Ten reasons to vote in EU elections

By Paul Taylor
May 15, 2009

paul-taylor– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Opinion polls predict a record low turnout in next month’s EU-wide European Parliament elections. The Strasbourg-based assembly was once regarded as a toothless talking shop, but that has long ceased to be true. Indeed there are many reasons for Europeans to cast a vote.

In doing so they can shape European policies on the financial and economic crisis and the environment, and help determine who runs the executive European Commission.

By abstaining, however, they may let in extremists and make it less likely that the world’s only directly elected legislature will exercise effectively its role of democratic control over EU officialdom and legislation.

That could widen a democratic deficit that is one of the concerns about the direction of the European Union.

European elections are often seen as a cost-free chance to cast a protest vote against national governments or boost single issue parties that fare poorly in national polls. But more is at stake.
Here are 10 other reasons to vote on June 4 or 7 (depending on where you live) for the world’s only directly elected transnational parliament:

1) The crisis. For the first time since direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1979, a single issue dominates all 27 member states: the financial and economic crisis. EU lawmakers share legislative power with member governments on crucial issues such as financial and business regulation.

Unlike national legislatures, the European Parliament is not divided along government and opposition lines, and it cannot initiate laws on its own. But it can amend or block proposals, which gives it the ability to influence the outcome of European legislation. The next parliament is sure to tackle proposals relating to the crisis. The left-right balance of the chamber will influence, for instance, how far the EU regulates hedge funds, private equity, derivatives or even executive pay.

2) Barroso’s future. Low-profile Portuguese conservative Jose Manuel Barroso looks set for a second term as president of the executive European Commission, which proposes all EU legislation and ensures that those laws are enforced. He is backed by the conservative European People’s Party, the largest bloc in the outgoing parliament, and some socialist governments.

Some believe Barroso has been too pliant to big member state governments, turning a blind eye to anti-competitive measures and state bail-outs to secure support for his re-election. Many see him as a weak leader of a weakened Commission.

However, Barroso’s reappointment does not solely depend on the will of EU leaders. He must be approved by parliament, which holds hearings with individual nominees for policy portfolios and must vote to endorse the full Commission. A centre-left majority could block Barroso. Parliament has never rejected a Commission president before, but the threat of censure forced Jacques Santer’s Commission to resign in 1999, and Barroso had to modify his line-up before winning approval in 2004. If the socialist group emerged as the biggest bloc, it could demand that a centre-left candidate be chosen instead.

3) Radicals. There is a danger that the parliament will become a dumping ground for single issue groups and fringe politicians. Radical leftists and rightists, such France’s New Anticapitalist Party, the anti-immigrant British National Party or Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang, are hoping to achieve a breakthrough, helped by mainstream voters’ apathy. A low turnout would also benefit highly mobilised Eurosceptics.

4) The outgoing parliament played a key role in shaping environmental legislation to tackle the threat of climate change and promote clean energy. The make-up of the next parliament will help determine how far and how fast Europe moves towards a low-carbon economy.

5) Enlargement. Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have highlighted their joint opposition to Turkey’s EU membership bid. The EU legislature has no direct say in the negotiations but its reports on candidate countries influence the Commission and the applicants, and it has to assent to accession treaties.

6) The Lisbon Treaty. Irish voters will seal the fate of a major EU reform treaty in a second referendum likely in October after they rejected it last year. The text aims to give the enlarged bloc stronger leadership, a more effective foreign policy and a fairer decision-making system. A big vote for treaty opponents Libertas and Sinn Fein in the European Parliament election would dim the prospects of the reforms entering into force as planned in January, or at all.

7) Power. The Lisbon Treaty would extend the assembly’s power of co-decision with member states to almost all areas of EU legislation. Already, experts reckon more than half of national legislation is the transposition of laws decided at European level. Voters who ignore the European elections in the belief that the real power lies with their national parliaments are wrong.

8) Legitimacy. Critics often accuse EU institutions of being undemocratic, unelected or lacking legitimacy. The European Parliament is the main institution that exercises a degree of democratic control and scrutiny over the executive.

9) Idealism. The European Union is an unique experiment in transnational co-operation between former foes and remains a beacon for many countries beyond the union’s borders. For those who see a more united, integrated Europe as a better future, a big turnout is a must. For those who fear a European superstate, there are plenty of parties vying to curb Brussels’ powers.

10) Sleaze. The European Parliament has made strides in cleaning up abuses of travel and attendance allowances, unequal pay for members and nepotism that earned it a reputation as a gravy train, even if more remains to be done. As Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal shows, sleaze is by no means an exclusive preserve of Strasbourg. If sleaze was an argument for staying home, many of Europe’s national chambers would be empty.

(editing by David Evans)

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