EU elections – a vision of a future or a fall of a myth?

Distant, cold, inaccessible – the European Union – (yet another) accumulation of anonymous bureaucrats who oppress people with their absurd requirements. After all, who cares if the cucumber has a bump or not and should the carrots look stubby, when it is far more important to keep the fresh cottage cheese, “rakija” (brandy) and traditional backyard pig slaughter intact. The fact is, however, that nobody seems to bother to ask the citizens, not only about this, but about other things as well, except when the time of the elections come, the time when roles are played which were set well in advance. What kind of an image could we then expect to have of the European Union and the approaching elections …

But, is this all necessarily true and what became of the European dream and the wish for nurturing democracy? Was this a case of a bad screenplay or is the Europe yet another myth? 

For the first time, after the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, 500 million of EU citizens will elect their representatives to the European Parliament to serve a five-year mandate and elect indirectly the next president of the European Commission as well. The president will be elected among the European Parliament members based on a proposal by the European Council, and taking into account the European elections – although it is not clear what will happen if they do not abide by the citizens’ vote. Such an approach can hardly initiate a significant voter turnout. And the turnover is one of the key objectives of these elections, if we take into account the studies which show that half of the citizens understand the functioning of the EU poorly, and as much as 60 percent of them think that their vote makes no difference whatsoever.

It is pretty much obvious why the turnover is continuously on the fall from one elections to the other; and yet, many think that the elections to be held by end of May, especially if we take into the account the economic crisis, will present a kind of a test of the public support to the EU institutions and reveal the choice between integration and euroscepticism. We recall of the previous European elections held in 2009, when the turnover reached its all time lowest 43 percent. This varied from member state to member state – true enough in Luxemburg it exceeded 90 percent, and sank down to 18 percent in Slovakia. The Croatian voters made their contribution to the general apathy by a 21 percent turnover at the Croatian EU-elections in April of last year. Such “traditionally week turnover” calls into question the legitimacy of the elected members, and boosts the EU democratic deficit additionally. For quite some time now, the EU has been in a crisis and as a response to it both the left and the right populisms are on the rise, each of them pointing to their own “others” or “minorities” – for the left options those are corporations and neoliberal business elites, and for the right ones those are immigrants, ethnical and religious minorities.

Remedial classes –  the democracy without citizens is not a democracy

” The democracy with no citizens participating in the decision making process is not a true democracy and today’s crisis of representative democracy originates from the fact that citizens do not participate enough. Elections have traditionally been a channel for citizen participation, once in every four or five years they get out and give their vote, regardless of the fact if they are informed well or not, which undermines  the very foundation of their decision making. And in order for them to continue to be active even during the mandate of the elected government it is crucial that they are informed of their rights. In that sense, the level of their political culture and awareness plays an important role. The system should, also, provide channels for the citizens to express themselves, share opinions and give recommendations, all of which should later be considered seriously; if they never get considered, then the citizen participation is futile and meaningless”, Dragan Zelić warns, the executive director of GONG – an organisation of the civil society established almost 20 years ago with the very purpose to encourage citizens to participate more actively in the political processes.

But, do the citizens know that in a few months time elections will be held for members of the European Parliament and this year for the entire territory of the European Union, do they know what and where can they hear something about the real European topics? – this is almost a rhetorical question. Although, making generalisations is not advisable and they easily succumb to manipulation, the “street talk”, that will be mentioned later again, reveals that a considerable number of citizens knows nothing about the elections and is not even at least interested.

At the same time, neither the political elites nor the media, which show little interest, instigate change of such an attitude, with some honourable exceptions, and here we are, nobody knows for which time around in a situation when the one and the only most important thing becomes the question: who will become a candidate and which position on the electoral list will they assume? Accompanied, of course with an abundance of quarrels about national topics, the usual skeletons taken out of the dusty closets of history, the topics we never learned our lessons from, but never miss to take out to be used as silver cutlery for the ceremonial serving of the ancient historical leftovers, which leaves no space for inspiration or a vision of a future placed in a far broader context. The European parliament, however, no matter how distant it may seem and despite of all its imperfections which should not be underestimated, however, leads discussions that are based on completely different political platforms, and has three important tasks – the legislative function, the supervisory function over the European Commission and the adoption of the EU budget.

However,  during the last year’s “Croatian EU-elections” we missed the opportunity to make the citizens lead actors  instead of extras in the political decision-making on the Croatian EU membership  , the civil society warned, led by GONG and gathered in the Platform 112, because they were watching  yet another rerun: “The very process of the EU accession went practically “citizenless”, it was the job of the political elites, citizens were merely informed of the phase we were currently in and they mainly just waited  for the results, and for the answer if there will be a referendum or not and if yes when. And then indeed, the political elites came out like a thunder from a clear blue sky offering the referendum on a silver platter . The Citizens had insufficient information on the EU, and somehow, using their gut feelings, they decided whether they stand for or against the EU membership”, Zelić reminded.

