Ahead of EU vote, a struggle to close the 'democratic deficit'

BRUSSELS Mon May 19, 2014 7:16am EDT

People wave an European Union flag in front of the Palace of Culture during a EU parade in Warsaw May 15, 2005. REUTERS/Katarina Stoltz

People wave an European Union flag in front of the Palace of Culture during a EU parade in Warsaw May 15, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Katarina Stoltz

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - As exercises in democracy go, this week's EU election rivals the United States, India and Brazil for sheer numbers.

But when it comes to voter recognition it is a very different story. The lead candidates could not even dream of comparisons with Barack Obama or Narendra Modi and therein lies a problem for the European Union as it battles to make itself more relevant and accountable to its citizens.

This week, from May 22-25, the 28 countries that make up the EU will elect a new European Parliament with up to 380 million voters, from western Portugal to northern Finland, choosing 751 deputies to represent them.

In every European election since the first direct one was held in 1979, turnout has fallen, dropping to just 43 percent in 2009, despite four EU countries requiring voting by law.

This year will be no different: pollsters expect turnout to drop to 40 percent or just below, and turnout among young voters - who politicians have worked hardest to connect with on issues such as jobs, education and training - will fall furthest.

At the same time, support for anti-EU and protest parties on the far-left and right is likely to surge, rising to 25 percent or more of the vote, from 13 percent in 2009, as people express frustration with rising unemployment and poor growth.

The irony is that never has the European Parliament had more power or ability to respond to voters' concerns, whether about mobile phone roaming fees, tobacco legislation, bankers' bonuses or the impact of international trade deals.

Parliament's enormous glass-and-steel buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg are decorated with banners promoting its defense of consumer rights, and its own museum - the parliamentarium - is an unrestrained paean to its own importance.

And yet there remains a deep disconnect with the public.

A survey by Pew Research Center in seven EU countries during March and April found 71 percent of people did not feel their voice counted in the European Union. Only 36 percent had a positive view of the parliament.

That is largely because most think in national not European terms, looking to their local leaders and parliamentarians to resolve problems, not "Brussels bureaucrats", or eurocrats.

"All this tends to relegate elections to the parliament to second-order elections largely focused on domestic rather than European issues," Sonia Piedrafita and Vilde Renman of the center for European Policy Studies, a think tank, wrote in a recent analysis.

"A low voter turnout is not an evil in itself, but it can undermine the democratic legitimacy of the European Union, and the European Parliament in particular."

As Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, likes to point out, EU member states tend to "nationalize successes and blame failures on Brussels", which means the EU's name is regularly muddied, undermining people's confidence in its institutions.

SPITZENKANDIDATEN

In an effort to combat those conceptions, the big innovation of this year's election has been the creation of 'Spitzenkandidaten' - a German word meaning "top candidates" or "front runners".

Each of the major political groups in the EU - the center-right European People's Party, the center-left Socialists & Democrats, the liberal ALDE group and the Greens - agreed to nominate a candidate to succeed Barroso as Commission president.

Whichever group comes top in the election will, in theory, be in pole position to secure Barroso's job - a powerful role with far-reaching legislative responsibilities: the Commission is akin to a European civil service, with 30,000 employees.

Yet even these leading candidates have struggled to break a wall of indifference, their frequent live debates relegated to minority TV channels, if they have been broadcast at all.

The backers of the 'Spitzenkandidaten' concept were convinced it would more closely connect voters to Europe's politicians. They imagined candidates criss-crossing the continent, rallying voters to the European cause, not unlike a U.S. presidential campaign.

The reality has been somewhat less glamorous. A poll this month of nearly 9,000 people in 12 EU countries conducted by the Ipsos group showed more than 60 percent of voters had no idea who any of the 'Spitzenkandidaten' were.

In some respects that is not surprising - none of them is a pan-European name, even if two of them have been prime ministers in their own countries. The top three are all men aged 58-61 who are committed to deeper European integration, an idea damaged by the euro zone debt crisis.

The center-right candidate, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, has shuttled across Europe in a campaign bus and private plane, making stump speeches and taking part in multilingual debates with other candidates.

Polls suggest the grey-haired, heavy-smoking Juncker is marginally ahead of his center-left rival, Germany's Martin Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament, although the lead is within the margin of error.

Even if Juncker's or Schulz's group does emerge the winner in the election, there is no guarantee that either of them will become Commission president.

It remains up to the EU's heads of state and government to nominate a candidate for the Commission "taking into account" the results of the election. Their nominee must then be approved by a majority in the parliament.

While it will be difficult for EU leaders to ignore Juncker or Schulz if either is a clear winner come Sunday night, it is still possible. If they are overlooked, voters may well ask themselves what the point of the candidate-based race was, and decide against voting in even greater numbers next time.

That will only exacerbate the democratic deficit and beg ever more questions about the EU's ability to make itself relevant to the continent's 500 million citizens.

(Editing by Mike Peacock)

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