Strasbourg (F), 10 June 2009.
Following yet another record low turnout at the European elections, Assembly of European Regions’ (AER) president Michèle Sabban (Île-de-France) offers a regional take on the two questions that everyone is asking and that MEPs themselves have not been able to answer.
Why did only 43% of eligible voters bother to turn up at the elections, and how can we increase voter “buy-in” before the next elections?
Michèle Sabban: It is most unfortunate and ironic – but far from unexpected – that the European elections were driven predominately by the national affairs of member states, rather than by the burning issues that need to be addressed at EU level. I say ironic because up to three-quarters of national legislation originates in Brussels and Strasbourg, a fact that was largely ignored by European institutions, member states and voters alike. In the five-year period leading up to the next elections, we need to make it very clear to European voters that their MEPs are a gateway to influencing most of the decisions that directly affect their daily lives.
Part of the problem, of course, has been that the European Parliament and institutions have not properly communicated this fact to voters. Clearly, Europe’s regions are much better placed than European or state institutions in communicating European issues to citizens. Regional politicians are more trusted, accountable and generally closer to citizens than their counterparts at higher levels. But for regional authorities and regional media to communicate Europe to citizens they need to be afforded a bigger role in European decision-making. Until the regions are fully heard on issues such as climate change and the economic downturn, expecting them to go the extra mile in convincing citizens to vote will always remain a tall order.
Despite a commendable EP campaign that attempted to clarify the major issues for voters, it was too little (the budget was relatively small) and too late (the campaign was launched just weeks before the election). For the next elections, such a campaign should amount to the final leg of a clear, extensive, long-term information campaign that is decentralised not only to state but also to regional level. That is the only way our voters will begin to treat the European elections with the seriousness they deserve.
Finally, we have to make it easier for citizens to cast their votes at the next election, since the current system would turn off from voting even the most engaged European. In some countries, for example, EU nationals living in another EU country had to register to vote in December 2008, a full 6 months before the elections. Moreover, the division of electoral lists in some countries are so bizarre that voters cannot possibly be expected to form a connection with their “local” MEPs. A sensible alternative would be to link voter lists to regional boundaries, thereby establishing a stronger connection between citizens and MEPs from their own regions.
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