Euro-sceptics love to point to declining voter turnouts in European Elections as evidence of the undemocratic nature of the whole European project. And of course they have a point: It would be so much better if there was a much higher degree of enthusiasm and turnout for the European Parliamentary elections.
But does the low turnout necessarily mean that the EU is an undemocratic elite project, that voters are antagonistic or couldn’t care less, and that therefore the whole project should somehow be abandoned - or better still, from their point of view - that the EU should be turned over to Euro-sceptics to run properly?
I want to present a somewhat contrary thesis. Firstly that the EU does not rely just on the European parliament for it’s democratic legitimacy, but on 27 democratically elected member Governments. Secondly, that the European Parliament dimension of the EU is only emerging, and that it will take time for it’s increased powers and influence to seem relevant to voters. And thirdly, and perhaps most controversially of all, that people often only vote when they are angry or discontented with something, and that for many not voting doesn’t mean a resounding NO to the European Project, but rather - carry on as before - I don’t see any great need to change things from what they are.
Please allow me to elaborate on this last thesis.
Voting in the European Parliament elections has never been regarded as a patriotic or (as in some countries) a legal duty. It is additional to voting in local and national elections which are, and have always been seen to be, the primary indicators of personal and community identity and means of expressing approval or discontent with the political powers that be.
In this context the EU has been largely seen to be technocratic and impersonal - doing the sort of unglamorous administrative chores which you hope somebody is doing conscientiously, but which no one who is not a political junky is going to get too excited about. And it is absolutely not about the sort of highly charged and personalised election battle we saw in the last US Presidential election - which was about personality, race, war and peace, cultural identity, abortion and gay marriage, and the future of the USA as an economic, political and military superpower.
But is this altogether a bad thing? Would an EU riven by question of war, religious identity, competing nationalisms, communist or fascist ideologies, and world domination be necessarily a better place? Do we want a politics dominated by 30 second TV commercials, “swift boat” type black propaganda, “special interests” and funded by global multi-national companies?
There is something to be said for being boring. For having almost faceless bureaucrats make decisions based on hard evidence and scientific criteria rather than popular emotion, for having elected Parliamentarians and Heads of Government decide on who should be the next president of the European Commission.
Sure, it isn’t as exciting as the last US Presidential elections. Turnout will be lower. But so are the stakes for ordinary EU citizens like ourselves. We still have our national and local Governments taking most of the decisions on the important issues of security, finance and employment on our behalf. And that is as it should be. But let us not compare apples with oranges. There is no comparison between the powers and competencies of the European Parliament and the US Presidency, or indeed the US Congress.
So yes, please go out and vote, if only to reaffirm the commitment made by our political forebears to build a Europe based on cooperation and diplomacy rather than war, holocaust, pillage and plunder. But we don’t have to fight that battle every time we go to the polls. No one of any real importance is talking about going back to the Cold War or World War scenarios. So it is understandable that many people should feel apathetic about voting for something they have voted for many times since the end of the Second World War.
And yes, by all means vote for Eurosceptics or other parties that want to radically change the EU if you are unhappy with how the EU is being run. But the corollary of that isn’t true: It doesn’t mean that the many people who don’t vote necessarilly agree with you that the EU must be radically changed. For many it might well mean the opposite: that they are broadly happy with how the EU is operating and don’t see any great need to become personally involved in changing its direction. Not voting isn’t necessarily a vote for the status quo, but neither is it necessarilly a rejection of all the EU now stands for.