The unbearable lightness of European politics

Will EU pre-election media campaigns and TV debates capture the European voter’s declining interest?

Alexis Tsipras is the European Left's candidate for president of the European Commission [AFP]

As European Parliament elections approach, European citizens seem to feel largely indifferent about them, although for the very first time they have a say in the election of the president of the European Commission. These elections are considered the most crucial in decades due to the rise of euro skepticism and the make or break moment that many fear the EU has reached. Voter turnout has fallen from 62 percent in 1979 to 43 percent in 2009 and according to predictions, it might drop to an even lower level this year.

In the last five years, the most ambitious project the world has seen after World War II, the European Union, has gone through an essential transformation that has a lot to do with the financial crisis. From a technocratic regulatory body aiming to harmonise national laws and promote cooperation among sovereign states on the basis of human rights and fundamental treaties, the EU has turned into a decisive transnational entity imposing top-down political decisions and ripping off the welfare state.

Particularly in the South where the Troika has imposed heavy austerity measures in countries like Greece or Portugal, this was not a welcome development. Not only do Europeans not have a say in strategic choices like the liberalisation of local economies, but the creation of the European Stability Mechanism and the fiscal compact force member states to maintain balanced budgets, impose harsh social policies and eventually suffer the loss of national sovereignty for a period of time. In the European North citizens also feel disenfranchised by the rhetoric that claims they have to lose social benefits in order to save others from bankruptcy.

The pre-election media noise, along with the recent TV debates for the European Commission (EC) presidency have not offered much hope to the European voter. In fact, they have only demonstrated how flawed the whole process is.

No arguments for Europe

The EC president is appointed after a consensus is reached between all 28 EU governments, which have to take into account the elected parliament’s proposal in their deliberations. This slow bureaucratic process is indeed prone to back room deals as Sigmar Gabriel, the head of German Social democrats and Vice-chancellor of the German government complained recently. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the appointment of the next EC president could take weeks, hinting that it could be even someone outside the five candidates. There may be political reservations behind this aloofness.

Empire – The Debate – A German Europe? The Union disunited

According to all predictions, neither the Social-democrats (PES) nor the conservatives (EPP) will have a clear majority to elect their candidate of choice. Martin Schulz (the PES candidate) and Juncker will need to turn to the Liberals (ALDE), the Greens and the European Left and negotiate their support.

But the Greens and the Left are running on anti-austerity platforms and are in favour of social and welfare policies. Would Angela Merkel and the European council be willing to work with a parliamentary majority that opposes the core of their austerity policy? What is more likely is a wide alliance between EPP and PES, which would probably damage the effort for a more equitable Europe.

In this fluid environment, candidates are trying to excite citizens with debates on TV, but is there any point in watching them as anything more than TV spectacles, if the issue of a genuine political representation remains unsolved? European TV stations downplayed the first two debates of four of the candidates, confining them to low viewership channels and many do not even plan to host the final debate in the European parliament on May 15 in prime time slots because audiences so far have not seemed interested.

Main candidates, Jean Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz seem to agree on most issues, although they’re trying hard to look as if they don’t. The Liberals’ Guy Verhofstadt promotes the idea of a United States of Europe (based on the US model), which seems to be unpopular among voters, whereas the Greens who are running with Ska Keller and Jose Bove offer principles but few practical solutions. Alexis Tsipras, the candidate of the European Left is urging voters to return to the founding principles of the European Union and he could provide a lively discussion with the rest of the candidates but he is yet to appear in a debate.

Furthermore, Juncker, Verhofstadt and Schulz are not newcomers in this game but rather active discussants and participants in Europe’s austerity architecture. In principle, they may be in favour of fixing the European project, but when it comes to delivering actual policies, it is questionable how much they want or can do.

Bad programming

The debate seems to be “the best” European TV can offer: A bad copy of US programming, where candidates compete in their ability to speak English in thirty seconds, instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion on the EUs future. It went unnoticed that the European observatory for plurilingualism, a civil group aiming to defend the European lingual diversity, strongly complained about Euronews’ choice to use English as the language of the debates and not provide live interpretation. The Europeans have strong ethnic and lingual identities and diversity is protected in the treaties. In fact, EU’s own moto is: “United in diversity”.

Inside Story – Europe’s lost generation

Electoral campaigns tried to artificially create social media to reach and engage EU voters. All five candidates have social media strategies, hashtags and dedicated teams to do the job and the European parliament is running its own campaign to involve online audiences in a dialogue for the future of Europe. However, none of these efforts succeeded in creating a spontaneous and open space for debate of the EU’s future by its citizens in a satisfactory manner so far. This is not surprising; we well know such spaces of debate evolve online with time and cannot be switched on and off.

At the same time, important voices that could start a real debate against the widespread agreement of the rest of the candidates and inspire interest among voters have not been given access to the first two debates. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greek opposition SYRIZA, is the candidate of choice for the European Left and was denied the right to participate so far because he wanted to speak in his own language, Greek.

The reason why his presence in the debate is important is that he is not a Euroskeptic and he promotes the idea of a New Deal for Europe in order to combat unemployment, tackle imbalances between EU member states and foster growth. According to polls the European Left is scoring fourth behind the Liberals of ALDE and before the Greens and it could even get to the third place. Tsipras will hopefully have a chance to challenge the status quo supported by the other candidates in the final debate on May 15, when the participants will be able to speak in their own languages.

On May 26, a new European parliament will reflect the feelings of Europeans towards the common project. Either the current political establishment will hold its place and will continue down the path of austerity, or the growing discontent among Europeans will break out in one of two forms: the pro-European, anti-austerity left or the euroskeptic right, which can reawakened the ghost of fascism. Whichever way the vote sways, one thing is certain: The post-modern soft, technocratic power vested in human rights, economic prosperity and ethics, which intellectuals imagined back in the 1990s and 2000s, no longer exists.

Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens.