Turnout has fallen in each election to the European Parliament since the first in 1979. At the same time, the power of the Parliament has increased from little more than a talking shop to today when, on most issues, the Lisbon Treaty gives it equal weight to Member States.
In the UK, in 2009, less than half of those eligible to vote chose to do so. Many that did, knew little or nothing of the work of the parliament or the individuals that they were voting for. Some treated it as an opportunity to make a statement about the performance of the British government; others about the state of British politics more generally and the expenses crisis in particular; some sought to express a view on Britain’s membership of the EU itself.
We will go to the polls again next May to elect MEPs for another five year term and the European Parliament is seriously concerned that turnout will fall again, further undermining the legitimacy of the only directly elected of the EU’s institutions. They are so concerned that they have committed £5.6 million to an “awareness campaign” called “This time it’s different”, complete with schmaltzy video designed to appeal to younger voters. The strap line for the advertising campaign is somewhat odd: “Act, react, impact”.
Together with a further £5 million for European political parties to spend, this campaign will push the Parliament’s budget for information and communications to £35 million.
The claim that these elections are different is based on the fact that the political parties will declare their preference for President of the European Commission, turning the parliamentary election into an election of the President. It is not clear, however, that the nominee of the largest group will necessarily be elected. No group will have an overall majority after the elections, opening the process up to the sort of horse trading we have seen in the past over the election of the President of the Parliament. Indeed Angela merkel is already saying that there is no “automatic link” between the party that wins next year's EU election and the next European Commission president
We Eurosceptics are fond of saying that more than 75% of our laws are made in Brussels. All “laws” are not equal, however, and counting their number is not the most useful way to measure the impact of European legislation on British citizens. We can, however, state with confidence that the impact of legislation passed by the European Parliament is significant and that its scope has widened since Britain joined the EEC. Whether it is the quality of the air that we breathe or water that we drink, or how many hours we may work, decisions of the European Parliament affect our daily lives.
Why then do so few chose to vote? The link between how we vote and political outcomes is weak. There is broad agreement between the centre-right European People’s Party and the socialists, who between them dominate the Parliament, in favour of further integration and greater spending by the EU. Those of us who want Europe to do less better are, and will remain, a minority.
If the European Parliament and our MEPs seem remote, it is not entirely their fault. The South East Region, for example, is huge, extending from Dover in the east to the New Forest, and north to Milton Keynes. Taking in 84 UK parliamentary seats, it has a population of 8 million. It is difficult for voters to know their MEPs and, perhaps worse, for MEPs to know their voters.
We are not even asked to vote for a named individual, but for a party list. The South East elects ten MEPs, so each party presents a list of ten potential members. Seats are then allocated according to a formula based on the proportion of votes that each party records. In 2009, the Conservatives won 34.8% of all the votes in the South East and the top four candidates on the Conservative list were elected.
So, there is a great disconnect between on the one hand the voters and on the other their elected representatives in Brussels. I doubt whether one of 1000 people in the South East could name one of their MEPs and almost nobody would be able to name all 10.
But it does matter who we vote for. Whatever happens with a referendum in 2017, for the next five years we will send £90 billion of our money to Brussels to spend on our behalf, more than half of the laws passed in the next five years will continue to originate in the European Parliament, and almost all the regulation of British business will continue to have its origin in European directives. We need to elect MEPs who will work to protect Britain’s vital interests, to reduce costly over-regulation, to ensure that we receive value for the money that we contribute, and that what is spent is properly accounted for.