ELECTIONS 09: A trend of reduced engagement

The powers of the European Parliament have been very considerably increased since direct election of MEPs was first introduced in 1979 – a major milestone in the development of the European Parliament as a political institution. The European Parliament has become more relevant – why is this not reflected in the ballot box?
Increased Powers of the elected assembly

The powers of the European Parliament have been very considerably increased since direct election of MEPs was first introduced in 1979 – a major milestone in the development of the European Parliament as a political institution.

But it was with the advent of the co-decision procedure in 1992 that the European Parliament came of age as a legislative chamber. This procedure was introduced to address what was described as the “democratic deficit” in the EU decision-making process and it ended the 40 year monopoly enjoyed by the Council (representing the EU member states).

What is codecision?


Codecision is the most important legislative procedure in the European Union. Without going into the technical details, it can be summarized as a procedure by which primary EU legislation is adopted jointly by the European Parliament (representing the EU’s citizens) and the Council (representing the member states). In the 5 years 1994 to 1999 there were on average 33 codecision procedures annually but this has grown to over 80 per year in the following 5 years. Codecision currently covers about 50% of the EU’s primary legislation.

This means that the European Parliament has a very significant (and growing) impact on issues which touch the lives of the 500M EU citizens. Yet its relevance, from the perspective of the EU citizen, seems, if anything, to be on the decline. This is reflected in the continuously reducing percentage of voters exercising their right to vote - from a high of 63% in 1979 to a low of 45.7% in the last elections. And, without doubt, if countries like Belgium which have compulsory voting, were to allow voluntary voting these figures would be even lower.

Why does the citizen feel so distant from the EU decision-making process?

It is clear that there has been a trend across Europe of reduced engagement with the national political processes as evidenced by falling voter numbers and obviously this must have an impact on the European Parliament elections. In the last 20 years the pace of integration in Europe has increased with expanded membership and a widening in the range of issues within the EU remit. In the same period there has been an increase in the autonomy or semi-autonomy of regions within member states. Are citizens concentrating on regional and local issues at the expense of interest in national or EU level issues?
Is lack of understanding of the institutions and their role confusing the public? Is cultural identity an important factor? Have the EU institutions failed to communicate adequately with the citizen?

Over the next 3 weeks Richard Hill, NoelleAnne O'Sullivan and I will be examining some of these issues and discussing aspects of the forthcoming European election from the perspective of expats in Belgium.

Malachy Vallely
Malachy Vallely is Director General of the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe