On Sunday, May 25, European citizens in all 28 countries of the European Union will vote for their representatives in the European Parliament, one of the key institutions of the EU that has gained increasing influence in recent years. All 751 seats are up for re-election, making it one of the most democratic bodies of the EU. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Europeans, in a worrisome trend, have turned out in fewer and fewer numbers to vote since the parliament’s first election in 1979.
The history of the European Parliament, however, gives a clear, and unfortunate indication of democratic decline throughout Europe. In 1979, for the first time in the parliament’s history, deputies were elected by universal suffrage. Since then, the popular vote for European deputies has decreased, while the powers of the parliament have increased. For instance, the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon increased the role and contribution of the parliament, which now has “more power, more responsibility.”
Many argue that the EU has, since its inception, been confronting a serious democratic deficit. In some ways, this was inevitable, considering how the EU was created back in 1954 and its current institutional setup. In its early years, the EU was simply a common market of two products, coal and steel, pooled under the supranational institution called the High Authority. The EU was an economic entity, a structure created to strengthen peace and stability on the European continent through economic cooperation. Seventy years later, the EU has succeeded in this mission and continues to do so. War between the largest European powerhouses is unthinkable. At the same time, the EU has become an entity unforeseen. With a more powerful European Parliament, European citizens have a chance to shape the EU of tomorrow.
Since the implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon, the parliament received new powers in three important areas: political, legislative and budgetary. In term of political power, the parliament will be electing the president of the European Commission, a supranational body charged with managing important policies and agendas, such as the current negotiations with the United States on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Additionally, the parliament has seen its role increase over the supervision of EU foreign policy and the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic corps. In terms of legislative power, the parliament's decision-making capabilities have increased on policies like justice, freedom and security. Last, but not least, there’s the European Parliament’s oversight over the budget of the EU. These increases in power are serious and should be understood as such by European citizens.
Unfortunately, popular attention to the upcoming elections remains low, with many Europeans expected to abstain from voting. The lack of interest in this election cycle sends mixed signals to Europe’s neighbors, such as Ukraine and Algeria, currently engaged in the fight for democracy in their respective countries. But not all the blame should be placed on European citizens. European deputies in parliament have largely shunned their duties on transparency, limited their interactions with citizens, and contributed to the poor perception of this institution in the European psyche.
In France, political parties have been divided into mostly right- and left-wing factions. With the record unpopularity of current leftist president, François Hollande, the popularity of the right, especially the extreme right, has increased. Such sentiment in France and beyond could reverberate in parliamentary elections this weekend. It is not certain that the French far right will win the majority, but mainstream politicians have been axiomatic in vilifying the European Union throughout its history, and principally since the beginning of the Eurozone crisis. This has been the case of governments in Greece, Spain, Italy, France, the UK and other European countries.
But the upcoming elections will not just have repercussions for Europe, but also for the rest of the world. The EU’s soft power lies in its democratic values and institutions. With the threat of far-right parties dominating the elections, espousing narrow political and economic agendas and even xenophobic policies, Sunday’s elections could be a stain on European democracy. If European history can tell us one thing, it is that extremes are never the right solution. Only when the majority of citizens mobilize themselves through elections can such extremism be voted down.