The designation of the German Martin Schulz as the EU-wide Socialist candidate to the presidency of the European Commission is the starting gun for elections that promise to be complicated. He and other candidacies are supposed to breathe some life into elections from which the voters usually stay away in droves, and which are normally disputed more in a national than pan-EU key, and are now under the effects of the crisis and of the Europe-wide boom among xenophobic parties.
With the crisis, confidence in EU institutions has collapsed. If in 2007, 52 percent had a positive view of the EU and 57 percent trusted its institutions, in 2013, these percentages have fallen to 30 and 31. Equally worrying is the weakness of support for the European Parliament. If in 2007, 56 percent trusted the assembly and 28 percent distrusted it, now the respective percentages are 43 and 47, an almost equal division. The European Parliament, which began its career in 1979 with a 62 percent voter turnout, has, in spite of its growing powers, progressively disappeared from the radar of the EU voter, with turnout sinking to 43 percent in the last elections, held in 2009. This average rate of participation, painful to every Europeanist, conceals worse ones: 19 percent in Slovakia, 24 in Poland, and 27 in Romania.
Southern citizens would accept ceding more sovereignty if it increases the EU’s capacity to deal with their problems. Concerned about the deterioration in their image, defenders of the parliament often argue that national democracies are not much more popular than the EU. And they are right: in general terms, voters are angrier with their own governments and parliaments than with European policy and institutions. Only 25 percent of EU citizens trust their national government or parliament. But this reality offers scant consolation.
Disaffection with national institutions is prevalent only in southern Europe, where democracy has suffered as a result of the crisis, but not in the north of Europe, where national democracies are valued for their ability to cope with economic difficulties and, at the same time, impose reforms and discipline on other nations. Apparently, the citizens of creditor countries do not necessarily want a more united Europe. They want a sort of Europe that is not necessarily the one desired by people in the south of Europe, who prefer a more generous union which is more sensitive to their needs. Thus, those who hope that the weakness of their democracies may generate support for ceding more powers and sovereignty to the EU seem to be mistaken. Given the experience of recent years, southern citizens would accept ceding more sovereignty to the EU only if it serves to increase the EU’s capacity to deal with their real problems such as unemployment, debt, and the lack of economic growth – but not if those powers serve to impose more cutbacks and force the adoption of a model slanted to favor the creditors.
Added to the traditional low turnouts, the situation of economic crisis, the problems of distrust of EU institutions, and the rise of populist and xenophobic extreme-right movements, it is clear that the European Parliament, the EU’s most legitimate and democratic institution, is about to enter a political high-risk zone. To call 390 million Europeans to the polls, when half of them (183 million) do not trust the parliament, poses the serious question of what political project to offer to the public. If what we want is attention and visibility for the faces on the slate, it looks a priori like a good idea. After all, ideas and projects do not just float in the air; they need individuals to give them credible form, both to voters and to other candidates. Unfortunately, the EU Socialists have rejected the idea of a face-off between candidates, which might have been very positive. The results: a single candidate, German, and from a party allied in government with Chancellor Angela Merkel. If she decides to support his candidacy, which seems likely, we will be right back where we started.
This article first appeared in the English edition of "El País" on 7 November 2013.
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