand as consumers to be noticed, they want their opinions to be taken seriously and heard. They participate in the processes on their own accord. They address the issues they find worthy, while not buying into far-reaching package deals. They are not brand-loyal, they demand that a brand is loyal to them and their values, otherwise they leave.

Why shouldn't they be able to do this as well in their capacity as voters? They have in many respects left behind the old image of the party faithful. Democracy is alive and well and doing just fine in Europe; this is a crisis for the traditional parliamentary style of democracy- only on the continental scale.

In the political system, especially on the European level, the electorate can express only rather vague opinions on a very broad ideological solution (with parts and bits they do not agree with but have to accept anyway) that is dilated even further by the EU's insufficient transparency, its unclear parliamentary groups, and its vague division of power.

Swedish management gurus Kjell A. Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle entertained an interesting point of view in their book Karaoke Capitalism, namely that the EU in many ways lacks a vision. It positions itself as the anti-USA bloc, while merely adopting a contrary policy as its own. But this policy of antiamerikanismus is a backward looking, static, vision. Europeans need to build their own identity and political processes from the bottom up.

One way of doing this is to allow for more transparency, accountability and clarity in the EU's governmental body but also to allow electronic democracy. The internet penetration in EU countries is starting to reach sufficiently high levels, and most of the security problems have been solved. E-elections would also open up for more referenda and direct and participatory democracy. That is a vision that could well get the support of European voters.

The proposed EU constitution did not use this participatory democracy, and the results of the parliamentary election show that the confidence in this document is low Europe-wide. A constitution for the 21st century should be lean and open, based on a small number of ideas that gather support and establish good rules that many agree upon, focusing the government. The overly cumbersome wish-list that is being proposed does not do that.

Something better can be done with the constitution, and the issue of citizen participation should be taken more seriously by the politicians. Otherwise the confidence gap between Brussels and the rest of Europe will only widen further.


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