After having visited the European Commission and the Council, yesterday we passed through the doors of the third main building of the EU: the European Parliament. The style was similar to the other ones: enormous and elegantly-designed building with the well-known blue flags with 12 stars placed in various places around it. There were in fact two buildings: one where all the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have their offices, and one with meeting rooms, including the main one, with a capacity of over 800 people.
Citizens of all 27 EU members states select their MEPs, who then come to Brussels to represent them. MEPs are seated according to their party, and are not meant to represent their national interests, but must maintain party ideology and interests, and the overall good of the EU in the foreground. At a first glance, these last elements seem very similar to those of any other parliamentary system. However, although elected, this Parliament does not have the same powers found in other parliamentary systems. It doesn’t have power over all policies, and does not have power of initiative. If the Lisbon Treaty (which I don’t want to explain too much here) will pass, the powers of the EU Parliament would grow considerably. The one thing I can say for sure after my fourth day of this study tour, is that the rules and powers governing EU institutions are quite complex, and the parliament example proves exactly that. At the same time, however, I always remind myself that the EU is an organization like no other, which has developed and integrated its member states to a degree never seen before. The development of the EU is still an ongoing exercise.
There was not one MEP there during our visit, because they are all back in their home countries campaigning. EU elections will take place from June 4-7. This is one of the main topic of conversation among many EU staff right now. There seems to be an uncontested consensus among them and in the media that the voter turnout will be quite low this year. The predicted turnout is 34 per cent, according to a Eurobarometer poll. In fact, voter turnout has been decreasing since the first elections in 1979 and - if viewed at the national level - the newest members states are seeing the lowest numbers.
The EU has been placing considerable efforts to get people out to vote. TVs are placed in several areas around the main institutions, showing clips of people from different countries expressing their opinions on different EU topics. Election signs and posters of candidates can also be seen in the “EU bubble” (a nice word describing the area where the main EU institutions are). However, I can’t really say the same signs are as noticeable in other parts of the city. I wonder how things look in other EU capitals. Instead posters with the faces of national Belgian candidates are placed everywhere in Brussels. National elections are taking place at the same time as the EU ones.
There are also Youtube videos meant to show people the importance of voting and why they should care. Euronews, a European TV channel also broadcasts questions from people on different EU issues, followed by an answer from experts from European think-tanks or other organizations. The clear role is to increase people’s knowledge on the EU.
A long article in today’s (May 28) The Guardian quotes European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as saying that not voting would allow Europhobic parties to gain more power: “The risk of abstention is that it allows Eurosceptics and extremists to take over our debate and our future.” The reasoning is that those holding strong views on the EU will indeed go out to vote - and those extreme opinions can easily fall on the negative side. Although generally against the EU concept, Eurosceptic parties could also run their agenda in the EU Parliament.
So why is there so much voter apathy at the European level? Our guide of the “EU Bubble” Hajo Friedrich, senior Brussels correspondent for the Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung, said the EU system is simply too complicated and many citizens can’t understand EU policies.Some people also believe the EU is a project for the elite, he added.
A higher voter turnout would give this Parliament the legitimacy it needs, allowing it to speak at the global level with a unified voice, but there are still a lot of people who are afraid of a loss of sovereignty and identity. These are the thoughts of Marjory Van den Broeke, head of the European Parliament Press Service.
There was a high voter turnout for the first EU elections because there were only six member states then, all war-affected, which felt the advantages of (at that time) the European Economic Community, she said. Fast forward to 2009, where there are 27 member states, the Second World War seems far away, and debate is now focused on more or less Europe.
Van den Broeke also pointed out that the entire creation of the EU was based on the power that national governments gave it. Now, EU laws are touching and changing the notion of national sovereignty more often. She gives the example of the Justice and Home Affairs department, which among other deals with issues of international security and external borders - elements theoretically considered to be at the basis of national sovereignty.
“This transformation is a painful process and it’s difficult to draw a line,” Van den Broeke remarked.
The results of the upcoming EU elections will show what people feel about this transformation and how much they want to be part of shaping it.