Elections are a time when the individual participates in the evolution of the national. For us in Europe, the elections on Sunday are an opportunity to take part in the development of the European Union. These are the seventh elections for the European Parliament, a body that has become gradually more powerful and more representative of the people who now count themselves members of the European Union. If the Lisbon Treaty is adopted in the next couple of years, after overcoming the obstacle of the Irish “no” vote, then the European Parliament will be stronger than ever – the Parliament whose members we will elect on Sunday.
Going into the elections, a recent Eurobarometer survey across the EU found that citizens’ main concerns, which they wanted the campaign to focus on, were: unemployment (57 percent), economic growth (52 percent), inflation and purchasing power (40 percent), the future of pensions (32 percent), followed by crime, the safety of energy supplies, the fight against climate change, immigration, terrorism, food safety and agriculture. At the bottom of the list were: the euro (13 percent), the preservation of the European social model, the powers and competences of European institutions and, last of all, European values and identity (10 percent).
It is natural that people should worry about their finances and their pensions, as these will determine the quality of their lives. What is intriguing is that issues related to a common European experience or identity are right at the bottom of the list. This suggests either that people feel that the European project is doing fine without their thinking about it, or that they have more important things to worry about.
The primary concerns of individuals (unemployment, economic development, pensions, and so on) are issues that concern each country as well as the European Union as a whole. Members of the eurozone are sheltered from the worst storms of the global economy by their participation in the single currency, but they are also constrained by the rules that are aimed at keeping the euro strong. Decisions taken at the national and EU level will determine the welfare of each economy, and this will determine the wellbeing of citizens in each country.
So, at a time of global recession, and with national governments looking increasingly incapable of solving major issues on their own, and with the European Parliament set to wield greater power, it is obvious that these elections matter. And yet each country seems to be experiencing them solely as a referendum on the government or the main political parties, to the benefit of smaller – often extremist – groupings. This is a natural reaction against political elites who seem incapable of meeting the challenges of the times. But anger is no less damaging for being justified, and this suggests that perhaps it is time to uncouple European politics from the constraints of national politics.
As things stand, national parties ally themselves with pan-European parties according to their “ideology” – the center right European People’s Party, the Socialists, the Liberal Democrats, and so on. But many ostensibly like-minded parties vary greatly among themselves from country to country and make uncomfortable bedfellows in Strasbourg. Looking at the candidates on the Greek party ballots, it is striking that some of them have more in common with people on rival ballots than in their own party. Yet the candidates and voters are constrained by the party of which they are members or for which they vote. If candidates could form their own ballots as representatives of EU-wide parties, perhaps voters would have a choice of sending to Strasbourg people whose primary focus is the future of their country within Europe, rather than sending representatives of political parties that see the European Parliament elections only as a way to push for power on the domestic stage.
Editorial in Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009