EP vote: Are the second biggest elections in the world different this time?

Sixty percent of voters surveyed across Europe by Ipsos-Mori still have no idea who Jean-Claude Juncker or Martin Schulz are. So would you you say that the slogan “this time it’s different” really came to voters ears and the idea of the EC president candidates will have an impact on the voters and on how do they perceive the EU? Read few comments.

Frank HägeLecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

I think there are quite some differences between countries in the extent that candidates got media exposure. For example, none of the debates was broadcasted in Ireland. At the same time, a debate just between Schulz and Juncker was specifically organized for German speaking audiences in Germany and Austria (and shown by major public broadcasters in those countries at prime time). So the effect of the EC president candidates on voter information and perception might differ somewhat from country to country. All in all though, it looks like it’s been pretty much a failure. On the one hand, a relative lack of media coverage might be responsible for that, but this lack of interest is at least partly also a result of national party’s reluctance to establish meaningful European-wide party platforms and explicitly campaign on that basis. I have the impression that the candidate idea seems to be driven by party leaders in the EP and the European parties, with campaigner on the ground in the member states just doing business as usual. Again, taking the example of Ireland, I have not seen a single billboard or poster featuring any of the president candidates, while the place is plastered with posters of individual EP candidates. In short, it might have been a good idea in theory, but without the actual implementation of this idea on the ground by national parties and campaigners, it was doomed to fail.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

The Spitzenkandidat idea was always a bold one for the EP, because it depended so much on generating public interest. Despite more media attention than in previous elections, that hasn’t been enough to really make this work, which will make it even harder for the ‘winner’ to convince member state governments to let him become the next Commission president. However, if they are successful then the 2019 elections promise to be very different, as parties see that there is a real consequence to this process.

Diāna Potjomkina, Research Fellow, Latvian Institute of International Affairs

Regarding your question: yes indeed, from what I see in Latvia, the new feature of EP elections being directly related to the selection of the Commission president has not left any fundamental impact on the interest and attitudes of the voters. The national campaign is still heavily dominated by national level issues, and quite often parties do not even have a clear stance on issues relevant for the EU as a whole. This attitude is quite deeply rooted because the EU in Latvia (like, I guess, in quite a few other countries) is often perceived not as a community of values and a good thing as such, but as an instrument for achieving narrower national interests. And the EP elections are often perceived as the “second tier” ones, an opportunity for voters to voice their discontent with the ruling elite, etc. etc.

Pavlos EfthymiouPhD Candidate in Politics and International Studies, St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge

1) We know for a fact that people, historically, did not delve as deep in the European elections and developments – compared to national politics. We also know that people are increasingly distancing themselves from politicians – national and European. They feel tricked, betrayed and disappointed. They have little and ever-diminishing faith in national and European Governance and feel alienated from the EU’s structures. Especially in the light of the crisis and the tough policies advanced in the EU periphery.

This leads us to point 2) A number of people are intentionally disconnected from the EU. Many feel betrayed by the Union’s inability to deliver on key matters and others continue to feel that they have limited power to influence things. Especially given the infamous EU democratic deficit – which seems to have enlarged in the context of the crisis – see for example the numerous stereotypes of a hegemonic Germany, ‘Directoires’ of the most powerful states, ‘diktats’ from Brussels, the dogmas of the techno-bureaucrats in Brussels substituting for national policy and so forth. Simultaneously many people have fallen victims of euro-skepticism as expressed by populists in the press and the political sphere, and hence, they do not care ‘who runs the show in Europe’, they just ‘want out’.

Now: on the question of why although the new means of communication and the social media in particular have allowed greater access to European affairs and developments, we still see low recognition figures for two leading EU officials and Candidates – it is indeed problematic. It is clear to all that if ever the EU needed it’s people active, dynamic, on board – now is the time indeed. Hence the slogan is as timely as ever. One issue here is the lack of debate and discussion nationally on the issue. Media do not cover the topic very extensively, politicians do not really debate on the matter, society is not involved – people do not discuss it among themselves, and generally the EU elections remain a lesser political topic, and the Commission candidates an even less important issue. In short people hardly know their MEPs, the lack of recognition of leading EU candidates should not come as such a great surprise or be overplayed.

And to highlight the antithesis, people know Barroso, the Troika, Draghi, people that seem to influence – ultimately – national conditions and policies (who are systematically reported  in the press, that politicians refer to their statements, and are generally ‘an issue’ in the national sphere).

Carolin Rüger,Institute for Political Science and Social Research – European Research and International Relations, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

The slogan “this time it’s different” is right. Indeed, it is different than five years ago. By nominating the candidate for Commission president the European Council will have to take into account the result of the election. In my opinion, the Heads of State or Government simply cannot get away with choosing one of the “dark horses” like Helle Thorning-Schmidt or Christine Lagarde behind closed doors. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is completely right in saying that this move would be the “biggest misleading of citizens in EU history”.

