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The rise of voter complacency in the European Union

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Examples abound of the hazards of voter complacency, but try telling that to Europe’s citizens.

The past few years have been an object lesson in the importance of voting. Brexit, Donald Trump, Catalan independence in Spain and the rise of right-wing populism all attest to that. But recent events have also shown how valuable the ideas behind the European Union are, for all the institution’s well-documented flaws: it’s all about peace, multilateralism, co-operation and getting on with the neighbours.

Which is why it’s also strange that, despite the campaign posters on the streets and various projects aimed at persuading locals to vote, the European Union’s parliamentary elections, to be held on May 26, still feel so remote.

There have been a few attention-getting scandals – one involved Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which used an 1866 artwork, Slave Market, by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, on a poster. The painting depicts three oriental-looking men selling a white female. Choose us, a hysterical AfD exhorted voters, and you won’t have to sell your womenfolk. The US museum that owns the original painting was not impressed and sent a letter telling the AfD to cut it out.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

But on the whole, many of us – even those who like to imagine we know what’s going on – don’t seem to know as much about the European elections as we should.

Voter participation rates remain low, and have been dropping continuously since the late 1970s. In 2014, only about 43% of Europeans turned out to vote. And that is despite generally steady, and even growing, support for the European Union.

For example, the Young Europe 2019 survey, commissioned by Germany’s Tui Foundation, concluded that although 61-79% of the more than 8000 young Europeans polled strongly support their country’s membership of the EU, only 20% of them feel that members of the European Parliament represent them well. And only half of those 16- to 26-year-olds believed the European elections were important.

Most good citizens wouldn’t recognise the leading candidates in Brussels if their diplomatic cavalcade ran over them, one local journalist quipped. In fact, the good citizens probably wouldn’t recognise the parties, either: European United Left/Nordic Green Left, anyone? And what does Manfred Weber – conservative German politician and likely next head of the European Commission – look like, anyway? Yeah, me neither. Only the British seem really involved, but that is probably because this vote is seen by many as a test of Brexit sentiments.

This month, outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was making dad jokes about how, after all these years together, the thrill is gone. “We don’t love one another,” he said. “We have lost our collective libido.”

Brussels is doing Brussels and everyone else is too busy to pay attention. Opaque bureaucratic minutiae are not a big turn-on. Yet, at the same time, we also know how much we mean to each other (and that we should have finished reading the EU instruction manual by now).

Shades of this relationship breakdown are repeated at every level, and among everyone involved. EU members know how important the union is, but when it comes time to talk about common defence – do we want a European army? – or common financial oversight, it’s so complicated that nobody can agree on how to make that happen, or if it should happen at all.

The same goes for the relationship between the average voter and the 751 mostly faceless EU parliamentarians.

We know how much you mean to us, we even like some of the things you do and say – but seriously, we have no idea what you look like.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.