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.
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

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs