Is it Really Different this Time?

My name is Julian. I am a 29-year old political analyst based in Berlin working for an independent, non-profit think tank.

This time, it’s different. This is the official slogan of this year’s European elections. The innovations of the Lisbon Treaty that will come into effect this year for the very first time offer tools to better engage citizens in the EU. However, their positive effect on both voter turnout and outcome are likely to vanish in the run-up to the elections as the economic, debt and social crisis has marked its traces.

The novelties of the Lisbon Treaty will enable European citizens not only to determine the future composition of the new European Parliament with their vote. Under the new provisions, each of the big European party families is also putting forward a top candidate running for the position of the future President of the European Commission. Although fears of backroom deals over this prestigious posting prevail — e.g. German chancellor Merkel has remained rather sceptical whether the election results are really decisive in this issue — EU leaders will have a hard time rejecting the political will of its citizens. Thus, it is the citizens who will have a clear say in who takes over the helm at the Commission.

As European voters are now provided with faces that complement the European parties’ policy manifestos it could be the first time that we experience truly European elections. It is a positive sign to see the European party families seizing on these new options provided in the Lisbon Treaty by nominating prominent candidates like EP President Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister of Luxemburg (despite the decision of the German CDU at its recent party summit not to campaign with Juncker on their election posters). I am sure, this will help to foster a controversial and politicised debate with increased media attention during the campaign – in particular as the recent votewatch forecast indicates a neck-to-neck race of the two major political groups, S&D and EPP.

However, despite personalisation and increasing politicisation I expect the voter turn-out of the 2014 European elections to remain only at the same level or increase only slightly. This is because not only from an institutional point of view it’s different this time. It will be the first pan-European election after the unfolding of the economic, social and debt crisis in the EU. The presentations given by my fellow participants at the North-South Capacity Building in November 2013 provide insightful snapshots of the worrying situation in Southern Europe and the democratic, social and economic challenges the EU is struggling to master.

Trust in European institutions is fading among European citizens as was highlighted already by Héctor and Christoforos in their recent blog posts. Citizens increasingly question whether they are really represented by EU institutions and whether they can really participate in the European decision-making process. In the view of both Northern and Southern Europeans, the EU has not provided a satisfying response to the European debt crisis. Their political will regarding the crisis management increasingly clashes over central questions that touch upon the fundamental European value of solidarity.

The dissatisfaction with the European institutions is also well reflected in the rise of Eurosceptic parties in most EU Member States having good chances to score well over 20 per cent in total in the European elections (an issue I will address in one of my next blog postings). In order to fight these tendencies and to better engage citizens, great hopes are now placed in the novelties of the Lisbon Treaty, hence ironically in those tools that were decided upon already before the unfolding of the crisis. However, in the meantime, the diffusion of Eurosceptic ideas in the EU-debate has already reached a new quality that will not as quickly go away as some commentators suggest.

Therefore, in order to restore trust and support for the EU, it is not sufficient to ask Europe’s citizens every five years to vote in European elections – even as this now also might include the position of the President of the European Commission. Only profound reforms that imply more democratic legitimacy and transparency in the EU can offer a solution and could really make a difference. But to what extent are treaty reforms accompanied by a European Convention really realistic given the current public opinion? I think we should first start thinking of changes that could be conducted within the given treaties as there already is some leeway.

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