Giles Merritt is Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe
The 2019 European elections loom larger by the day, yet the headlines are all about party politics, not policies. The focus is on which candidates have thrown their hat in the ring, and the realignments of mainstream parties fearful of a drubbing. Where the EU should be headed isn't getting a look in.
This bodes ill for the European project. No one can possibly tell at this stage who the EU institutions' next trio of presidents will be, but surely voters should by now have some inkling of what policies the candidates favour.
It's hardly surprising that more voters than ever before may turn their backs on next May's European elections. 'What's the point of voting,' they will ask, 'if we don't know what we're voting for?'
Turnouts at European elections have fallen steadily over the thirty years since voting for MEPs began. A respectable 62% of the electorate voted in 1979, but it’s been downhill ever since. In 2009 and again in 2014 turnout sank to 43%.
The rising popularity of the so-called populists is inescapable
These figures are anyway beefed up by mandatory voting in Belgium, Greece, Cyprus and Luxembourg. On top of that, more than half of the over-55s interviewed not long ago by pollsters admitted that they don't really vote out of conviction but rather from habit or a sense of duty.
The same figures also disguise the key fact that only 28% of under-30s turned out last time, even though many younger people consider themselves fervently pro-European.
This general lack of electoral enthusiasm is made all the more worrying by the political turmoil now raging in more and more EU countries. Enough Eurosceptic MEPs could be elected next year to throw a hefty spanner in the works.
The European Commission and the Parliament are therefore clubbing together to fund an ambitious €30 million publicity campaign aimed at persuading Europeans to get out and vote. They might as well save taxpayers all that money because the problem isn't one of communications.
When Eurobarometer brought out a major opinion survey 12 months in advance of next May's European elections, it contained findings that should have alerted politicians to the troubles ahead. A sizeable 44% of those polled – almost 30,000 people from right across Europe – said that the EU "is headed in the wrong direction". Only 32% approved of its present course.
And when asked about the Spitzenkandidat method that places MEPs' election results at the heart of the EU leadership process, 70% said that while it made matters more transparent, the system only makes sense if it leads to real debate over the EU's future.
The survey also examined public attitudes to Europe's mainstream political parties. Almost two-thirds of respondents – 63% – considered the newer political parties and movements more likely than long-established ones to find solutions to serious difficulties.
No one can possibly tell at this stage who the EU institutions' next trio of presidents will be
The rising popularity of the so-called populists is inescapable. And the absence of policy debates in the opening stages of crucially important European elections suggests that mainstream politicians haven't grasped this reality.
The various populist parties almost certainly don't have answers to such vexed questions about eurozone reform, streamlining EU decision-making or bridging its democratic deficit. All the more reason, then, for the centre-right and centre-left to highlight their own proposals, especially on the pros and cons of a two-speed EU.
If the mainstream candidates fail to do so, that's very likely to fuel suspicions that the EU's leadership is in fact powerless and irrelevant when it comes to charting a new course for Europe.
When essential policy decisions governing the EU's future are taken behind closed doors by a handful of national governments – above all by those of Germany and France – it should be no surprise if voters shun the EP elections. As the old anarchist slogan had it: "Don't vote – it's a double X."
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