Friday, 10 September 2004

No EUphoria


The recent EU parliamentary election demonstrates that Europe’s political elite is leading the continent in an unpopular direction. Although European voters increasingly associate the EU with bureaucratic overreach, political conformity, and economic centralization, an unaccountable governing elite remains indifferent to its citizens’ legitimate concerns.

The recent election across 25 countries produced a record low voter turnout. Only 45.5 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. In countries such as Poland and Slovakia, less than one in five eligible voters trooped to the polls. Overall, the center-right parties secured 37 percent, a plurality of the seats in the EU parliament, while the socialist parties garnered only 27 percent of the seats.

The center-right’s victory does not mean that Brussels will pay more attention to making the EU more open and competitive and less attention to regulating the lives of ordinary citizens. That’s because elections make little difference in how Europe is governed.

All of the major parties are fully paid-up members of the European “visionary” elite. The differences between the major parties of the left and right are of degree, not of kind. They all agree that the path of growing centralization is the correct one. They disagree only over the speed with which centralization takes place.

Some analysts suggest that the European electorate is apathetic because it does not understand or appreciate the growing importance of Brussels. Again, that cannot be true. Every day, millions of Europeans grapple with the reality of being governed from Brussels and they don’t enjoy the experience one bit.

Angered by the EU’s growing interference in their lives, many voters made the most of the indifferent partisan menu presented to them in last week’s elections by voting for parties least sympathetic to the EU’s self-proclaimed mandate for closer political and economic integration. Revealingly, smaller parties explicitly skeptical of further European integration, made the largest gains, as did those parties that campaigned in outright opposition to their respective countries continued EU membership.

Collectively, the so-called “Euroskeptic” parties secured 17.5 percent of all European parliamentary seats. In Britain, the anti-EU UK Independence Party received nearly one in five British votes and ran only a few percentage points behind Prime Minister Tony Blair’s governing Labour Party. In the Czech Republic, the Euroskeptic Civic Democratic Party won 30 percent of the vote, while the pro-EU Socialists polled less than 9 percent.

New arrivals to the European political scene include Netherlands’s newest political party, “Transparent Europe.” The party is led by a former EU official, Paul van Buitenen. In 1998, Buitenen blew the whistle on widespread corruption in the EU Commission. Hans-Peter Martin, a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP), who exposed corrupt practices among his MEPs, won as an independent candidate in Austria.

Both victories are expressive of the electorate’s yearning for more accountable government. They also indicate the extent to which Brussels has become identified with widespread corruption.

Will these latest election results awaken Europe’s political class to the obvious dangers in leading their citizens further down a political and economic path for which there is no popular mandate? Unlikely. A far more likely outcome is that this election reaffirms the political class’ longstanding conviction that the EU project is too important to be left to the people.

European voters are only consulted about constitutional and economic matters when all other political options have been exhausted. European elites know that the average voter is instinctively apprehensive about the further transfer of sovereignty from domestic politicians to those expensively sequestered in Brussels.

Consequently, the voters cannot be afforded sufficient political power to compromise, let alone derail, the EU political train as it speeds further away from its free trade roots en route to a centralized, bureaucratic nirvana devoid of democratic legitimacy.

By Patrick Basham and Marian Tupy

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government and Marian Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute (http://www.cato.org).

This article first appeared on http://www.TechCentralStati…