News / Europe

As European Elections Loom, Parties Struggle for Attention

Socialist candidate for European Commission president, Martin Schulz, presents his policy proposals for the next five years during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, May 7, 2014.
Socialist candidate for European Commission president, Martin Schulz, presents his policy proposals for the next five years during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, May 7, 2014.
Reuters
In a little over two weeks, in a vast exercise spread over four days and 28 countries, as many as 350 million Europeans will go to the polls to vote in elections to the European Parliament, the EU's only directly elected body.

As celebrations of democracy go, it approaches the United States, Brazil or India for scale, at least in terms of numbers - an opportunity for huge swaths of Europe's population to determine who will shape the continent for years to come.

And yet, despite Europeans having directly elected their own parliament since 1979, there is very little 'buzz' on the streets of Brussels or other EU capitals ahead of the May 22-25 vote. Turnout is expected to fall for the seventh time in a row, dropping to just over 40 percent, pollsters predict.

That is largely a reflection of the greater importance individuals attach to national politics and parliaments, which tend to have a more direct impact on their lives and whose candidates are more immediately recognizable.

The European Union, with its glass and steel institutions clustered in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, feels distant to many European voters.

That sense of detachment has raised questions about the democratic legitimacy of the European project, especially after a prolonged economic crisis when critical decisions were taken behind closed doors by leaders and unelected officials, not by members of parliament - much to parliament's own frustration.

Popular perceptions of a remote, unaccountable EU elite, combined with years of painful economic austerity, are expected to boost support for far-right, anti-EU political parties in many member states such as France, the Netherlands and Hungary.

In an effort to close the perception gap and increase the relevance of this election - the first since parliament won more powers under the 2009 Lisbon treaty - leading political parties have nominated a top candidate to become European Commission president, arguably the most influential job in Brussels.

"For the first time these could be genuine 'European' elections, the outcome of which will shape European politics for at least the next five years," Simon Hix, an EU specialist at the London School of Economics, wrote in an analysis.

Too close to Europe?

The candidates from the top four party groups – the center-right EPP, the center-left Socialists & Democrats, the Liberal ALDE group and the Greens - have faced off in a handful of televised debates, with the final one set for May 15.

Held in English - the second or third language of all the candidates - the debates are a valiant effort to take Europe to the people, but it is a tall order: with 24 official EU languages, it is not easy to generate buzz and draw prime-time viewers in Romania or Spain, let alone eurosceptical Britain.

What is more, the candidates are hardly household names, and rather than representing a new face for Europe after years of stagnant growth and rising unemployment, they are mostly old-school Europeans closely tied to the work of Brussels.

The center-right have chosen Jean-Claude Juncker, 59, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and a long-time believer in a more federal Europe, an idea that has lost traction as voters question the goal of ever-closer integration.

The center-left, who are marginally ahead in most polls, are backing Germany's Martin Schulz, 58, the current president of the European Parliament and an ardent campaigner for more money to be spent helping young people get jobs.

The Liberal candidate is Guy Verhofstadt, 61, a former prime minister of Belgium and one of the European Parliament's most enthusiastic supporters of deeper integration.

The Greens are rallying behind Germany's Ska Keller, 32, the only woman in the race and a specialist on migration.

While Twitter and other social media have helped raise the profile of the election and the candidates this time around - Twitter was not actively used in 2009 - it tends mostly to act as an echo chamber, keeping those who are digitally savvy and actively interested in EU politics plugged in to developments.

The tens of millions of older voters who do not use social media and do not speak English as a second or third language are largely outside the process, at least until the polls open.

Further complicating matters, there is no automatic guarantee that any of the four candidates hoping to become Commission president will get the job, which would give them influence over EU legislation and the direction of Europe.

Ultimately, it is the EU's 28 national leaders who must agree together on a name. The European Parliament will then have to approve their choice by a majority.

The innovation from the Lisbon treaty is that the leaders have to take into account the results of the European elections in making their choice. If the Socialists win the elections, it will be very hard to ignore their candidate for the Commission.

All that will only be decided in the wake of the elections, possibly at a summit of EU leaders to be held on May 27, when they will meet for dinner to discuss the poll results.

In the meantime, the parties will be hoping that more Europeans than in the past actually turn out to vote this month, perhaps giving the elections the legitimacy they crave.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs