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Publié par Patrice Cardot

As the political groupings in the European Parliament try to gauge the implications of this summer's European elections, former Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, who is President of the centre-right European People’s Party, puts forward his ideas on tackling the twin problems of falling voter turnouts and rising euroscepticism.

The tsunami that has swept across our financial markets and is now wreaking havoc in the entire world economy is a catastrophe, and it is the task of politicians, business leaders and policymakers to make it as short-lived as possible. If handled correctly, though, the crisis may yet help the European Union and its institutions to raise themselves in the public’s esteem.

The EU’s legitimacy problem has two different aspects: apathy, leading to a low turnout in the European Parliament elections, and outright euroscepticism. The voter turnout problem partly reflects frustration about the present state of the EU, and also the impression people have that they can exert little influence by voting one way or the other. Euroscepticism, on the other hand, and the looming threat of anti-European populism is directly linked to the idea that the EU is not only incapable of offering a solution to the crisis, but in fact is part of the problem. So although the EU represents our best hope of ensuring Europe is internationally competitive in today’s increasingly difficult environment, it is actually being blamed for globalisation even though that is happening regardless.



European elections: Insufficient information the most cited reason for not planning to vote

Voters who said they would be unlikely to vote in this year’s European Parliament (EP) elections mainly said this was due to a lack of information or a sense that their vote would have no impact on future actions. The results of a Eurobarometer survey earlier in the year showed that the main reason they did not plan to vote, chosen from five suggested responses, was because they did not know enough about the EP’s role. This was the answer given most often in all EU member states, with roughly two-thirds of EU citizens (64%) having this view; in Sweden, Estonia, the UK and Portugal, however, 70% felt that way.

Almost as many (62%) said that if they didn’t vote it would be because they felt their vote would not change anything – although this position had decreased by six percentage points in 12 months. For the third and fourth most popular answers, 59% said it would be because they did not feel sufficiently informed to vote and 55% because the EP deals with issues that do not concern them.

Far fewer people – one in five of those surveyed – agreed with the fifth potential reason for not voting, namely, that they were ‘against Europe, the EU and the European construction’. This view was expressed by the highest proportion of people surveyed in Austria (35%), Greece and Sweden (both 28%), and by the lowest in Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Romania (from 5% to 8%).


Many people confuse the two problems of low voter turnout and of anti-Europeanism, and believe that somehow turnout in future European elections can be increased by simply pointing out to people how good and important the EU is. The unpalatable truth is that in most cases this is not an approach that will work.

At first sight, the easiest answer to the problem of low voter turnout is to give more power for the European Parliament. But if this was the solution, then we would not have had steadily declining turnouts since the high point of 63%, at the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979, since when it has constantly grown in influence and powers of joint decision-making thanks to successive treaties ranging from Maastricht to Amsterdam to Nice. The Lisbon treaty further strengthened the parliament’s powers, and although that’s a good thing, it is clearly not the solution to the turnout problem.

The trouble with EP elections is that for voters to be interested, elections must be “about” something, which means they must involve a real choice between options. For that to be the case, real Europe-wide election campaigns by all parties at a European level are needed. This would also involve making the choice of the European Commission’s President dependent on the outcome of the EP elections. In fact, both of these conditions have already been met; in 2004, Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso was appointed President of the Commission because he came from the political organisation with the strongest election result, the European People’s Party. And this year’s elections saw a more intensive presence of party organisations at European level than ever before. All this experience needs to be built upon, and I believe the most important way to reawaken voters’ interest in European elections will be to open up the election of the Commission’s President to them, and create a genuinely Europe-wide political debate during the next election campaign.

The euroscepticism problem, however, can only be tackled if the Union itself starts to perform better, and is seen to be doing so by EU citizens. Which is why in the aftermath of the failed referenda four years ago in France and the Netherlands on the Constitutional treaty, the Commission tried to emphasise the idea of a “Europe of Results” that would seek to convince citizens of its worth through concrete and tangible achievements. Looking back at these, it is perhaps the case that one has sometimes focused a little too much on isolated examples like the introduction of international roaming fees for mobile phones, but for all that it has seemed a worthwhile approach. I am convinced that in the light of the economic crisis the time has come for the Union to demonstrate its strengths whenever possible. The aim must be not only to win back the hearts of Europeans who have become sceptical, but also to convince them that the Union is indispensable if we in Europe are to meet the challenges we now face.

Europe’s citizens increasingly understand that the relatively small nation states that make up the EU are no longer able to face these enormous challenges on their own. In Ireland, last autumn’s financial crisis provoked a turnaround in public opinion about the EU, and even in Iceland, although it lies on the periphery of our continent, membership of the EU and the euro have become a priority. European countries have become so interconnected that isolated national measures on issues like the regulation of financial markets, recovery plans for our economies or the fight against climate change would be hopeless.

In short, most of us know that the EU must be united and able to speak with one voice on the world stage. A changing world in which new powers like China and India play an increasingly important role will not wait for Europe to make up its mind. The EU must instead show leadership through its efforts to solve the world’s current problems.

As to the European People’s Party, for us the economy is not an end in itself but should serve the people. We believe in a society based on the individual, on freedom, solidarity and social cohesion. In other words, the social market economy. There can be no social cohesion or political stability without sustainable economic development. The economic crisis was caused by short-sightedness and a lack of control in the global financial system, so now we must redefine the roles of the regulators in financial markets and in the wider economy. And certainly we cannot let the financial sector walk off with the profits and leave the taxpaying public to bear the losses.

That doesn’t mean we are advocating a move to socialism; we want better and smarter regulation, but not regulation for its own sake. Our position also clearly differs from the ideas of these market fundamentalists who believe that markets alone should rule the world. Today’s situation requires additional public spending, but this must not go on for an infinite time period. We cannot live now at the expense of future generations. Therefore, we see five keys to recovery:

New Job creation is our core priority. We in Europe need to continue to reform and invest in education and life-long learning to create opportunities for everyone. 

  • A prolonged global economic slump must be averted, and European governments must continue to improve their co-ordination on fiscal and monetary policies. 

  • The international financial architecture must be rebuilt. European regulations alone are not sufficient for a healthy global financial system - we need to increase overall transparency and surveillance. Banks must re-focus on their vital function of securing people’s savings and providing liquidity for our financial systems.

  • The economic recession is an opportunity to increase investment in green technologies. We want Europe to be a world leader in this sector, as this will boost economic growth and create more jobs while at the same time making Europe less dependent on fossil fuels. 

  • A resurgence of protectionism needs to be prevented. We have to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s both within the EU itself and also globally. Europe’s internal market is a success story that has indisputably created growth and jobs in decades past, and must be allowed to continue doing so.

A “Europe of Results” can only strengthen the EU’s legitimacy, though, if these policy recommendations and their successes are communicated clearly and effectively to the general public. This means that all of the European institutions and their leaders must raise their media profiles, and that’s easier said than done. Newspaper and television editors still place EU news items low on their agendas, reflecting the paradox that readers and viewers find the EU of little interest, yet at the same time complain they are not adequately informed about it and its functions. It’s a dilemma that will only be solved with much of innovative and creative thinking by Europe’s leaders, but it can nevertheless be done.

Source : Europe's World n°25 Summer 09

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