Is Europe's Parliament losing its relevance?

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Few voters are likely to cast their ballots in elections for the European Parliament next week. Not surprisingly, the institution is in danger of becoming little more than an amusing circus.

Over half a century ago, the bosses of Europe's state-owned media networks launched the Eurovision Song Contest, a yearly event designed to bring the continent together by providing some sorely needed cheer to nations emerging from the rubble of World War II.

Eurovision remains a huge success, one of the world's longest-running TV shows.

But it has long departed from its original purpose, and is now merely an engaging mix of high camp and kitsch in which trapeze artists compete for attention with transsexuals and strobe lighting. The last competition which ended yesterday included a bearded woman representing Austria.

And something similar may soon be happening to another grand European project: that of the European Parliament.

For although in just over one week the half a billion residents of the European Union will be called upon to pick their continentwide lawmakers in what is the world's second-largest ballot after India's, most Europeans will ignore the event altogether.

And many of those who do turn out will vote for a mixture of fascists and communists.

The European Parliament risks becoming a fringe show similar to that of Eurovision, but with far worse consequences for the political stability of the continent.

Little voter interest

AT FIRST sight, Europe's indifference to its Parliament seems surprising.

For the biggest gripe which the continent's citizens have about the institutions of the European Union is the fact that these structures remain largely unelected and undemocratic elite constructs imposed from above.

The European Parliament (EP) was meant to plug this democratic deficit: it is the only Europewide institution directly elected by the people.

And although the EP started its life as a mere debating chamber of little consequence, this has now changed.

Over the past five years, the outgoing batch of MEPs, as the Parliament's members are called, have approved more than 400 Europewide laws on such critical matters as trade or banking regulation.

The EP also has to ratify any international treaty Europe signs. And, once the new Parliament which is about to be elected convenes at the end of this month, it will have for the first time the ability to influence the appointment of the head of the Commission, the EU's government. So one would have thought that voters should take a growing interest in an institution which has increasing influence over their lives.

In fact, precisely the opposite is happening. When the first elections for the EP took place in 1979, two-thirds of those entitled to vote cast their ballots. Turnout declined in every subsequent election, however. It stood at 49 per cent in the late 1990s and only 43 per cent in the 2009 election.

Current opinion polls indicate that this downward trend will continue when voting stations open in just a week's time. Only a third of eligible voters are now expected to turn up.

Rise of extremist parties

GRAVER still are predictions about the voting intentions of those expected to cast their ballots. The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party is likely to do very well, as is the anti-immigrant National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the True Finns in Finland.

Similar parties in Italy and Greece are likely to perform creditably, as will the quasi-fascist Jobbik movement in Hungary, which also runs its own paramilitary force.

And there may be others less known today which may do equally well, such as Poland's New Right party which proclaims that "democracy is stupid".

It believes that the system needs "reinvigoration" by depriving women of their right to vote and by banishing people with physical disabilities from public life.

Altogether, such populists and anti-establishment parties are expected to capture an astonishing 218 seats out of the 751 available in the next EP, almost a third of the total.

Feeding the malaise

THE economic crisis which has transformed the EU from a symbol of ever-growing prosperity to one of semi-permanent austerity clearly feeds this trend.

According to the United States-based Pew Research Centre, which specialises in tracking popular opinions and has just released its European study, the number of citizens who consider the EU to be a positive entity has fallen in the biggest EU states from an average of 60 per cent in 2012 to 45 per cent today.

In other words, for the first time since the European project began, a majority of the continent's population no longer considers it the wave of the future.

But there are deeper explanations for this malaise. First among them is the fact that, although the EP's powers seem impressive, they are in fact quite restricted. The EP cannot initiate legislation and cannot override regulations issued by the European Commission, which very often carry the force of law.

And although Parliament has a say over how the EU's €135 billion (S$232 billion) yearly budget is spent, it has no power to raise or lower European taxes. "No taxation without representation" was the historic rallying cry which gave Europe's national legislatures their initial powers.

The EP, however, has reversed the concept, by offering representation with no taxation. Unsurprisingly, many Europeans have concluded that the EP is a waste of time.

Nor are European voters particularly impressed by the way their MEPs have behaved. Many of them spend just enough time in their parliamentary office to qualify for the payment of their €300 daily allowance.

Waste is legendary: One billion euros is spent each year moving the entire Parliament and all its staff between Brussels, its quasi-permanent base, and Strasbourg, the city which the French remain adamant should be its official headquarters.

But ultimately, the EP suffers from the fact that, paradoxically, it is ahead of its time.

It is claiming to represent a single European identity which may one day be created but which, at least for the moment, is simply not there.

People vote for their national legislatures and know their constituency representatives. Few know who their MEP is, and there are no Europewide parties.

Implications for the future

A GOOD case can be made that, since the EP remains a lame assembly, the protest vote which Europeans are likely to register against it in a week's time also counts for little. But the reality is that it will matter a great deal for the future of the continent.

Even if, by some miracle, voter turnout at the forthcoming elections stands at 43 per cent - roughly what it was when the last elections were held in 2009 - the total tally of those projected to vote for anti-EU populist parties, plus those who would not bother to vote at all, could rise to roughly 75 per cent of the European electorate.

Or, to put it more succinctly, just a quarter of those entitled to vote in Europe would have actively expressed support for the European project as currently conceived.

Only fools and political ostriches can dismiss such an outcome as unimportant.

Furthermore, the fact that parties such as France's National Front or Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party will enter the EP could also fundamentally change the electoral map of Europe.

For currently, both these formations have no representation in their respective national legislatures in Paris or London, but once they rise to prominence at the European level, they will consolidate their national base as well.

A psychological barrier will have been broken: what only a year ago seemed like a bunch of extremists who could hardly be admitted into polite society could soon become part of the mainstream. And racist, intolerant and anti-immigrant ideas could soon become the norm.

Nor should one forget the wasted opportunity that a European Parliament paralysed by a motley collection of fascists, nationalists and other extremists will represent.

For Europe needs an assembly which provides a true outlet for its voters, one which bridges the profound political and economic gulf between a wealthy western part of the continent and its poorer east, and between the financially stable north and the heavily indebted south.

Sadly, however, what Europe will get instead is a Parliament which remains a parody of what a properly functioning legislature should be, an amusing circus.

Just like the Eurovision Song Contest which, incidentally, was won yesterday by that bearded woman from Austria.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com