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Is this Time Different? The 2014 European Parliament Elections
17 October 2013
Student Blog #1:
Summary and reflection on the UCL European Institute event: an event that managed to combine pessimism with belief in the future.
Europe’s political parties will now propose their candidates for the Commission President before the European Elections. This follows their interpretation of the Treaty of Lisbon necessitating the European Council to select a final candidate by “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”. Many hope it will increase the democratic accountability of the EU and lead to a more politicised election with higher turnout. The question is: will this time be different?
‘The elections are not going to be different’ – MEP Fiona Hall was first up to talk and quickly expressed her doubts about the direct impact of the changes on the 2014 elections. She was soon followed by Simon Hix and Michael Shackleton who, regardless of small differences, seemed to agree.
Despite some initial pessimism, each of the speakers later stressed that the future institutional effect of the change cannot be underrated. Mr. Shackleton compared this to the initial scepticism towards creating the role of European Council President, which has become rather influential.
The procedure aims to further legitimise the democratic aspects of the EU. However, one of the questions from the floor brought up a potential pitfall: couldn't the reconciliation struggle between the Parliament and the European Council end up only damaging this legitimacy further, especially if the Council were to decide on a different candidate than the winning nominee?
Answers to this unveiled a far from idealistic take on the matter: ‘it can’t get any worse’ and, frequently used throughout the talk, ‘it has to start somewhere’.
Also on the agenda was the growth of Eurosceptic parties throughout Europe. Despite the agreement that these parties probably will gain support, their potential impact was predicted differently by the speakers.
Hall and Shackleton stressed how the parliament was likely to continue as normal as absenteeism and failure of inter-party cooperation would reduce eurosceptic influence. However, Hix expressed fears regarding the impact these parties would have on the discourse even if they effectively excluded themselves from the decision-making process. He mentioned roll-backs on the freedom of movement and harsher immigration laws as an expected consequence of this.
Voter turnout does not matter. A rather controversial statement by Hix that paved the way for a surprising turn in the last minutes of the discussion. This challenged the underlying assumptions that characterised the majority of the talk. Many do subconsciously link voter turnout and democratic legitimacy, but as Shackleton explained, a potential increase in turnout does not necessarily imply a general perception of the EU as more legitimate. A rise in turnout can always be attributed to external factors, such as the growth of Eurosceptic parties.
Hix also stressed the importance of going beyond just looking at participation in elections, suggesting that the structural legitimacy of the vote matters more than the amount of people that choose to use it. "The weather has a bigger impact on turnout than anything else, – he remarked, worryingly – but if things matter enough, people will show.”
Evaluating the talk, there is little to criticise apart from the small difference of opinion between the speakers. Their pro-european stance at times prevented the discussion from going further and the event could have benefitted from a fourth opposing voice.
Lastly, in the pragmatic optimism permeating the talk one aspect seems to have been overlooked. Even if faltering turnout does not mean as much as long-term institutional change, it is definitely discouraging from a perspective outside the corridors of the EU-bubble. The argument that it can’t get worse might provide some leeway for now, but it is important never to forget the impact the popular perception of the EU has on its functioning. If anything, this can be viewed in relation to the rise of the eurosceptic parties who, without being present, managed to occupy half of the event.
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- Fiona Hall: Member of the European Parliament
- Simon Hix: Professor of European and Comparative Politics, LSE
- Michael Shackleton: Special Professor in European Institutions, Maastricht University, and former Head of the European Parliament Information Office in London.
Eureka Editor 2013-14