How do voters perceive this change? There are signs of difference in this year’s preparation for the election which can be witnessed in talks with citizens: People get a sense that their vote counts, that there are real differences between the political camps (for example in asylum policy or in the management of the sovereign debt crisis). Voters discuss real European issues and there is – at least an embryotic – European public sphere. It is not realistic to expect 100 per cent of the voters knowing the presidential candidate, but last time, many voters did not know about the election at all…

Although it is always easy to scapegoat media, one critical comment on that side focusing on Germany media: 30.000 signatures could not convince German television channels ARD and ZDF to broadcast the presidential debate with the five leading candidates on their programmes. The debate last week was exiled to the special interest channel Phoenix. And more scientifically: An analysis by mediatenor gives evidence that from January to May 2014 German media (press and TV) devoted more time and space to the presidential elections in Afghanistan than to European elections. Questions anyone?

Sticking to numbers and statistics it may also be interesting to have a look at the Eurobarometer “Europeans in 2014”: A majority of Europeans is in favour of top candidates for the post of Commission president (page 40).

My conclusion is: Who had expected an American style election campaign with voters waving signs for either Juncker or Schulz and getting electrified by their campaign must be disappointed. But this is not a surprise! All effects of the Lisbon treaty must be seen as an evolution, not a revolution. Thus, it will take time. Let’s wait for the elections in 2019 before deciding the verdict on the idea of top candidates.

Anthony ZitoProfessor of European Public Policy, Co-director of the Jean Monnet Centre, Newcastle University, Newcastle University

To understand the question of what difference the EP elections and the Commission processes can make, you have to unpack things, and ask about the difference to whom.

There is no sign that public interest and trust in the Parliament and the MEPs  will be greater as a result of activities such as the Commission Selection process and debates. The evidence does not suggest a stronger turnout will happen. In terms of the Commission and the overall EU process, there is little evidence to suggest that the debates are having a major impact on voter perception as a whole.

What may change things is that a greater range of Eurosceptic voices may be elected to the European Parliament, which in turn may cause a change in the nature of the debates. Nevertheless, the increased Eurosceptic voice will not be able to form a majority, and the European Parliament does not form a government in any event.

However, the Commission Presidential debates have a potential to make a difference to the EU process and the EP in the long run.  The Parliament and many of the strongest candidates have made it clear that they expect the eventual President to come out of this process of public scrutiny, rather than the old tradition of member state governments haggling over which candidate they could tolerate.  If the EP sticks to its guns it could potentially  ensure that any candidate has to satisfy the Parliament rather than simply be part of a closed door member state compromise. That would certainly give the Parliament more power and perhaps in the long term make the selection process for Commission President more transparent.

Aline Sierp, Lecturer in European Studies, Maastricht University

‘The EU is undemocratic. It is ruled by people who have not been elected and who are not accountable to anyone.’ These arguments have repeatedly been voiced by Eurosceptic parties all over Europe and have lately started to dominate headlines in national newspapers, party manifestos and political speeches again. With the upcoming European elections the question of the EU’s legitimacy and the perceived democratic deficit has regained salience. The slogan ‘this time it’s different’, put forward by the European Institutions last year has done little to counterbalance this. Almost no change has occurred in existing societal attitudes towards Europe ranging from indifference to outright hostility. And this despite the fact that the five candidates competing for the position of Commission President have been touring Europe in the past months, talking to citizens, giving interviews, debating in talk-shows. Interest in and knowledge about the European elections remained low among European voters. Attention only rose whenever a national politician contributed to a small scandal (i.e. when Silvio Berlusconi accused Martin Schulz and the Germans of being Holocaust deniers).

The attempt to bring the Union closer to its citizens, to put faces to names, to get people more involved by making them vote not only on the composition of the next European Parliament but also on the next Commission President seems to have had very little impact. In most countries people do not even know who Martin Schulz, Jean-Claude Juncker or Ska Keller are nor what they stand for. They are not aware of the different roles the European Commission, the Parliament and the Council play and how their vote affects the future composition of the different institutions. Moreover, for a substantial minority it is not about choosing the next Commission President or about the next Parliament. For them it is about voting for or against Europe. This is particularly true in countries with strong Eurosceptic parties. The only party in the UK engaging in the debate is the UK Independence Party. The rest of the country seems to simply ignore the European elections. Few party manifestos, no European banners, little additional information is available for voters who do not follow the anti-European slogans of UKIP.

The situation in the Netherlands looks similar. At the last local elections the far-right PVV came out third nation-wide and is expected to gain an overwhelming majority also in the European elections. And this even in cities like Maastricht, where people live in the Netherlands, work in the Germany and do their shopping in Belgium. Where English is heard as much on the street as is Dutch and where the practical benefits of a united Europe are felt more than in many other places. Maastricht is also the place where the first Presidential Debate took place. It was extremely well attended and subject of debate for several days. However, its impact outside of the immediate radius of the city was very limited with Euronews being the only channel transmitting the debate live.

So what remains from the slogan ‘this time it’s different’? Was the huge effort European politicians put into advertising, explaining, debating in vain? The answer to this question varies from country to country. In some member states the elections are very present (i.e. in Germany), in others less so. The answer also depends on our basis of comparison. If we compare the current situation to the last European election in 2009, the state of affairs certainly looks different this time. If this is due to the fact that the candidates for the EU’s highest office are more visible now or if this is simply connected to the shrill Eurosceptic undertones debates on Europe have taken on since the crisis, is nevertheless debatable. ‘Was it different this time?’ We will know for sure only next week when polling booths have closed and votes have been counted.

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