Opinion: Democracy Also Means Choosing to Stay at Home | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.06.2004
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Opinion: Democracy Also Means Choosing to Stay at Home

Less than 45 percent of Europeans turned out for the EU Parliament elections, and those who did were motivated more by domestic than EU issues. Hardly a good sign for Brussels and Strasbourg, but democracy nonetheless.


Not more than a trickle turned out to vote in some places.

The election results were determined by issues such as the Iraq war, fears about terrorism, and painful social and economic reforms in the member states, and not by European issues such as the constitution, agricultural subsidies, and regional funding.

The elections for the European Parliament turned into 25 separate national elections, and -- in the case of states with long sitting governments -- elections of protest. Britain's prime minister, France's president, Poland's prime minister, and Germany's chancellor were all punished for various reasons.

And in the Czech Republic, Poland and Britain, the anti-EU parties all celebrated impressive victories. The low voter turnout was a boon to the smaller, more extremist parties, who as a rule, were better able to mobilize their supporters.

National concerns ruled the day

There is no "European electorate," no EU-wide party ticket or electoral law. So it's not surprising that the majority of voters care little about far-away Brussels, and care a lot more about the problems that play a role for them at home.

But even the politicians, who are now complaining loudly about the low turnout, only contributed to the meager interest by focusing their campaigns on national issues.

Especially bitter was the extremely low voter turnout in the new eastern European member states. The political elite in these countries failed to make it clear to their electorate that Europe, too, is an important topic that should concern them.

Lack of power?

Perhaps voters felt that they weren't being called upon to decide a powerful political representation in the classical sense of a national parliament. After all, the parliament doesn't serve a European government. And whatever the parliament's political make-up, it's not going to change much about the way the European Union does politics in Brussels.

The power remains with the Council of Ministers -- which represents the interests of the member states -- and not with the parliament, which represents the interests of the people.

But before the laments about a refusal to embrace the democratic process grow too loud, let's cast a quick glance across the Atlantic. In the United States, that democratic superpower, voter turnout levels have hovered around the 50 percent mark since the 1970s. But that doesn't give anyone there the idea to deny the legitimacy of the U.S. Congress or the president.

It's still far better to have an EU body to represent the people -- even if it was elected by a minority -- than to have no checks and balances at all for the EU's vast bureaucracy.

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