From its customs union to the Schegen Agreement, the European Union has been becoming increasingly important government institution. Within its elected arm, the European Parliament, it was finally starting to come into its own a force for transparency and representative democracy within this system. So why is the electorate turning away from this powerful institution? While the European Union is expanding its competencies, it appears to Europeans to be ineffective at the one issue that is most affecting their lives: unemployment.Embed from Getty Images
It is hard imagine that the problem is a lack of knowledge about the power of the European Union. In developing countries, European Union Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund are transforming the countries. From airports to highways to train lines, the will of the European Union is clear and there are plenty of signs to advertise this (Urban Land Magazine http://urbanland.uli.org/economy-markets-trends/european-union-infrastructure-funding-goes-to-newest…). In more developed states, the effects have been more legal but no less obvious to the casual observers. Take the European Court of Justice’s decision that Europeans have the “right to be forgotten” online. It is now calling on the European Commission to design proposals to be sent to the European Parliament that will fundamentally benefit individuals’ privacy (“Protection of Personal Data”, European Commision http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data-protection/index_en.htm). Though mundane to some, the European Union’s protection of regional artisanal products such as parmesan has protected millions of European farmer’s livelihoods against the onslaught of foreign copycat competitors. Finally, nearly everyone is aware of the immense power of the European Central Bank which in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund (led by a Frenchwoman, I might add) to ameliorate several debt crises.
Despite all this, less than half of the electorate votes because most do not see a direct tangible benefit for them. In 1979, nearly 62% of Europeans voted. Then slowly but unrelentingly this number has decreased. By the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, it was down to 43% (“Results of the 2014 European elections”, European Parliament http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html). This is no doubt for complex but seeing benefits of the European Union is a large part of this. During the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, Europe was caught up in the Cold War. As the origins of the Union were protective, it made sense for people to feel a need to vote in order to keep themselves safe. In addition, the liberations of Greece and Spain, no doubt led to exuberant voting among people who had not been given the opportunity for a free election in years.
More recently, however, the low turnout has been a legacy of increasing unemployment. To quote a widely-known saying by American political consultant James Carville, “its the economy, stupid!” According to the most recent European Barometer, for 20% of Europeans unemployment is there biggest concern. The one concern noted by even more Europeans, rising prices, is not unrelated either (EB 80, pg 19 http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb80/eb80_publ_en.pdf). Yet, outside of special interests such as farmers (subsidies and protections from competition) and bankers (debt bailouts), there is a perception that the European Union is not doing enough to help get people employed. How can there not be given youth unemployment stands near 25% (EPRS http://epthinktank.eu/2014/02/26/youth-unemployment-in-europe/). Anecdotally, my young friends who are European have really had a struggle to find meaningful employment. All my friends from Spain now work elsewhere, and those who are French have only found jobs back in France after working abroad. These folks are not counted in the unemployment statistics obviously, but they do indicate that the problem is even deeper. Now let’s bring it full circle: youths who faced the highest unemployment had the lowest voter turnout. In the 2009 election, just 29% of youths voted. Their were a couple reasons for this apathy according to the European Barometer. Sixty-four percent felt their vote would not change anything. In addition, 56% felt the European Parliament did not sufficiently deal enough with their problems (IDEA http://idebate.org/news-articles/uk-youth-vote-european-elections-comparison-south-asia). And while I think youths are the most affected by unemployment, its effects on families and older unemployed workers is also affecting turnout
To solve low voter turnout, the European Union must do a better job both in image and substance in fighting unemployment. First, the European Union needs better public relations. How can youths consider that the European Union is on their side, if the European Central Bank has continued push austerity in poorer, southern countries? The European Parliament needs to do a better job differentiating its self from these ‘evil’ institutions. Secondly, its needs to more publicly fight against them. Image is everything, and the unemployed never see their MPs standing up against economic policies that directly hurt youths. Finally, the Parliament must get more involved in the negotiation of T-TIP. Right now, these negotiations with the US are being largely completed by the British Prime Minister, the European Council President, and the European Commission (T-TIP http://www.ustr.gov/ttip). This agreement has a great potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for youth, but this will only happen with greater transparency. This is a natural opportunity of the European Parliament to step in and ask the tough questions to ensure the T-TIP promotes jobs and not tax-breaks and other subsidies for corporations and already wealthy employees.