EU election at risk from apathy and voter dissatisfaction

EU elections: when no voters in 2014 may mean a ‘no’ vote in 2017. David Cheskin/PA Wire

Less than a month out from the EU parliamentary elections and polls are showing either disenchantment or downright disinterest in the European project among the British public. Following a YouGov poll showing that the deeply eurosceptic UKIP holds a comfortable lead among those who intend to vote on May 22 comes a report from the Electoral Reform Society which reveals the extent of the rift between the European parliament and the British people.

The ComRes Poll quoted by the Electoral Reform Society found 59% of voters believe the European parliament does not represent the view of European voters, while 74% of people feel their voice doesn’t count in the EU. Some 80% feel their vote makes more of a difference in a UK general election than in the election for the European parliament.

Meanwhile YouGov’s poll found that despite a great deal of potentially adverse publicity tying UKIP to allegations of racism and questions over Nigel Farage’s expenses claims, the party has a three-point lead over its nearest rival, Labour.

Manchester University political scientist Robert Ford, who has made an extensive study of UKIP and is co-author of a recent book, Revolt on the Right, said the EU faced a “serious, maybe even an existential problem”.

“The combination of a lack of enthusiasm and downright hostility is a real problem for the EU. In a month’s time you will have a situation where countries at the heart of the European project, countries such as France, the Netherlands and the UK, may be sending to Brussels as the biggest groups of MEPs, people who outright reject the EU.”

“They don’t seem to understand how serious this is.”

Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University, Roger Scully, said people treat European elections to a large extent as “opinion polls on the national government of the day, or as an opportunity for an anti-EU protest vote”.

“Most people have a vague idea there is a European parliament but they don’t really know what powers it has or how it can affect their lives.”

“There’s a disconnect with people between their vote and its political consequences – it’s easier for people to make that connection in a UK general election but for the EU this is much harder.”

“It’s no-one’s fault in particular – the EU is a very complex system that has emerged gradually and as the EU parliament has been given more powers this has made things more complex and difficult to understand.”

Part of the problem, both agreed, was the complexity and lack of transparency on the part of a range of EU institutions. For example, people don’t understand the relationship between the European parliament and the European Commission.

“The whole process is opaque and most people see it as undemocratic,” Ford said. “A lot of this is down to the European institutions themselves – they have never made it a priority to explain the process and there doesn’t seem to be any interest in doing so.”

“For example, Hermann Van Rompuy’s selection as president of the European Council was inadequately explained – and Nigel Farage did a very good job of attacking his legitimacy and linking it to a general lack of democracy in the EU.”

Scully suggested that a directly elected EU president, in a separate process from the election of MEPs, might create more popular interest in the process, but “it’s hard to see governments giving anyone that kind of mandate”.

Reform agenda

The Electoral Reform Commission’s report, Close the Gap: Tackling Europe’s Democratic Deficit recommends 12 measures that could close the gap between the EU and the British people. These include giving national parliaments more power to veto, discuss and scrutinise EU laws; scrapping the movement between Brussels and Strasbourg; and making elections more transparent through the introduction of a single transferable vote or an open-list system rather than the current closed list whereby people vote for a party list which has already been chosen for them.

Ford said it was hard to imagine any of these proposals being pushed through due to a general lack of enthusiasm at the heart of the EU. “Some of these are very sensible, very pragmatic suggestions as to how to improve things. But there seems to be very little enthusiasm for doing anything about it.”

“This is a real problem for the EU – and if the 2019 EU parliamentary elections do not reflect at least some of this then they might be the last elections for the EU in its current form.”

Scully said he felt that, sensible as some of the suggested reforms were, the likelihood of sufficient reform being enacted was very slim.

“France has been very stubborn about Strasbourg and no one cares about it enough to insist,” he said.

“It’s a ridiculous situation but not harmful enough to see it changing. The EU can be a bit like the United States: it’s much easier to stop something happening than to change it once it is done. This problem has only become worse as the EU has enlarged its membership. The UK has generally been a major supporter of enlargement, and that could come back to bite us in the end.”

“One of the iron rules is that the EU never gets simpler. It just gets more complex and unwieldy. I don’t see much prospect of that changing.”