“As long as the EU is nothing more than the sum of its parts, I see no chance for substantial change.”
An interview about the 2019 European Elections
BridgeEurope sat down with Ralph Sina and Holger Beckmann of the ARD Broadcasting Centre in Brussels in the week preceding the 2019 European Elections to talk about the elections and the challenges ahead for the next European Parliament and the European Union as a whole.
Ralph Sina is a renowned German journalist who served as a correspondent in Nairobi and Washington D.C. and is currently the Brussels Bureau Chief for the ARD, one of two major public-service news outlets in Germany. Holger Beckmann has a background in economics and currently reports alongside Ralph Sina on the European Union and politics in Brussels.
BridgeEurope: This weekend citizens of still 28 Member States are asked to go to the polls for the ninth time to decide on the formation of the European Parliament. Nonetheless, not all Europeans seem to be interested in making their voices heard. While 62% of all eligible European voters took part in the first-ever European election in 1979, only 43% voted in the 2014 European elections with turnout among young people between 18 and 24 even well below 30%. How do you explain the current lack of concern and the demobilisation of voters in European elections?
Ralph Sina: When it comes to elections, the EU is all the way down at the bottom of the list of voters’ priorities. Voters very obviously care more about municipal, regional and national elections. In 1979, there was still a sense of excitement around Brussels and the EU, but since the Parliament back then didn’t have the extensive oversight and legislative competences that it has today, people started feeling as though their vote didn’t matter. Politicians played their role in this, too. By giving credit for EU legislation to states and governments and often failing to acknowledge the role of the Parliament, they contributed to playing down its significance in policy-making. If anything, the parliament was repeatedly blamed for petty, undesired regulations. Media outlets perhaps also did too little to demonstrate the Parliament’s impact on the everyday life of EU citizens. Another problem is the number of charismatic MEPs that could represent the Parliament to the public. Given that someone like Elmar Brok is leaving the Parliament, we will need to look a lot harder in the future to get interesting statements for our coverage.
Holger Beckmann: I think the low turnout is due to the absence of pan-European lists and the fact that EP elections are often perceived as early national elections or mere trend-indicating polls. Pan-European lists could change that by showing that these elections are about Europe and not the general national mood at any given moment. The difficulty is to popularize the European candidates across all Member States. We already see this with the Spitzenkandidaten procedure today; Manfred Weber is relatively unknown even in his home country, Germany. Other candidates such as Ska Keller or Margrethe Vestager have an even harder time to build up their profiles. This has to do with the fact that it simply takes extraordinarily long periods of time for a sort of European consciousness to emerge, and we’re not there yet. But on the positive side, we’ve made progress. Perhaps we’re passing a low patch, but particularly among young people the sense that many of the central challenges like climate change require a common European path is gaining ground. An awareness of the EU’s importance is taking hold and I am convinced that this will increase voter turnout in the future – not in great leaps, obviously, but the tendency is certainly visible.
Ralph Sina: It is true that the MEPs are trapped in the “Brussels Bubble” while outside hardly anyone knows them. Bas Eickhout, for instance, the lead candidate of the Greens/EFA is a really notable and outspoken figure in the areas of climate change and green finance; he has been a Member of the European Parliament for 12 years now, visiting fora and panels, but even people interested in the EU still need to search him on Google.
Holger Beckmann: That’s certainly right, Ralph, and the reason for this is that the EP does not revolve around figureheads and personalities but is centred on the actual policy content. There are very knowledgeable and experienced people who are relatively unknown but tremendously important for the work that the Parliament is doing.
Bridge Europe: Focussing more concretely on the low turnout among young people, why is there still this discrepancy between younger and older people when it comes to voter turnout?
Holger Beckmann: On the one hand, young people across Europe have very different educational and socio-economic backgrounds and thus different approaches to the EU. On the other hand, the institutional set-up and subsequent legislation making in the Union is often highly complex, which makes it difficult to inform the public about the essential policy content. Unfortunately, what the strong populist movements show is that many people prefer easy solutions and quick fixes to problems that aren’t easy to come by. This is where media needs to articulate the complexity of the challenges and the Parliament’s work more clearly to foster public engagement.
Ralph Sina: Of course, complexity is an important reason for the low voter turnouts that we’re seeing, but when we look at the link between voters and their representatives, the difficulty already starts with language barriers. The knowledgeable and passionate MEPs are out there; take Bas Eickhout for instance, who speaks Dutch and excellent English but very little German – you can’t simply invite him to a talk show about pressing European issues on German television if he doesn’t speak the national language – it simply doesn’t work.
BridgeEurope: Many people attest the Union a democratic deficit. Despite several attempts to reform the EU, including the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure and gradually extended powers of the EP, the Parliament still lacks the right of legislative initiative and it is not clear whether the next Commission President is one of the Spitzenkandidaten. In fact, rumour has it that no one of the current lead candidates will be acceptable for a majority of parliamentarians; at the same time, people like Michel Barnier after private campaigns seem poised to ascend to the highest office of the European Commission. Can the current lack of confidence in the EU be explained by its institutional arrangements and a lack of democratic legitimacy and if so, how could these issues be tackled?
