What Europe is missing
The upcoming European Parliament elections have revealed certain problems facing the European Union on its way to closer cooperation and integration. Every European election, citizens are more and more reluctant to vote. And even in a country like Germany, this problem is more than just tangible.
by Aliya Iskenderova
BERLIN – “No, I suppose, I have never really voted,” laughs Anja in response to my question about whether she knows about the upcoming European Parliament elections. Anja is a German teacher for immigrants in Berlin. The course she teaches, “Leben in Deutschland” (Living in Germany), prepares foreigners trying to live, study or work in Germany — an impossible feat without understanding the cultural and political aspects of the country.
In typical teacher fashion, Anja recites what she remembers from the course book about the EU: Germany was one of the founders of the economic union. Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister at the time, had envisioned Europe as a united nation, a lofty ideal.
“Today the European Union is developing and changing, and partly it happens due to the expansion,” she continues. “It already has 27 countries.”
She hesitates and corrects herself. “Twenty-eight. I have a previous edition of the book.”
Anja’s students come from around the world. The teacher explains that today’s Europe would not exist without globalization. Some of her students, for example, are from Spain, because of the attractive conditions and possibilities of Germany. Quality of life measured by GDP per inhabitant in the purchasing power standard (PPS) differs extremely across the EU. According to Eurostat data, Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia have the lowest living standards; the highest are in Luxembourg, Austria, the Nether- lands and Ireland. Even with the attempts of the EU to improve living standards by protecting the environment, encouraging job creation and reducing regional disparities, Europe is still lacking solidarity. “We need some sort of security system that means ‘one for all and all for one.’ We should understand what the union is really made for. Is it only money and commerce or is it also society and the nation?”
“Today we are quite far from Schuman’s ideal,” she says. “We do not have a European identity. That is what Europe is missing in my opinion.”
European – to be or not to be?
According to Eurobarometer, public opinion surveys conducted by the European Commission, 73 per cent of the German population shares a sense of European citizenship. Germany is also among the member states in which respondents are most attached to the European Union. On the other hand, although Germans feel ‘European,’ it does not necessarily mean they acknowledge other nations as part of Europe. More than a half of the German population has a low level of openness to other EU countries (59 per cent).
Andrej Hunko, Member of the German Parliament from Die Linke, supposes that the reason for this indifference is poor communication. “It is a shame on the German public and media that the issues of the European Parliament are of little significance,” says Hunko. “We did not bring up the European public. We do not have a common European idea and reality. In Germany everyone knows about the Bundestag, the parties and its members, but the very few people know what is going on in Brussels on the European level.”
His left-wing party has one solution to this problem. The new party program has a proposal for media coverage of political issues in Germany and the EU. He wants to involve European politicians in national politics. For example, if members of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, are debating over Greece, they should invite someone from another national government or the European Parliament to discuss the topic. This would be broadcasted in local media and would help shape a European consciousness.
The communication problem between the public and European institutions was also mentioned by Antije Gerstein, managing director of the Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverband (BDA), as a cause of the euroscepticism in Germany. The BDA is an umbrella organisation of employer’s associations across Germany.
“Our government missed out to explain Europe,” says Gerstein. “And to explain why it is so important to the nation. Today even if media is reporting about the EU, it is mostly negative coverage.”
Lack of communication and the absence of a European identity are not the only reasons of sceptical sentiments. According to Gerstein, wrong implementations of a European directive, or so-called gold-plating, also blends the truth.
“The national governments usually put something on top of the law that came from the EU,” she says. “But the public does not know anything about this internal intervention. So the EU is made a scapegoat. If the German government wants to take people on board, it must explain Europe much better.”
I will not vote
In Anja’s recent lesson, her students were involved in a discussion about the future of the EU and Germany’s place in it. Students from Turkey brought up a sensitive topic when they asked when their country would become a part of the Union. Germany, one of the most powerful actors in Europe, seems too influential to some students and should relax its grip on the EU and potential members.
Even after touching on such important topics, Anja is not interested in taking part in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Rumors about bureaucracy and the craziness of politics deter her from voting. “I have never ever voted for the EU,” she says. “I do not think I will vote this time either. I am kind of frustrated because I think that my vote does not have any influence at all.”
