Democratic Deficit

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.


Will austerity trump apathy at EU Parliamentary Elections?


All EU member states will hold elections between 22 and 25 May 2014 to choose 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). This will be the eighth Europe-wide election to the EP (European Parliament). The EP is the only EU institution to be directly elected.

The electorate in EU member countries never displayed much enthusiasm about the EP. Voters think voting is futile because decision-making generally resides in the European Council, which comprises heads of state and governing ministers from member nations. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first election in 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004. In Britain, the turnout was just 34.3%, down from 38% in 2004. Turnout is not yet as low as that of the US Midterm elections which usually falls below 40%. The participation of young people voting for MEPs is particularly discouraging. In 2009, 50% of those over 55 voted, while only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds bothered to vote. Low voter turnout weakens the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

Distrust about the treaties and conventions that hold together modern Europe appear at an all-time high. The percentage of Greeks approving the EU leadership decreased from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013, while in Spain, the approval plummeted from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.

In Ireland, polls indicate that Sinn Féin, once the political voice of the IRA, as the TNA was the voice of the LTTE, will easily elect three MEPs. The political gains to the Irish mainstream parties and the ruling coalition arising from positive economic indicators now mean nothing. UKIP’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) support rose from about four percent in 2012 to about eleven percent in 2013 – despite having no members in the British parliament. Proportional representation in the EP favours UK fringe parties that do not do well under the first-past-the-post Westminster system. At the last EP elections in 2009, UKIP came second behind David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Radical right-wing populist parties do well in EP elections because of differences in the degree to which voters vote strategically and dissimilarities in the issues that are at stake. Diverging levels of turnout allow populist parties disproportionate representation. For example, the Dutch PVV, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration party, obtained 5.9% of the seats in the 2006 and 15.5% in the 2010 national elections, as opposed to 17.0% in the 2009 elections for the EP.


Exit polls suggest that PRRPs (Populist Radical Right Parties), a group of parties with fascist tendencies, could win around 67 seats, close to 10%, up from the 37 they now control. The Economist estimated in January 2014 that anti-EU populists could win between 16% and 25% of seats. Cross-border alliances may strengthen their bargaining power. Dutch right-wingers are discussing an alliance with their right wing French counterparts.

Not everyone believes that fascist parties will take over the EU. Some assert that concern about populism is exaggerated. In Conflicted Politicians: the populist radical right in the European Parliament, Counterpoint, a research and advisory group that uses social science methods to examine social, political and cultural dynamics, investigated how the PRRPs currently operate in the EP.

The report concluded that PRRP MEPs face a fundamental conflict. On the one hand, their ideology commits them to being fiercely critical of the EU – in some cases they want out altogether. At the same time, they benefit from the EU – obtaining money, representation, legitimacy and contacts – and are part of one of its core institutions.


Some PRRP MEPs react by rebelling against the institution and regularly voting against the majority on the issues that matter to them, such as immigration. PRRPs do not find it easy to maintain alliances and their weakness is rooted in ideological heterogeneity, a fear of stigmatisation, and conflicting nationalisms. The populist radical right has little impact on policy and substantive issues in the EP. When compared to other political groups, its MEPs participate less, write fewer reports and opinions, and are less successful at pushing through amendments and winning votes. They rarely hold the balance of power and so have little ‘blackmail power’ to offer the other political groups votes in exchange for advancing their policy interests. The PRRP focuses its role on gaining publicity rather than participating in policy-making activities.

Why do EP elections matter? These elections are taking place during a period of profound political and economic crisis, and will shape EU politics for the next five years. The results will determine the answers to such questions as: How can the eurozone be made robust? Should austerity policies be maintained or abandoned? The power of banks operating on a global scale is beyond the control of individual states. So far, only the conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized European elections. The ability of citizens to combat the EU’s democratic deficit from below is key to changing the representational structure for the better.

Even if the EP is reformed, it will not be a parliament as we know it. In democracies, the legislature normally initiates and amends laws, whereas in the EU, faceless technocrats devise directives behind closed doors. Axel Weber, chairman of UBS, told an audience at Davos that the coming elections could undermine recent progress by governments and the ECB (European Central Bank) by allowing extreme anti-European parties to gain influence in the parliament. What Weber calls “progress” is that banks are not lending to businesses. Bank lending has been falling for years now. Most of the €1 trillion that the ECB lent to the banks at the height of the crisis, ostensibly to stimulate national economies, has been repaid to the ECB. There is a liquidity trap because European banks have been paying money back to the ECB while starving companies and people of credit – in Ireland, Italy, France, Spain and Greece.

Even a higher voter turnout will not put right the lack of democracy in the EU. Technocrats, not the elected parliament will continue to make the important decisions. Voters know this and do not bother to vote. This allows right wing parties that have no chance of representation in their home parliaments to win seats in the European parliament. They may not be able to affect EU policy but they do get a platform and the oxygen of publicity. Even those, like Axel Weber, who warn of the dangers of right wing parties getting into the EP, are really saying that they do not want elected representatives interfering with the plans of the technocrats (who favour bankers like Weber).

Herr Weber would probably also object if voters elected non-right parties who did something practical to restrain the banks.


He is probably not really in favour of democracy.