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Europeans are voting, but for what?

BY Michael D. Mosettig  May 22, 2014 at 2:37 PM EDT
EU vote

The Tichborne Arms pub near Winchester, England, is doubling as a polling station for Europe’s parliamentary elections beginning Thursday. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Separated as they are by geography, national experience and often by ideology, members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament share one common feature as its members run for re-election this year. Their respective legislative bodies are suffering record low esteem among their voting publics.

Only 30 percent of Europeans, according to a recent Pew poll, have confidence in their 28-nation parliament. But Euro legislators should take heart; that is double the popularity readings for the U.S. Congress. Where that will leave Congress will be determined in the November elections.

But across the 28-nation European Union this weekend, millions of voters are expected to exact a measure of revenge for years of recession and high unemployment, all exacerbated by the four-year crisis of the common euro currency that 18 nations share. The biggest gainers are expected to be anti-EU, anti-immigration parties from the Nordic north to the Mediterranean south as formerly fringe elements, several tainted with racism, move closer to the center of action in European politics.

Only in the past 35 years have voters in the EU’s member nations had the chance to elect directly their members to the European Parliament. Turnout has been going down with each five-year election cycle and could dip below 40 percent in some countries this weekend, a level more familiar in American off-year elections and which increases the odds for the populist parties.

That outcome may have only marginal impact in the 751-member European Parliament, where a majority of center-right conservatives, center-left socialists and free-market liberals hold a generally consensual sway.

The shock waves will be larger in national capitals, especially if the anti-EU and anti-immigrant National Front gains the most votes in France and the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) turns out a winner in Britain and the Freedom Party takes the lead in the Netherlands. Those are the most prominent of the formerly fringe groups that are also expecting gains in Finland, Italy and Greece.

As the Pew survey, just completed last month in seven nations among more than 7,000 respondents, confirmed, many European voters feel the parliament and other EU institutions are remote from their concerns. The workings of the parliament confirm that observation. It costs $2.5 billion to run and invites ridicule by moving its meetings back and forth between the EU capital of Brussels and its national assembly in Strasbourg, France, while its staff works in Luxembourg. Many of its 5,000 employees are engaged in simultaneous translation of the EU’s 23 official languages. (That is half the cost of the U.S. Congress, but according to the Economist, more than the combined costs of the French, German and British parliaments.)

Where the parliament has been successful is gradually increasing its powers, even though it does not initiate legislation. It now has confirmation powers over top European officials and more control over EU budgets and regulations. According to Brian Beary, a veteran Brussels correspondent and now Washington correspondent for Europolitics, the parliament is efficient, and the full body and its committees move at a brisker pace than the U.S. Congress.

And this year, the parliament is trying to expand its powers yet again with a new exercise in democratic outreach. Five candidates are running for what they would like to think of as President of Europe, asserting that should their political party gain the most votes this weekend, it should have the right to choose the president of the EU’s Commission or executive body. That job has been, and may yet again, be decided by behind-the-scenes deliberations and bartering of top cabinet ministers from individual EU governments, the third major EU body officially known as the Council.

Last week, the European Institute, a Washington think tank, piped in a feed of the last debate for curious American policy wonks. Three of the five candidates from Germany and Belgium spoke in English, which has been displacing French as the common EU working language. Another spoke in French, and one in Greek. The technical feat back in Europe was organizing simultaneous translations to the national television systems in all the EU countries that broadcast the debate.

The moderator, an Italian journalist also speaking English, ran the debate with considerable efficiency, holding the candidates to one-minute responses and moving the discussion more briskly than most American political debates. And there were differences voiced, the Socialist Martin Schulz of Germany denouncing speculators, the Green Party candidate Ska Keller criticizing the proposed trade pact with the United States and the leftist Greek Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras advocating a write off of his country’s massive debts. Tsipras appeared without a tie, and along with Keller presented a more youthful, charismatic and vigorous image than many American candidates running for Congress.

But in Keller’s denunciation of the U.S. trade deal, still under negotiation, was a warning to U.S. officials of the potential powers of the parliament. Some European analysts have said that with sufficient gains, the populist parties could form a large enough bloc to reject the trade treaty, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP). But according to Beary, such an outcome could only occur if there were a breakdown in the consensus of the major parties, especially the socialists who have voiced more skepticism about the pact.

And even before the votes are counted, some of the populist party leaders are squabbling across national lines. The British UKIP leader Nigel Farage has criticized the French National Front party of Marine Le Pen for its anti-Semitic statements of the past. She in turn denounced him for disloyalty and slander.

Elections, even ones that seem remote to the voters participating in them, have consequences.

Michael D. Mosettig was the PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs and defense editor from 1985 to 2012. He now watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks and writes occasional dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.