Since 1979, when the European Parliament first became a directly elected EU institution, the average voter turnout has fallen. During the last elections in 2009, the turnout in Germany was 43 per cent.
Germany held Bundestag elections last autumn where more than 70 per cent of the population took part. “We have more people not voting at all in the European elections than people who vote for CDU,” says Rainer Erkens, head of the Alternative für Deutschland’s European election campaign. “There are so many Germans that have dropped out from the political system because they have the feeling that politics does not care about ordinary people anymore. And the problem is that the government just accepts that the nation does not vote anymore.”
But put in context, the problem does not look that frightening. In local elections in German communes, for example, which are figuratively and literally closer to the home, voter turnout is usually even lower.
“The argument of low voter turnout sometimes is used as an argument to delegitimize the EU institutions,” says Reinhard Hönighaus, spokesperson and head of the press office of the European Commission’s representation in Berlin. “Opponents say that people do not care about the European elections so it is not democratic and legitimized.
“And if you look at the presidential elections in the US where voters have quite obvious choices, the voter turnout is also not super impressive. And nobody would ever challenge that they are not democratic elections.”
Vote, if you are critical
In March, Koblenz, a city on the west of Germany, hosted a Citizens’ Dialogue debate on the future of Europe devoted to the situation in Ukraine. It gathered more than 300 citizens for the discussion. The Koblenz Dialogue is part of over 50 debates in all member states with citizens on different topics. The idea of is to give ordinary people an opportunity to speak directly to EU politicians about the Europe they want to live in.
It seems like this time the European institutions are more prepared for the elections. Other than Citizens’ Dialogue there are over 100 Europe Direct contact centres across the union, where citizens can pass by and get information or talk with a competent person on an issue connected to the EU.
“We have created so many ways that citizens can use,” explains Mina Andreeva, spokesperson of the European Commission. “But on the other hand how engaged are they themselves? The EU can provide a lot of information, but if there is no appetite from citizens, then we cannot force them.
“If citizens have criticism towards the European Union, then they should express this criticism by giving their voice in the European Parliament elections. People have to understand that if they do not vote, then they are not constructively building the Europe of tomorrow.”
For the first time, the European Parliament elections have personalities that are visible for voters. Every European party has to designate a candidate who could be the next president of the European Commission. Now people can directly influence the structure of the commission by giving their vote to the party whose candidate they want to support. So if Germans vote, for example, for the CDU, their vote goes to the European People’s Party at the EU level because they belong to the same party family.
“We took all the measures to make these elections more transparent and boost participation. So we are looking forward to seeing the results of these elections,” says Andreeva.
The upcoming parliament elections will also be followed with the TV debates. Some national TV channels have already started to host debates with the leading candidates from the two biggest political groups.
According to Hönighaus, the two biggest public channels in Germany will broadcast the debates. Germans can see the main candidates on ARD, which hosts the debates on May 8, and on May 20 and 22, there will be debates between the top German candidates on ZDF. The European debates with all European candidates, organised by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), will be broadcasted on May 15 across Europe.
“People will see that there is actually a choice for them in the European Parliament elections on the course that Europe can take in its approach towards Russia, energy policy and the best ways to come out of the crisis. I am quite confident that this will create a dynamic in the next weeks, that we will see more interest in the EU elections than we have seen the previous times,” says Hönighaus.
The idea of Europe
Some years ago, the European Union idea was clearer than ever. During the last few decades Europe guaranteed peace for thousands of people. In 2012, in support of this idea, the Union received the Nobel Prize “for over six decades of contributing to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.
In the last few years people, especially the younger generation, could forget about the threats of the last century. But recent events in Ukraine have piqued citizens’ interest in their own security. People’s concerns over the future can have a positive impact on the elections this time.
The European Union has a place in Anja’s everyday life. But her critical relation to it is understandable. “The idea of the European Union is brilliant. I can travel across the Europe. I do not have to present my passport at the borders. I do not have to change the currency. And I can help the other Europeans, who want to move to Germany to get their lives back together,” she says. “But now the EU is nowhere near the same as the US, for example. We still have problems that make it complicated to feel united. But it would be great to be European.”
European identity and citizenship: Do you feel European?*
* Category of answers “Don’t know” is not included in the infographic.
Eurostat data, Spring 2012, Eurobarometer