Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
One British MEP once pondered “Sometimes, as I have voted to make sweeping changes to swath[e]s of EU legislation affecting the UK, I have felt a little squeamish that I am doing so on a shaky mandate from British voters.” He was right, but the same MEP – Nick Clegg – a few years later as leader of the Liberal Democrats went on to deny the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which handed the European Parliament yet more sweeping powers. MEPs now have equal status to the member states on nearly all policy areas (co-decision), a veto on trade deals and an increased say on the EU budget. A very powerful institution – but the absence of voter involvement in the European parliament’s accretion of powers means MEPs have a very shaky democratic mandate indeed.
Giving the European parliament more power and money was supposed to be the answer to the democratic deficit that has always troubled the European project. The problem is there is no evidence anyone in Europe wants a Parliament. Indeed research by Open Europe has shown that turnout in European Elections has gone down just as their powers have increased.
There are good reasons for this. Voters rightly discern that their vote will change little. It is not just that the size of the constituencies dilutes your vote to almost homeopathic proportions. The pan-European groups that dominate the parliament are virtually identical. For instance, over the course of the last parliament, and across all policy areas, the Socialist and Christian-Democrat groups voted the same way 74 per cent of the time. (The smaller Liberal group voted the same way as the Socialist and Christian-Democrat groups 78 per cent of the time). This is no surprise, in the European Parliament most decisions are made, not in votes, but in horse-trading between the political groups. There is no government and opposition, just different shades of agreement.
This unappetising spectacle has driven low turnout. The common response from some politicians is to believe voters are “ignorant” – and that all they need to do is “educate” or “inform” them of the wonders of the Parliament. Another common response is to blame the media – Nick Clegg once complained “in effect, the media class has thrown its hands up in the air.” But it is not the media’s responsibility to tell people to vote. And, in case it needs saying, the voters are not ignorant or disinterested in Europe.
When given a vote over something that really does count voters show they are very interested. Voters rejecting the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty in France and the Netherlands did so on high turnouts (69.37 per cent and 63.3 per cent), but only 42.76 per cent and 39.26 per cent had voted in the previous year’s EP elections, likewise voters rejecting the Euro in Denmark and Sweden also did so on equally large turnouts. If the UK votes in 2017 on EU membership nobody doubts turnout will be high. Voters are interested and do have views on the future of their continent; just they do not see the European parliament as relevant to them.
But rather than reach the obvious conclusion that the European parliament was not asked for or wanted the Europhile elite have a new trick to get you enthused. An innovation they call “Spitzenkandidaten” roughly translated as “lead candidates” for the post of European Commission President – again something pushed through in the Lisbon treaty.
The idea is to only allow candidates for the European Commission presidency to come from the leaders of the European Parliament’s groups. They hope over time this will evolve into a US style presidential election. The problem is the current candidates are ghastly, unknown, low quality and all believe in orthodox euro-integrationism. And for Britain there is an added problem, no UK party leader has endorsed a candidate. The Conservatives group have sensibly not put up a candidate for the post, Ed Miliband has sensibly told the Socialist candidate not to come to the UK and even Nick Clegg has failed to back the arch-federalist Liberal candidate.
The second reaction to the falling turnout is to throw money at it – the default reaction of a legislature that spends but does not raise money. In this cause we have seen the European parliament funnelling cash into pan-European political parties (€18 millio per year), media that covers the European Parliament and pro-EU think tanks and campaign organisations. This spending is both wrong and unproductive. You will still most likely not have heard of any of them.
The cost is one thing, what is more troubling is the aim. The plan is to attempt to create a European “Demos” – a European political community where we vote for European parties and presidential candidates rather than national ones. Over time the idea was that pan-European elections would suck authority away from national politicians and up to a higher EU level. Rather than reinforcing failure by giving MEPs more power and money we should tackle the fundamental problem. David Cameron is right to focus on giving national parliaments more say within the EU – he is right to recognise the European Parliament is not answer to Europe’s problem with democracy. Whatever the result of the election that much should be clear.
In the film Field of Dreams Kevin Costner hears a little voice telling him “if you build it they will come”. He goes on to build an empty baseball park and faces financial ruin. You could be forgiven for believing that the architects of the European Parliament have also listened to voices – they have spent lots of cash, but so far the voters have not come. Poll after poll suggests that Britons and others in Europe do not want to be a part of a single state. We were not given a say on the new powers the European parliament have taken from the member states, they have no democratic mandate and should be a focus for serious fundamental reform.