ELECTIONS 09: Is the EP guilty by association?

The European Parliament: guilty by association. Here we are just a few days away from the elections and we’re still wondering why the future of the European Parliament elicits so little enthusiasm, even interest. Certainly no effort has been spared in recent weeks to address the younger generations of Europeans. While they are often more receptive than their elders to the appeal of such things as an open society and the various ‘isms’, they have little time for mainstream politics at home, so see no reason to ‘vote European’.
In reality, the Parliament’s communications people have mounted a relatively inspired campaign by European institutional standards, drawing on viral marketing techniques, video clips and other media used by the young. The message has been generally fresh and informal, yet it doesn’t seem to be going through. So what’s happening?

For a start the disenchantment of British voters – which grows greater by the day as the Daily Telegraph newspaper (not renowned for its impartiality) lets more and more cats out of the bag – is matched by the distancing of many other European publics from their political classes, for a variety of reasons: ministerial junketing in Belgium, political infighting in France, generally public disgust in Greece. Inevitably this degree of revulsion carries across onto the European scene, while the national parties add fuel to the fire by turning the European elections to their own advantage. In France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Greece, you can‘t even change the order of candidates on the party lists!

Expense scandals and other political improprieties spill over onto the European Parliament by association – and the fact that MEPs are reimbursed more generously than many of their national counterparts (Italian MPs being a dishonourable exception) doesn’t help. Added to this are vague memories of malpractices by MEPs themselves. So, in consequence, “a curse on all your houses.”

Then there is the problem that the European Parliament undeservedly shares the image of the other European institutions, however hard it tries to distinguish itself from them: colourless Eurocrats, byzantine processes, bizarre procedures and the same opaque Eurojargon of threadbare fetish words like ‘citizens’, ‘subsidiary’, ‘sustainability’, ‘flexicurity’, and that awful adjective ‘cross-cutting’.

Turning its sights for a change on the EP, last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph said that “the trouble with the European Parliament, as we know, is that none of us really know how to relate to it, or what connection this remote, mysterious body has with our lives. Probably not more than one in a thousand could name more than a couple of the MEPs we sent there last time. The farcical "list system", based on dividing Britain up into 12 vast "Euro-regions", means we probably didn't even know the names of the mediocrities we voted for.” [NB: my italics] Well, not all MEPs are mediocrities, but the voting systems in many countries make sure that the parties get in the way of the personalities…

The final and perhaps unfairest explanation is that the European Parliament, at a time when the main priority is to set the economy aright, is irrelevant. Most people seem to think it is irrelevant in any case. An article in The Economist of May 30 concluded with the following words: “…nobody thinks they are in charge of very much at all.”

Richard Hill

Richard Hill is a long-time Brussels resident and author of the books ‘We Europeans’ and ‘The Art of being Belgian’.