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Bridge the distance

Individual elections don’t always enhance democracy, but there are also magnificent examples of elections that strengthen both the stability and institutions of a community, writes Chris Patten.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2009 23:27 IST

Individual elections don’t always enhance democracy, but there are also magnificent examples of elections that strengthen both the stability and institutions of a community. We have just witnessed an example of this in India, the world’s largest and greatest democracy, where 420 million voters returned a Congress-led government with a solid majority. The result should help India to continue — not without occasional turbulence — its journey toward becoming a high-growth economy that raises the standard and quality of life for the poor.

I wish we could look forward to a similarly healthy democratic experience in Europe when voters elect the new European Parliament. Since 1979, these MEPs have been elected directly rather than indirectly from national parliaments. But turnout has been falling in several countries. There is a danger that the number voting in June will be lower than ever before.
In the currently grim economic conditions across Europe, voters who do turn out are likely to punish the major parties and vote for fringe and even extremist politicians. There are particular circumstances that may encourage this electoral response.

First, everywhere there is a sense of disgust at the way the recent boom seemed to privatise gains while the subsequent bust socialised losses. A few rich individuals appeared to gain and all taxpayers to lose. This has spread a sense of unfairness. Second, globalisation has been the target for populist criticism. It is usually defined to mean everything we dislike — from changes to our traditional way of life to loss of jobs. It is a brave politician who points out how much liberalising trade and opening up markets have increased our overall prosperity.

Third, in Britain at least, the entire political class has been discredited by a sleazy scandal about expenses. But there’s another reason for the lack of interest in the EU elections. The European Parliament has power, but it deals with issues that do not top voters’ list of concerns.

The EU’s member states retain power over the most sensitive political issues, including taxes, health, education, pensions, the labour market, and foreign policy. So the questions that dominate national campaigns have little impact on European elections. The European Parliament deals with the important areas where individual countries have pooled their sovereignty, like trade, the creation of a pan-European market, and the biggest environmental issues. But these are not often the questions that trigger the most passionate interest.

In addition, the European Parliament’s detachment from national political debates means that it has less political legitimacy than is desirable. Indeed, those who worry about the creation of a European superstate can rest easy. There will be no such entity, because there is no European electorate; the electorate remains French, Belgian, Latvian, Greek, and so on. They all vote at the same time, for the same institution. But what does an Italian know — or care, for that matter — about British politics?

Look at our television programmes. We know far more about Europe’s football than we do about Europe’s politics. That is no criticism of those who work very hard in the European Parliament. We have created a political body that has power to hold European institutions to account but has no obvious European electorate to which it can itself be held accountable. A parliament without a people inevitably increases the sense of frustration that many European voters feel about the process of making Europe-wide policy choices in their name.

If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified later this year, one of the changes should result in national parliaments becoming more involved in European decision-making. But we need to look country-by-country at what else we can do to tie Europe’s own parliament into national politics.

Unless we do that better, fewer people will vote for MEPs, more of them will be elected simply on a protest vote and represent Europe’s murky extremes, and the whole practice and principle of European democracy will be discredited.

Chris Patten is a Member of the British House of Lords (Project Syndicate)