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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 17:32 GMT
The EU's democratic challenge
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News Online

When a reality TV show attracts more votes than an election, democracy is in trouble.

Here are the figures: in the UK, 11 million votes were cast in the 1999 European election, while 23 million were cast in the third series of Big Brother in 2002.

One British eurosceptic wrote, with an acid pen, that the ungrateful people had voted for "the wrong Big Brother".

The UK's 24% turnout in 1999 was the lowest in the EU, though the 30% recorded in Finland and the Netherlands was not much better.

Across the EU turnout has fallen from 63% in the first European election, in 1979, to 49.5% in 1999.

To add insult to injury, this has happened despite a steady increase in the parliament's powers - if it could once have been dismissed as an irrelevant talking shop, this is no longer so.

MEPs now have the opportunity to amend or reject the vast majority of EU legislation.

They can force the European Commission to resign - as they did, in fact, just before the 1999 election - they can vet commissioners before the appointment, and have considerable control over the EU budget.

Turnout across Europe [in 1999]was higher than in the last US presidential election, and I don't hear people questioning the legitimacy of the presidency of the United States
Pat Cox, President of the European parliament
Liberal MEP Chris Davies, who represents the North-West of England, says he has far more influence as a member of the European parliament than he did as an opposition MP in the House of Commons.

"Here I started to have an impact on day one," he says in his office on the 10th floor of the enormous glass parliament complex in Brussels. "And there has not been a month since when words I tabled did not end up in legislation."

Unelected commission

But the paradox of parliament's increasing power on the one hand and falling turnout on the other causes much hand-wringing in Brussels.

The "democratic challenge" is one of the reasons why the EU is producing a new constitution, designed to make the union easier to understand, more open and more efficient. It hopes this will help it connect with citizens.

Click below for details of turnout trends in the EU and US

At the same time, the parliament's supporters point out that representative democracy is weak or getting weaker in many countries.

"Overall turnout in the last European election was brought down by the rotten performance in some states, most especially the UK," says the parliament's president, Pat Cox.

"But even then the turnout across Europe was higher than in the last US presidential election, and I don't hear people questioning the legitimacy of the presidency of the United States."

However, the European Union is in a particular fix, because of the presence at its heart of the unelected European Commission - part government, part civil service.

The EU relies heavily on the European parliament to provide democratic legitimacy. The fact that relatively few votes are cast for the US congress - especially in mid-term elections - matters less, because the president is elected by the people.

European parties

Congressional and European elections are alike in another way. In both cases, voters get a chance to alter the parliament but not the government - which for most people is the main incentive to cast a vote.

It is not clear, however, that even the chance to boot out the commission would excite European voters that much at present - and anyway the idea would be too federalist for some member states.

I do not believe in the existence of a European people - people are still national in their outlook
Jens-Peter Bonde, MEP
The new draft EU constitution does introduce some linkage between the European election and the make-up of the commission, by proposing that the Council of Ministers should "take into account" the election result when nominating a candidate for the commission presidency.

Some parties are already considering naming their preferred candidates for the post in the run-up to the next parliamentary election in June - though the new constitution will not come into force until much later.

But how enthusiastic would German or British voters be about voting for a French commission president, or vice versa?

Veteran Danish eurosceptic MEP Jens-Peter Bonde is... well, sceptical.

"I do not believe in the existence of a European people," he says.

"People are still national in their outlook. A British citizen would not vote for a foreigner. I cannot see European democracy working."

Euro-enthusiasts, however, are keen to give it a try.

The EU agreed this year to provide funding from next June for any European political party with an appropriate manifesto and members in a certain number of EU states.

The hope is that they will one day become strong enough to fight elections, select candidates and run campaigns independently of their sister parties at national level, which currently call all the shots.

Yellow card

Indeed, the political blocs in the European parliament are currently not parties at all, but simply alliances of national parties (which sometimes bring together unexpected bedfellows).

Biggest blocs
European People's Party: Christian Democrats (euro-enthusiasts), and Conservatives (euro-sceptics)
European Socialist Party: Centre-left Socialists, Social Democrats and New Labour
European Liberal Democrat & Reform Party
Greens / European Free Alliance: Greens and regionalist parties from Scotland, Flanders and Spain
European United Left / Nordic Green Left: Mostly Communists and former Communists
Union for Europe of the Nations: French Gaullists, Ireland's Fianna Fail, Italy's National Alliance (post-fascist), Portugal's Partido Popular et al
For this reason, another strategy to breathe life into European politics seeks to strengthen the ties between the European and national political systems.

One idea, included in the draft constitution, is to give national parliaments a "yellow card" to hold up if they think a given piece of new EU legislation would be better handled at national or regional level.

If one-third of all parliaments held up their card, the European Commission would be obliged to review its proposals (though not necessarily to withdraw them).

This measure may prompt some national parliaments to scrutinise EU legislation more closely; it could also prompt them to play greater attention to what is happening in other national parliaments.

And crucially it could help the European Parliament tap into the oxygen of media attention which surrounds national parliaments but has never filtered through to Strasbourg.

Mid-term tests

Pat Cox's strategy for boosting turnout next June is also to build bridges with national politics - by meeting the managers of the national parties' European election campaigns, and urging them to make it more than a mid-term test for the governments of the day.

He says the timing of the EU's enlargement, on 1 May, and the completion of the new constitution in the next few months provide a big opportunity for the vote to be, at least partly, about Europe.

"My appeal is, 'Let's make it Europe's first European election,'" he says.

In some countries the election may actually coincide with a referendum on new constitution, which should be good for turnout.

In the UK, there is a good chance that turnout will be higher than last time - because the vote will be held on the same day as local elections (which achieved an average turnout of 36% in the 1990s).

Reality TV may still come out on top - but if it's any consolation, Big Brother now also appears to be in decline.

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