Don’t let the chance of big decisions pass by

by
27 May 2009

The European elections are more important than ever — and not just to keep out racist parties, argues Gary Wilton

THE POPULATION of England will vote for new county councils on 4 June. On the same day, it will also have the chance to elect its new Mem­bers of the European Parlia­ment, alongside Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (News, 22 May).

Often the EU is criticised for having a democratic deficit — for not being democratic enough. But perhaps the population of the UK is suffering from democratic overload — too much democracy, too many elections, and too many elected representatives. Since the first election of MEPs in 1979, we have also introduced a Parliament in Scot­land, Assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales, elected mayors, and local referendums.

The once-universal system of going to the ballot box to vote for a single candidate in a single constitu­ency or ward has been supplemented by systems of proportional repre­senta­tion, regional lists, and even electronic voting. At the very time that there has been a loss of con­fidence in politics and politicians, we have created more politicians, made voting more complicated, and are required to vote more often.

After the daily revelations of Westminster MPs’ expenses, ranging from the mildly curious to the ridiculous to the immoral, voters are likely to become even less disposed to take this year’s EU elections seriously. All we know about our Euro MPs is that we suspect that they might be on a Brussels gravy-train even more lavish than that of their Westminster counterparts. Why should we vote for them? And what difference do they make anyway?

SUCH questions arise not only in the UK, but across all 27 member-states. In an interview in the internal news­paper for EU officials, the Vice-President of the Commis­sion, Margot Wallstrom, stated: “People need to be aware that the European Parliament takes decisions on a whole range of issues that affect everyone’s daily life. For example: how should our food be grown? What kind of energy do we want? What should our cars run on? How can we tame the financial markets?

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“We need to make it clear to people that, by voting in the European Parliament elections, they really will influence the EU’s decision-making on issues like these.”

In the UK, we have the oppor­tunity to vote for 72 MEPs out of a total of 736. Since the last Euro elec­tions in 2004, the European Parlia­ment has gained significant addi­tional powers. It now has a key voice in the appointment of the President and the members of the College of Commissioners. The Commission lies at the heart of the European project — and has the right to propose all EU legislation — but the membership of the College of Commissioners has to be agreed by MEPs.

At the same time, most com­munity law is subject to a co-decision process, which requires the joint agreement of the Parliament and the council of member states. In ad­dition, the Parliament has the power to scrutinise and to approve the overall EU budget.

FROM 2009 to 2014, the new Euro­pean Parliament will have a mandate to make decisions on behalf of 500 million people, decisions that may have long-lasting consequences with­in and beyond the boundaries of the union. As the powers of the only directly elected institution of the EU have increased, the interest and par­ticipation in European elections have decreased. This risks increasing the democratic deficit and making the EU even more remote from the elec­torate.

Low participation rates risk an­archic or extreme-minority political groups’ gaining seats. The regional list system works well with high turnouts, but when the turnout is low, it can be vulnerable to non-representative groups’ gaining the last place in one or more regions. Just one seat won by a candidate from an extremist party would gain that party legitimacy and a platform from which to distract the public and the institutions from serious mainstream issues.

There is now grave concern that the BNP is targeting some parts of the north of England, where turnout could be low. The General Synod voted to ban clergy from being mem­bers of the BNP (News, 13 February), and the Arch­bishops have both spoken out strongly against the insti­tutional racism that the BNP promotes.

All the European ecumenical or­gan­isa­tions in Brussels recognise the risks inherent in a low turnout at the EU elections. They are concerned to equip the Churches and Christian organisations to play a part in the election process. They have pub­lished a European Parliament elec­tions guide (available at www.ecumenicalvoices2009.eu) pam­phlet raises questions and invites Christians to take the EU elections seriously.

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All the European ecumenical or­gan­isa­tions in Brussels recognise the risks inherent in a low turnout at the EU elections. They are concerned to equip the Churches and Christian organisations to play a part in the election process. They have pub­lished a European Parliament elec­tions guide (available at www.ecumenicalvoices2009.eu) pam­phlet raises questions and invites Christians to take the EU elections seriously.

The EU can seem a long way away from the UK. Yet, for good or ill, we are an integral part of the Union. Somehow British voters need to see beyond the local and recognise that we are part of the European project. Some issues, such as climate change and the credit crunch, will be solved only by working together.

The past 30 years have brought a significant increase in the electoral demands on the average voter. But, if we are not careful, we may inflict on ourselves the double whammy of an increased democratic deficit, as well as overload. And we will not be able to blame “them in Brussels”: the dem­ocratic deficit will have been made in the UK.

The Revd Dr Gary Wilton is Church of England Representative to the EU, and a Canon of Holy Trinity, Brussels.

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