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The EU is many things, but sexy isn’t one of them. Obsessed with procedure, reports, and committees, the bloc has always been a bogeyman for governments both inside and outside it, a symbol of constitutional overreach and Kafkaesque bureaucracy meant to frustrate earnest national politicians trying to help their citizens.
There’s something to those claims. The EU’s setup is unlike that of any other government. The compromises its designers made to balance power between European capitals and Brussels have led to a mishmash of the traditional legislative and executive branches, with power divided unevenly between the European Commission (which proposes legislation), the European Parliament (which amends and approves it), and the Council of the EU (which does the same). The Council of the EU is not to be confused with the European Council, made up of all the heads of state or government of EU member countries, or the Council of Europe, a human rights organization unaffiliated with the EU.
That institutional mess is partly why the upcoming elections for a new European Parliament have prompted so much skepticism among voters. Few EU citizens have any clue what Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) actually do, so most don’t bother voting. Turnout was not high in the first European Parliament elections, in 1979, and it has only fallen since. In the last elections, in 2014, just 43 percent of EU citizens voted, with turnout rates across eastern Europe averaging below 30 percent. Parties are happy to nominate anonymous functionaries who take orders from their respective capitals. In the 2014 election, only one out of ten British voters could name their MEP.
Yet the elections, which will take place May 23–26, matter more than most voters realize or most politicians acknowledge. They are the second-largest democratic exercise in the world, surpassed only by India’s general election. The European Parliament helps write the laws that govern more than 500 million people. And the EU is one of the few governments powerful enough to affect major global forces, such as digital technology, globalization, and climate change. Voters should pay attention.
Over the last five decades of European integration, national capitals have handed significant powers over to Brussels—from international trade and border security to aviation safety regulation and energy efficiency labeling on vacuum cleaners. The European Parliament has a crucial say over such issues. Take vehicle standards. Last year, the European Parliament’s environmental committee faced down Germany, the EU’s most powerful country, and its hefty automobile lobby to push car and truck manufacturers to cut vehicle emissions further than the commission had initially proposed. The parliament has also set rules on how much rest and driving time truck drivers ought to have in countries other than their own and wrested power from big agriculture to allow individual farmers to band together to set prices for produce.
MEPs have taken on opponents outside the EU as well. In March, the European Parliament finalized the EU’s landmark law that compels technology companies to remove content that infringes on copyright. Its international trade committee prompted the EU to bring more transparency to its rules on protections for investors in free trade deals. And last year, parliament set a global precedent by negotiating the General Data Protection Regulation, which limits the ways in which companies can collect data and what they can do with it. In short, the European Parliament does what it is supposed to: it makes important decisions that affect the lives of EU citizens.
What’s more, as the only directly elected institution in the EU, the parliament brings much-needed legitimacy, accountability, and transparency to the EU’s otherwise opaque procedures. Parliamentary committees regularly summon EU trade negotiators, regulators, and cabinet members (known as commissioners) to answer public questions about their activities—questions that EU officials are likely to evade when journalists pose them. Last year, the parliament censured Hungary when other EU leaders didn’t dare criticize it.
Because they operate at a distance from their electorates, MEPs can often take a broader view than that available to national governments, which mostly defend narrower interests. For example, MEPs are currently fighting tooth and nail to preserve the EU’s large budgets for scientific research, education, and infrastructure, even as national capitals are reluctant to wire more money to Brussels.
Although the election matters, EU politicians often act as if it doesn’t, which makes for difficulty convincing voters that it does. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, an avowed pro-European, unveiled his election program just three weeks before the vote. (Contrast that with the flurry of U.S. Democratic candidates announcing their bids a full year and a half before the U.S. presidential election.) The center-right European People’s Party, likely to be the biggest political group in the new Parliament, has put forward Manfred Weber, a German politician with no executive experience, as its candidate for president of the commission, the powerful executive authority who can propose EU-wide legislation and represent the bloc at international meetings. Even in Germany, only a quarter of people have heard of Weber. National politicians’ lack of interest and oversight has led to multiple graft scandals: MEPs have handed out jobs as favors and used EU money to pay for personal campaigns. Several moonlight as lobbyists.
MEPs also have a bad habit of not showing up to work. When only a handful of representatives—out of a total of 750—showed up to listen to a speech by the Maltese prime minister unveiling Malta’s legislative program for his country’s adoption of the EU’s rotating presidency, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the parliament “ridiculous.” Arch Brexiteer Nigel Farage, perhaps the parliament’s most well-known member, also has one of its poorest voting rates, having been present for only 40 percent of roll-call votes. MEPs often travel to Strasbourg to say they have showed up, participate in the roll call, and get on the next flight out. (The parliament can dock an MEP’s salary if his or attendance falls below 50 percent.)
Although the election matters, EU politicians often act as if it doesn’t, which makes for difficulty convincing voters that it does.
The European Parliament struggles to engage voters because many don’t believe that their votes change anything. They have a point. For example, even if the EPP wins the most seats in the election, Weber’s campaign for the presidency of the Commission might well be for naught, because EU rules say that the 28 heads of government can pick whomever they like for the position. Some political groups, including the EPP, are trying to make the EU more democratic. They want it to adopt a rule—known as the Spitzenkandidaten system (again, no points for branding)—under which the lead candidate of the party that won the most votes would become European Commission president. But Macron has been a vocal opponent of this idea, as have members of the centrist party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. It remains to be seen if the Spitzenkandidaten supporters will get their way.
National politicians hurt the European parliament in other ways, too. EU officials frequently complain that national capitals take credit for the good Brussels does while blaming it for their own failures. The EU’s national governments have also failed to decide how much power they want the EU to have. Take tax policy, where the EU’s rules require unanimity among national governments. (Other policy areas use what is known as qualified majority voting.) France and Germany support an EU-wide tax on technology companies, which they believe shop for the best rates, generally by moving to Ireland or Luxembourg—both of which have unsurprisingly blocked the initiative. In another example of governments’ self-defeating approach to the EU, the Netherlands proposed an EU-wide aviation tax but when asked if it favored changing the system to qualified majority voting, it said no, virtually guaranteeing that its own proposal won’t pass. The more powerful the EU is, the weaker national capitals become. But a weak EU means its members can’t make collective decisions. The continent would not have been able to become the economic giant it is today, eliminate roaming charges on data, impose billions of euros in fines on technology giants, or sign a free trade agreement with Japan if countries had not given Brussels the authority to do so.
These EU elections, like others before them, have real stakes, but politicians across Europe have made little effort to convince voters of the parliament’s importance. Many candidates are poor and turnout is likely to be low. And so the perception will reinforce the reality: without more to fuel them, the elections are unlikely to lead to a more empowered or more legitimate parliament. That is a shame, as a weak parliament will only hurt the citizens who elected it.