How to push the pendulum of democracy back towards the citizens?

The latest study on the attitudes of Croatian citizens towards the EU membership, carried out by Ipsos puls for the EC Delegation, showed that general attitudes towards the Union and the Croatian membership remained stable, so since the referendum till today, the pessimism towards the European future grew continuously. The lead researcher, Dragan Bagić said that this results from the issues that have been existing for years and were never systematically solved. “This scepticism about the economic future of the EU is transferred to the expectations for Croatia. It was evident that the most negative expectations citizens had of the economic standard.”

Last year the study was conducted out in April,  using the same methodology as in past eight years, on 1004 subjects aged 15 and above. Out of them 46 percent responded positively to the question regarding their general feeling towards the EU. One fourth had ambivalent emotions, and 29 percent responded negatively.  However, citizens were quite divided when it cames to their perspective of the relationship between the EU and the Republic of Croatia (RC), 29 percent thought that the Union treated Croatia fairly and asked only for the necessary requirements to be fulfilled, while 26 percent entirely disagreed. In addition, it has been emphasized that the need remains for informing the citizens on the EU, in other words, the results of the self-assessment on the awareness level of  the information about the EU showed that 16 percent thought they were well informed, whilst 40 percent thought they were not sufficiently informed about the EU. However, as much as 70 percent of them never attempted to acquire some EU related information by themselves.

“Of course, we can always ask why the citizens do not acquire information on the EU, because this is a dimension of active citizens who do not expect from the state to provide them with everything, but make an effort instead. However, I think that the severe economic crisis contributed to this, the citizens face numerous existential problems on daily basis, combined with the loss of trust in the politics this led a certain number of citizens into passivity. I do not know, however, when the critical level will be reached, when will they rebel and walk the streets in protest, but by then this will already be a sign of the system breakdown or at least the crisis of the system. But, as far as the EU is considered, I think this is not the problem for Croatian citizens only, but is the part of a general perception about the EU as a highly bureaucratized structure, set up in an elitist manner  slowly drifting away from its citizens. The EU should be made of the citizens of the EU,  and now it is perceived almost exclusively as some kind of a mastodon institution”, Zelić finds.

It is interesting, however, that the results of the study carried out by the Ipsos puls showed that, no matter how distant the EU institutions may seem, as much as 37 percent of Croatian citizens trust them more than the Croatian institutions. However, on the other hand, as much as many of them, and this also is not a trait of Croatian citizens only,  perceive Europe as a place for better living, the crisis revealed the back side of the European dream. The “disunion” in diversity is becoming an increasingly sore point, and given the recent events related to the freedom of movement and varying equality and solidarity among states and peoples, many tend to say that in the Union we have almost established a caste system with citizens of the first, second, third and fourth order.

“The fact is that we have a general problem with lack of tolerance and if you are a foreigner, at some places more than the others, you will be perceived differently. There are, of course, the old and the new member states and most probably “the new eu-citizens” from the perspective of the old member states have not yet managed to fit in, the approach is to be blamed here, because it calls into question the basic principles of the EU – equality of the citizens, equality of states according to the Treaty of Lisbon and this is the matter of constructing the European identity”, Zelić emphasises. This Fall a polemic developed between the founders of the “Europeans Now” movement who were sending the message: “We must stop doubting Europe and start behaving as European citizens” and horrified eurosceptics who thought that “Europe must not become a laboratory of another social experiment of the tireless revolutionaries.”

Therefore, because of all stated above, a question arises – instead of having the elections, whispered about as being completely uninteresting for everybody, why not use them as the first step in the democratisation of the democracy – a response to this question and possible solutions should by all means be found through public consultations. Otherwise the elections will remain completely strapped from content and serve as a platform for measuring power of political parties and candidates, and even this not being interpreted in the context of the current elections, but as an overture to the following national parliamentary elections and we will continue to change only the politicians, and not policies.

This text is one in the series “EU elections- the first step in decreasing the democratic deficit in the EU”, that, as its title states, deals with ways how the elections for the members of the European parliament (EP) can contribute to the decrease of the democratic deficit in the European Union by closing the gap between the alienated citizens and  “the bureaucratized EU monster”. The project of a series of journalist papers, originally published at the non-profit portal www. gong.hr, was supported by the Ministry of Culture.

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