Chris Terry looks at the European election results and considers how UK voter engagement in Europe could be improved.
Last month’s European elections caused great consternation across Europe as populist Eurosceptic outsiders seemingly swept to victory across Europe. In reality the rise of these parties is not as extreme as has been made out and is principally concentrated in a few large states such as Britain and France. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Belgium, Eurosceptic parties actually fell back. In others they fell short of expectations, as was the case in Italy.
Turnout was slightly up on previous European elections, albeit by just 0.1% of the vote – hardly the ‘endorsement of the European project’ as the federalist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe leader, Guy Verhofstadt, suggested during polling.
It has been argued that the rise of populist Eurosceptics and turnout effects are predominantly a response to the lack of importance voters attach to the European Parliament. Eligible voters use European elections as an apparently ‘risk free’ way to express their discontent. It is fair to say the Parliament can feel very distant from voters. In Britain polls regularly report that less than 10% of voters can name even one of their MEPs. MEPs themselves come in two broad types. The majority are federalists who express views more pro-European than voters. A small but growing minority are dedicated Eurosceptics. One therefore wonders the extent to which either of these types actually represents the median voter in Europe.
So how can we increase UK engagement in Europe? One way would be to create a higher public profile for MEPs. A good starting point for this would be to introduce a candidate-centred PR system, such as the Single Transferable Vote used in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Malta; or open-list systems such as those used in Luxembourg, Denmark and Latvia. These systems allow citizens to vote for individual candidates within a party, rather than just parties and their pre-ordained rankings on lists as is currently the system in the UK.
According to Simon Hix and Sara Hagemann, citizens in countries that use open-list systems are 20% more likely to be contacted by candidates or parties than those in states which use closed-list systems. They are 15% more likely to say that they feel well informed about the elections, and they are 10% more likely to turn out on polling day.
Hix and Hagemann’s conclusions were reflected the results of this year’s elections. Turnout was typically higher in countries with open-lists or STV: 56.4% in Denmark, 51.6% in Ireland, 60% in Italy, 74.8% in Malta and 58.2% in Greece (who recently changed their system from a closed-list. Turnout was almost 6 points higher, though obviously conditions in Greece are also likely to have played a role). Other open-list systems saw lower but comparatively robust turnout: 40.9% in Finland and 44.0% in Cyprus. The UK paled in comparison with a turnout of 34.6%.
It has become something of a trend, particularly amongst soft Eurosceptics, to suggest that the European Parliament should be abolished, or that we should return to the indirect election system used until 1979. For example, the European Mainstream group of (relatively pro-European) Conservative MPs recently published a pamphlet which included a call by Ben Gummer for this. Yet abolition would be a backwards step. The EU is simply too complex for democratic accountability to be performed by national parliamentarians alone. The abolition of direct election would only work if accompanied with a significantly reduced European Union. Although this might the goal of those who want it to be scrapped, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future.
Furthermore, the parliament has been directly elected for 30 years and it has accumulated vast amounts of power in that time. The parliament is no longer the toothless talking shop it previously was. For example, the parliament is currently locked in a titanic struggle with member state leaders to get its choice of President for the European Commission. If it succeeds the EU will start to more closely resemble a parliamentary democracy, with the parliament choosing its most powerful figure.
Rather than trying to backpedal, there is a need to create new modes of accountability. As the Electoral Reform Society outlined in our recent report Closing the Gap, an increased role for national parliaments is key precisely because it offers an extra level of accountability. Parliaments should be able initiate and block legislation more easily, allowing them to set the boundaries of European competences. We also need to review the way we deal with devolved institutions and we should experiment with using occasional deliberative democracy in the EU institutions, by allowing parliament and the government to bring salient issues to citizens juries and assemblies to judge.
Much can be learned on improving accountability from other national parliaments. Take for example, Denmark. Denmark is not traditionally seen as a pro-European nation – it is the only country other than the UK to have opted out of the Euro – yet it has a strong open-list system for European parliament elections and a national parliament which vigorously holds the executive to account on Europe. 56% of Danes feel that their voices are heard in Europe compared to a paltry 19% of Brits, according to the latest figures from the regular Eurobarometer survey.
The EU has serious democratic flaws but these can be tackled. The priority should be to make the EU more open to multiple levels of accountability so as to create the widest range of possibilities for engagement and open the EU up to bottom-up influence.
Chris Terry is Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society. The ERS have recently produced a report Closing the Gap: Tackling Europe’s democratic deficit. Read their 12 recommendations on how to reduce the democratic deficit and download the report here.