Ralph Sina: The EU, in general, is simply too complex. I don’t have a conceivable solution, but I think that it is not viable in its current state. The co-decision procedure and the trialogues alone drive you insane. A parliament that has no right to initiate legislation and lacks a traditional government and opposition is an unfamiliar concept for the majority of Europeans. Now, political scientists might say that this describes the ideal state of separation of powers, but people don’t perceive the EU according to scholarly principles; what they see is an incomprehensible construct fraught with complexity. In certain respects, this is madness. I don’t have a panacea that would simplify the system but having a clear opposition would be a good start.
Holger Beckmann: This is exactly the point here, Ralph. The system as you said is certainly not ideal. But as long as the EU is nothing more than the sum of its members and as long as Member States retain their full sovereignty and only gradually give up small parts to the EU, I see no chance for substantial change. Unless Member States concede the parliament as something akin to the right of initiative and introduce pan-European lists, that is unless they are prepared to give up parts of their parliamentary sovereignty, there is always going to be a mere parallel existence of members and no true community. Currently, Member States consider the EU and partly also the Parliament as a forum to promote national interests. The populous countries like Germany and France take the lead in this power game, while the smaller states are looking to build coalitions and to form blocking minorities. Perhaps the current discussion about the unanimity rule in the Council is a beacon of hope that the 28 (or 27 remaining) Member States will choose a different, more united path forward in the future.
BridgeEurope: Apart from complex institutional arrangements and debates about democratic legitimacy there is a third major challenge for the European Union in the coming years. Right-wing Populist parties are set to gain an unprecedented share of the seats in the European Parliament in this year’s election. At the same time, the political right appears to be more organised than ever under Matteo Salvini’s initiative for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). The majority of the parties that already joined are overwhelmingly nationalist and Euro-sceptic. Given that their politicians often challenge the very foundation of a united supranational Europe, in how far do you see a threat to the overall viability and day-to-day functionality of the EU if important positions in the Council, Commission and Parliament Committees are held by these parties.
Ralph Sina: I believe that this is a tremendously important and potentially destructive issue for the European Union. Relativizing the rise and influence of populist right-wing parties across Europe is highly problematic in my eyes. I simply don’t buy the narrative that the political right has passed its zenith and that we overstate their significance. We are already seeing today that one government alone with someone like Matteo Salvini in the crucial position of Interior Minister suffices to block and derail the negotiations for a reform of EU asylum legislation on all levels. The comprehensive reform package is essentially doomed to fail because Salvini refuses to give real competencies to Frontex on Italian soil. It’s not about claiming a right-wing power grab but arguing that there is no substantial shift to right-wing ideology is negligent in my eyes. We must be alarmed by the way in which a man like Nigel Farage used the European Parliament as a stage to enforce an EU-hostile agenda and instigate Brexit here in Brussels. The often-discussed question of whether Populist parties in Europe fare better or worse than in national general elections completely misses the point here. The discussion ought to be about the role Populists play in the European Parliament and the platform that European institutions are providing them.
Holger Beckmann: I absolutely agree. The current governmental crisis in Austria adds an even more problematic dimension to the rise of European right-wing politics. Even after Heinz-Christian Strache’s scandal,we are not seeing the sizeable erosion of the party’s popular support that one might expect. According to recent polls, the FPÖ lost a mere 4% in popular approval ratings. This reveals the ideological home turf andthetrue spirit of right-wing supporters. It is as Ralph said not a sudden takeover but an insidious poison that prevails not only in the European Parliament but increasingly also on the national level. And it seems as though we do not have a viable idea of how to counter this.
BridgeEurope: After 70 years of integration the European Union in certain respects still lacks a sense of ‘togetherness’. A true European public with transnational debates has yet to emerge,overcome national boundaries and reach the entirety of the electorate. A symptom of this is perhaps the prevailing success of nationalists and populists in Europe. Their success is oftentimes attributed to the formidable use of social media during campaigns and a growing global right-wing network. Did traditional media and public-service broadcasters in Europe fail to provide an inclusive space for constructive public debate and inclusive democracy in the European Union?
Ralph Sina: Many editorial boards and media outlets re-think their approaches but the discrepancies between well-known YouTube stars with millions of followers and traditional programs are causing headaches. Euphoria and interest in the EU can only be sparked by concrete projects and initiatives that illustrate the tangible benefit of European cooperation in the lives of all Europeans. For Europe to succeed on a textual level, European flagships must be communicated better by various media outlets. Public service broadcasters are beginning to realise that and establish different formats and communication channels to explore new creative forms. The satirical German TV programme “quer” with Christoph Süß presents an example of how public-service broadcasters can find innovative ways to engage with people and convey meaningful content. These formats are important to create this sort of space for inclusive public debate.
Holger Beckmann: Nonetheless, I am still convinced that content-related arguments will tip the scale. Of course, new and diverse communication channels are important, but in the end powerful content that illustrates the role of the European Union in the daily environment of the people, on good or bad things, will prevail. This takes place on established channels, but it will also find an audience in social media. The strength will be measured by the content and not the channel.
BridgeEurope: Mr. Sina, Mr. Beckman, thank you very much for the Interview
by Moritz Osterhuber and Dominik Rehbaum