“This time it’s different”, declared the strap line of the European Parliament’s advertising campaign for May’s European election.
In one respect, however, it was not different: new figures from the European Parliament now show that turnout was again down: at 42.54 % a new low. It has fallen in every European election since the first in 1999.
In my south-east constituency, this year’s election was certainly more focused on the issue of Europe, if not on European issues, than either of the previous two elections in which I have been a candidate. Opinion became polarised between those in favour of British membership of the EU and those against. An interest in policy was, however, largely confined to the pressure groups that inundated me with emails seeking my support. This was a real difference with five years earlier, when email and social media had been much less significant. At the dozens of public and private meetings I held, and on doorsteps across the region, there was a widespread feeling that how one voted didn’t matter; there is a disconnect between the ballot box and policy outcomes.
Ironically, this view has been reinforced by the very policy that was intended to address it. If there were a dividing line in policy between the pan-European parties contesting this election, it was over the economic policy to be required of Eurozone countries: the Centre Right broadly advocating greater fiscal discipline, the Socialists urging the mitigation of austerity. Yet, when it came to it, Jean-Claude Junker was elevated to the Presidency of the Commission by a grand coalition of these parties, and conventional wisdom holds that if the Commission President is from the EPP, the President of the Council should be a Socialist. To the electors of Europe this looks like “business as usual”.
You don’t have to accept that 75% of our laws are made in Brussels to recognise that European legislation is important to the way we live: from the quality of the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, to how many hours a week we may work or what we can do with our domestic waste. But the electorate sees no connection between the way that they vote in European elections and those policies.
As the West Wing’s, President Barlett says: "Decisions are made by the people who show up. So are we failing you or are you failing us? Perhaps a little of both."