Why it is important to have truly European elections to the European Parliament

Posted by ACELG on 22/01/14

The 2014 election campaigns are about to kick off – and they are supposed to be different this time.

By Eljalill Tauschinsky

In contrast to former elections, this year they are supposed to be more concrete, with each European party nominating top candidates. But more than that, they are supposed to be pan-European, making European, not national, issues count for the election decision. This latter feature presents a real change in the way the European polity works.

To explain why this change is so important, consider a less complex situation. Imagine, if you will, a local park, which provides for leisure activities such as playgrounds, sports courses and maybe even parties and community get-togethers. This park is sizeable and provides not only large lawn areas but also many trees and beautiful flowers. Now imagine we are to elect someone to govern this park. There are elections and the candidates tell us what activities they would support in the park, how they imagine the playgrounds to be organised and how they would deal with the garbage regularly resulting from the festivities organised in the park. And if you agree with a candidate, that’s who you vote for. So far so simple. But now imagine that these governors do not organise the leisure activities. Instead the governors are responsible for the planting and landscaping of the park, for the paths and flowers and trees while matter concerning playgrounds, sports courses and garbage collection are under the responsibility of some departments at city hall.

The result of such imagined situation would be that, firstly, you would be frustrated because you could not see the impact of your election vote on the organisation of the leisure activities, and the governors would not actually have a very good, or at least not very representative, idea of what the public would want to happen with the landscaping – whether there was a general feeling that there should be more flower beds or more lawn areas, for example. This is because the interactions with the public would not have actually focused on these issues. The whole election exercise would somewhat suboptimal, to say the least. However, something like this used to happen in the case of European Parliament elections up until now.

Election campaigns – in so far as separate European Parliament campaigns happen at all – are commonly said to focus on national issues and national party politics. Media coverage by national media likewise mostly focuses on the national issues and the candidates appear more like candidates of national then of European parties.

To understand in more abstract terms why this is a problem we have to look at the function of election campaigns. What do election campaigns do? Usually they inform us – the constituents – why it would be such a great idea to vote for person (or party) A, and such a bad idea to vote for person (or party) B. They present us with reasons to vote (or not vote) for either one.

Many of these reasons have to do with what either of the candidates (we’ll leave parties apart for now) plans to do if elected, others with what kind of political orientation and character they have or what kind of expertise. And importantly, the candidates link the plans, character, orientation, expertise and so on, to the task at hand. Someone to be elected to City Council would likely require different expertise and possibly character than someone to be elected to the national parliament – and not incidentally, candidates from the same party campaign with different programmes in the elections for such different offices.

So, if the campaigns for European elections focus on national issues, and if – in any case – the reasons we vote for either candidate are based on considerations of national politics, then we are likely not matching a person to the job they are to do – but rather to a job they are not to do. We are treating MEPs as if they were to be national parliamentarians – which they are not.

Now, it would of course be unfair to say that MEPs in their campaigns would not talk about European issues – they do. However, if all we hear and all we discuss in the media are national issues, than this point is likely moot.

The current situation not only bears the risk of choosing the wrong people for the job, but also of giving these people less guidance on what they were to do and even in creating wrong expectations among the electorate about what the job as MEP entails. This is because elections do not only consist of campaigns and candidates communicating to the constituents of who they are, what the want and what they can do, but also of the public, through their vote, communicating in a representative and authoritative way back what they would like to see happen.

However, as I said in the beginning – all this could change this time around. The parties in the European Parliament are attempting to solve the problem by initiating common European election campaigns. They have started choosing their top candidates and the primaries are on-going in all parties. If it goes according to schedule, between January 28 (Greens) and March 7 (European Peoples Party) we should know more about all of the candidates.

Reactions on the web about the 2014 campaign are very mixed. Criticism ranges from too little controversy to too inexperienced candidates. And even European media outlets still bring a lot of national election news and national primaries.  However, there are also still a few months left until the elections – and the hot phase of the campaign is only about to begin. Let us hope that with these European candidates the parties can turn all their energy to working out how they attempt to tackle the issues that Europe currently faces.

Eljalill Tauschinsky LL.M., M.Sc is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance.  Her personal page can be accessed here.

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