Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 11:15 UK

Viewpoint: A truly European vote?

Voter turnout could hit a record low in the June elections to the European Parliament, despite its powerful influence on our daily lives. Professor Simon Hix of the London School of Economics (LSE) suggests ways of making the election more than a mid-term vote on national governments.

At the time of the first European Parliament elections in 1979 there was widespread enthusiasm for this experiment in transnational democracy.

Prof Simon Hix

Sadly these contests have not lived up to their billing. Few people vote and those that do vote are mainly motivated by national rather than European politics.

If you are a UK voter, when you go to the polls on 4 June, will you be thinking about Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, or Alex Salmond? Or will you be thinking about Joseph Daul, Martin Schulz, Graham Watson, or Dani Cohn-Bendit (the party leaders in the European Parliament)? Exactly!

Only 38% voted in the last European elections in the UK, and 46% across the EU.

If European elections are really mid-term national elections - about national rather than European politicians and issues - then turnout in these elections is not too bad. After all, only 35% voted in the English local elections in 2008 and 37% voted in the mid-term US Congressional elections in 2006.

But treating European Parliament elections as national elections is a big problem for the European Parliament.

MEPs' new muscle

The European Parliament is now a very powerful legislative body. The EU passes many laws which affect our daily lives, and most of these laws are amended and passed by the European Parliament.

The European Parliament also influences how our taxes are spent in Brussels, and plays a role in the election of the European Commission - the EU executive.

A big difference between the European Parliament and most national parliaments is that the European Commission and the EU governments cannot railroad their laws through the European chamber. Coalitions have to be built issue-by-issue. As a result, more than 50% of amendments proposed by the European Parliament end up as law. In this respect, the European Parliament is more like the US Congress than the House of Commons.

Voting in Hartlepool in a UK election (file pic)
European issues tend to play second fiddle to national ones

So, European Parliament elections matter. If the centre-right wins we can expect more market liberalisation, fewer environmental regulations, and more restrictive immigration policies, while if the centre-left wins, we can expect stricter environmental standards, more labour market rules and liberal immigration policies.

Most voters in Europe care about these policy choices, yet they are not presented with them in European elections. This is because national parties have an incentive to treat these elections as national contests. For example, the Conservatives will try more to embarrass the Labour government, rather than to win more seats in the European Parliament.

Personalities matter

But things could be different. In some countries individual MEPs rather than national parties do the campaigning in European elections.

Most countries, like Britain, use a form of proportional representation (PR) which only allows citizens to choose between political parties.

However, some countries, such as Finland, Denmark or Ireland, use a form of PR which allows citizens to vote for different candidates from the same party. These "open" systems encourage politicians to campaign on their personal records and encourage parties to put up high-profile candidates. Not surprisingly, many more voters in Finland, Denmark and Ireland know the names of their MEPs and feel more engaged in European elections than voters in Britain.

Above all, though, European elections will remain national contests unless there is a genuine contest for power at the European level.

After the elections in June, the governments and the European Parliament will elect a new EU Commission President. Why don't we see rival candidates for this position before the elections, rather than after them?

The centre-right European People's Party already backs the incumbent, Jose Manuel Barroso. But who will the Labour MEPs (in the Party of European Socialists) vote for when they elect the Commission President in July? Will they vote for the same person as the British Conservatives?

If there were different candidates for the Commission President before the elections we could ask our party leaders who they support for the most important post in EU politics, and why. The media would also have some European personalities to write about in the build-up to the elections, and we could all watch the winner and loser on election night.

Now that would be a genuine European election. Sadly it won't happen this time. But maybe in 2014.

Simon Hix is Professor of European and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of What's Wrong with the European Union and How to Fix It.

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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Steve Rosenberg Berlin voters celebrate at party

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