Elections to the European parliament are crucially important. This, however, is not widely recognised by voters as traditionally low turnout across the continent demonstrates.
The institution is commonly – but wrongly – seen as toothless, sometimes even as a place to dispose of party activists who are redundant locally. This is a fatal misconception, even if the policies of the European Union are prepared and promoted by the European Commission and the deciding institution is the European Council (made up of the leaders of the EU member states). Finally, though, the dynamics of the process are steered by the commission, and the parliament plays the important role of confirmation. It influences the appointment of the commission and gives consent to the EU budget. Also, it can vote on recommendations to the member governments.
Until now, the parliament has been dominated by the European People’s Party (EPP; essentially, Christian Democrats), and the social democrats of the Party of European Socialists. A downside of these formations’ domination is the trend toward centralising, equalising and harmonising policy solutions, as member parties of the EPP moved to the left. The shift has limited the real, substantive debate so critical to any functioning parliament.
There are outstanding personalities in the parliament, but this fact is somewhat obscured by the strong institutional role of political parties and groups.
In recent years, the EU’s cohesion has been challenged – not only by Brexit but also many unresolved policy issues, such as the public debt problem. Attempts at centralisation and excessive policy harmonisation (to impose uniform regulation and solutions on various matters such as taxes and competition, on divergent member countries) are profoundly disturbing. The parliament not only failed to hold sufficiently against them, but rather actively promoted such ill-conceived measures.
It sometimes appears – not exclusively in the European parliament, but also in national ones – that the essence of parliamentarism is being neglected, namely, the protection of citizens against government abuse of power. We can see this in the proposed law on telecommunication data storage. The new General Directive on the Protection of Data has not limited the administration’s hunger for collecting data on individual citizens and businesses. The right to privacy is violated under various pretexts.
In the next parliament, it will be interesting to watch the role of the members from the United Kingdom. The country is taking part in the elections even though Brexit has been merely postponed, not canceled.
The established parties are now scared stiff of possible large gains by the so-called “populist” newcomers. Parties that have followed sound policies, in the interest of the citizen and kept honest promises, as opposed to serving their own narrow interests, should not be concerned. Newcomers challenging the establishment’s comfort should be welcome.
In any case, it is in the interest of the citizens themselves to participate in the vote. A disinterested, non-voting public certainly does not help bring the proper dynamic, the sharp, constructive debate, or the necessary opposition to the parliament. Low voter turnout weakens the role of the institution. It is especially crucial for the smaller member countries to have strong representations.