Friday, April 09, 2004
Disengagement and Withdrawal

Over the long term, national electorates in the European Union have disengaged from the political process and withdrawn their support for the European Parliament. The evidence cited for this is the declining turnouts for elections to the European Parliament.

But as the role of the EU grows its appeal is in steep decline - and seems to be accelerating. Turnout fell by 4.5 per cent in the first decade of elections and then 9.1 per cent in the second. Into the third decade participation may drop 16 per cent sounding alarm bells in European capitals.

This unwillingness to vote will probably be reproduced in the Accession countries where a turnout of 26% of the electorate is expected.

Politicians promoting the two radical developments for the EU in 2004: enlargement and the Constitution, are alarmed by the continous decline in democratic support for European institutions. This shortfall in public acceptance was noted and debated from the 90s onwards (possibly even earlier) when reformers argued that the "democratic deficit" needed to be addressed and greater efforts placed in communicating the advantages of Europe to the public.

It is possible to identify three areas where the EU is losing public support: the inability of national electorates to influence or change policy at a European level; the lack of accountability and transparency within European institutions; and the acceleration of European integration at a time of relative economic decline. The political elites have attempted to address these problems. The drafting of the European Constitution commenced with the goal of injecting greater accountability within European structures to the national parliaments. This would initiate a virtuous circle of participation and understanding. The Council of Ministers also hoped to demonstarte that economic problems could be solved at a European level through the Lisbon objective of a hypercompetitive economy by 2010. All of these public projects have visibly failed or have been suborned by the long-term trends of bureaucratisation and centralisation, embodied by civil servants and politicians.

The inability of the European Union to meet these organisational goals strengthens the arguments of critics who state that it is incapable of radical reform. Whilst the EU has undergone radical changes in the last thirty years, these have been based upon institutions that have proved enduring, unaccountable, and ideologically biased towards the expansion of their own power at the expense of elected bodies. This institutional and ideological combination is a simplistic overview of the complex of Brussels and does not even attempt to capture the role of special interests, politicians or the factional fighting on "whither Europe". All that one can say with any certainty is that their consensus favours more centralisation of power at a European level, and argument stems from divisions over who should wield it: governments acting in consensus or the civil servants.

Within this framework, politicians hope to address the declining support of their own electorates for the European project. They may wish to prevent disengagement but their fear is that apathy may be converted into opposition. However, since the EU is structured so that national electorates are unable to demonstrably change policy or personnel at a European level, this seems unlikely to succeed. The latest attempt is risible:

Irish Europe minister Dick Roche fears bad headlines and declining support could challenge the EU?s existence.....

Roche outlined a "basic" five point plan to reinvigorate a jaded EU citizenry.

?The introduction of plain language initiatives/anti-jargon measures; the simplification and improvement of forms; the establishment of a form audit agency; the simplification of legal texts; the development of a [EU]-wide code of administrative practice.?

Their answer is to tinker with the bureaucracy.

History is replete with examples of reform programmes that were swept away because their promoters took too long to achueve their goals and were overtaken by events. The EU is suffering from the same lack of radical vision that afficts the politicians in Britain, France, Germany and Italy where welfare reform and economic liberalisation have proved too daunting to be undertaken by the parliamentary and presidential pygmies that have been elected. The renewal of Europe that they ardently support remains a glint in Bush's eye.

(00.22, 9th March 2004)


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