Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Elections, the European Parliament, and a Europe-wide debate

The European elections are very disappointing for those who want to see European issues debated in a way that informs the public and gives them a choice that matters in the EP, instead of local issues dominating the EP elections and devaluing the EP's legitimacy. Low voter turnout and a poor public knowledge of the EP also detract from the democratic legitimacy that the EP lays claim to.

The EUobserver has recently reported that "vast majority of EU citizens remain unaware that European elections will take place later this year". The article also mentions some of the measures that have been taken to raise awareness of the EP and the up and coming elections. While some of these measures are good, in the end the local will always dominate if the national media cannot be induced to report on the elections in any way other than through national eyes.

It would also help if the EP party groups would take the elections more seriously. As Julien Frisch has noted, the biggest group, the EPP-ED, hasn't even bothered to mention the elections on its website.

National parties dominate the EP through the group structure, and this is especially so at election time, as the national parties are the ones to pick the candidates. Local involvement in picking candidates is good if done well, but in having "nationalised" European parties and debate, this does little to dispell the EP election's character of being a "second-order" election, where the national government and opposition parties are pitted against each other.

I previously advocated having pan-European televised debates between possibile EP presidental candidates. Now that I've thought it through more, I don't think that it would fit the EP president race. However, I still see merit in the idea of a pan-European televised debate between the group party leaders, either as a one off, or as a series leading up to the elections, each based on a different set of issues.

It is far from a cure to the problems faced by EP election campaigns, but it would be a start in breaking the stranglehold of very narrow national debates on the EP elections. It may even start to break the link between the "vote against the government" impulse, if people can see that it's European issues and politicans that they're voting for or against (and if they know more of what they can do), and not just the usual national figures.

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