The EU Apathy Fallacy

Jean Quatremer revisits the numbers to make the case that the level of abstentionism in Sunday’s EU Parliament elections does not necessarily reflect voter apathy, let alone hostility, towards the European project. Case in point, Poland, where the EU is popular, only saw a 25 percent turnout rate, reflecting the fact that Eastern Europe has low turnouts in general, even for national elections. Quatremer’s analysis of the national abstention rates makes a convincing argument for a more nuanced view than simply “low voter turnout = apathy toward Europe.”

In a previous post, Quatremer argues that two obstacles complicated voter engagement with the EU Parliament campaign this year, one topical and one systemic. The topical obstacle was that the choice of the president of the EU Commission, which is supposed to be a function of the EU Parliament’s make-up, was already decided before this year’s voting. So there was no executive consequence presented to voters to create any urgency to participate.

The systemic obstacle is that the nature of the EU, as a non-federal union of sovereign states, makes a pragmatic — that is, case by case — coalition system in the EU Parliament almost a necessity. Given the differences in political culture across the continent — the appelations “left” and “right” vary dramatically from country to country — that raises the politics of it all to a level of complexity that resists simple party affiliation. Outside of a party like the Greens, which has a clear transnational agenda, how a national party votes in the EU Parliament is hard to predict.

Quatremer concludes that universal suffrage of the EU Parliament might have come too early. The current parliamentary system is poorly adapted for the Union as it now stands, but would work well within a federal United States of Europe-type system. Interestingly enough, the only political figure to float that proposal in France was Ségolène Royal, and it got essentially no media play.

Besides Royal’s bold proposal, the broader “European” question was expressed in the by-now familiar “projets fédérateurs,” or the use of isolated consensual projects to build European solidarity (Dominique de Villepin, in Le Monde), as well as the “Global Actor vs. Great Switzerland” choice (Hubert Védrine, also in Le Monde). Both speak to the need for the creation of a European identity as the key to further European construction. The idea being that since enlargement outstripped the EU’sinstitutional capacity — i.e., top down — to integrate such a large and varied political landscape into a unified whole, the creation of a European identity — i.e., bottom up — must be used to jumpstart the process.

In effect, the EU is caught in an intermediate evolutionary stage, both in terms of its institutions and its identity. Villepin notably emphasized, in addition to federating projects, the need for a common defense and foreign policy, obviously a pillar of the “Global Actor” side of the identity debate. But the winning formula, at least in these elections, was a Europe that protects, not a Europe that projects.

I mentioned yesterday that I found it significant that that message came from the center-right. I then saw this Matthew Yglesias post, which argues that the European center-right has a record on social welfare that is arguably to the left of the U.S. center-left, making “right-left” conclusions drawn from Sunday’s voting misleading. It’s a caveat I made as well, but I think Yglesias underestimates the importance of perception. French President Nicolas Sarkozy might be to the left of center on the U.S. political spectrum. Similarly, to American eyes, his reform program might seem like a progressive advance. But here, it’s considered an attack on social democracy, and the first steps in a shift towards “l’hyperlibéralisme anglo-saxon” (Anglo-Saxon hyperliberalism). So while Yglesias’ point is well taken, it’s also the case that the shifted spectrum is already integrated into European voters’ political vision. A vote for the center-right is still a vote for the center-right, even if it’s not quite the same center-right as in the States.

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