Lost in Temptation

In the run-up to the EU parliamentary elections, national candidates benefit issues to benefit their voters at home

Opinion | Anneliese Rohrer | June 2009

Elections are any journalist’s temptation: To predict the outcome, the most likely or the most desired, at least according to their own view. Their predictions are based on surveys, which work on the assumption that the queried public has an honest streak.

Once the election results are in and the journalists again way off the mark, they hope nobody will remember that they succumbed to temptation. In most cases the misrepresentation of the public mood will be seen as the fault of the pollsters.

But what about elections where there is no public in the first place – like the upcoming elections to the European parliament on Jun. 7? This has always been and still is the biggest failing of the European parliament and for that matter of the European Union: There is no European public.

No Europe-wide talk shows about European issues, broadcasted in all 27-member states; no town hall meetings in one country broadcasted in all others.

Campaigns in each member state are dominated by national issues, election results seen as snapshots of the individual national situation of the day.

Take Austria or the UK. The Austrian campaign had been dominated by the xenophobic slogans of the right and the conflict between the church and the FPÖ, a party which styled the election in far away Brussels and Strasbourg as "a day of reckoning" on national issues, barely disguised as a test run for the City Hall in Vienna at the local election coming up – whenever.

Or, take Great Britain where the election of the delegates in Brussels and Strasbourg is dominated by the outrageous items on the expense accounts of the delegates to the national Parliament – and probably will especially serve as an opportunity to reprimand the ruling Labour Party.

None of this has anything to do with European issues. The effect of these issues on the Brussels election is only possible because the European Parliament remains a neutered political body between the electorate in the member states and the ruling body on the European level, the Council of Ministers, the true governing and decision making club.

Thus the public in 27 member states will elect their representatives to a neither-nor political institution; one that can be seen as a glass half full or half empty.  It is full of activities designed to legitimize its existence while some of these activities – like the light-bulb-decision or the dress code for construction workers within the union, not to mention the size of the seats on tractors – are viewed as public harassment by the various national electorate.

On the one hand, it is powerless in the really important decisions like the possibility to either confirm or reject individual ministers, alias members of the EU commission.  On the other hand, it can pass down important regulation for the benefit of the public like the reduction of the roaming fees.

The  fact that the European Parliament is neither a powerful institution nor a totally indispensable one leaves it wide open to any sort of temptation – not only of the journalists, who don’t seem to be able to decide between praising its democratic value and cursing its legal pettiness, but also of the various candidates.

Some stress its importance, an enhanced one at that, on the basis of the Lissabon Treaty. Others stress its lack of power in the more important spheres of European politics.  All of this makes for a crises of legitimacy.

This is both cause and consequence:  In all campaigns running up to the election, national candidates emphasize issues intended to benefit their respective political groups at home.

Austria again is a prime example: To a mindboggling degree, the  final stages of the campaign are  dominated by issues of the Freedom Party and Heinz Christian Strache. All the other parties, all political consultants and pollsters and most of the media fall into the trap – yet again – and at their own peril, can’t resist the temptation to discuss these instead of the European project.

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    the vienna review June 2009