They Who Dare (or: the Big Guns go to Brussels)

They Who Dare (or: the Big Guns go to Brussels)

Polls predict a meagre turnout today at the ballot. The European Parliament simply isn’t sexy. Not just for voters, also for politicians. A survey shows that our neighbours are sending in their top guns. We should follow their example.

Rumour has it that today is election day. In the next few days some four hundred million European voters may cast their vote in, what is supposedly, the world’s largest transnational election feast.

Yet here is the snag. Most of us cannot be bothered. At least not in the Netherlands where the polls predict a turnout of only 30-36%. The European Parliament apparently lacks sex appeal. Few voters take it seriously. But what about political parties? Even if ‘Europe’ is only half as powerful as both its supporters and its fiercest critics claim it to be, would it not be worth investing some political capital in its parliament? After all, sexy or not, it still commands impressive powers. One would expect at least a few top dogs to be nominated: former ministers, important MPs. People like that.

Well, no. Not in the Netherlands anyway. This is one of the preliminary findings of a survey we recently carried out in close collaboration with the Montesquieu Institute. We compared the election lists of the major parties of 11 Member States (The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Spain and Portugal). We looked at the resumes of the top 4 of every list and added a score for each political office held. A former mayor of the city of Vienna, for example, got 100 points. A former prime minister got 700 points, a local councillor in a small town only 10. We then did the same for those elected to the European Parliament in 2004 and 2009.

The result is astonishing. It turns out that the Dutch consistently send the ‘least important’ people to Brussels. Whether in 2004, 2009 or in the current elections, none of the serious candidates has a background as a cabinet minister. None of them was a mayor of a major city. The Belgians, by contrast, have a tradition of sending their former prime ministers to the European Parliament. Their lists include as many as eight former cabinet members. The same goes for the French. The German lists are more modest, but they too have their big shots. The Christian Democrats are headed by David McAllister, a former PM of Lower Saxony and only last year mentioned as a possible successor of Angela Merkel. Even Denmark, not exactly famous for its pro-European attitude, is sending two former ministers.

Now what does this tell us?

First of all that the political elite in countries such as Spain and Belgium is far more prepared to invest than we are. That may not be problematic if things are going great, but it certainly is in times of crisis. Still, are former ministers any better at ‘getting things done’ in Brussels? Maybe not. But then again, why would other countries nominate them? And why oh why do they usually occupy the top of any list in the general elections? And are they not, generally speaking, the ones that should be able to sell a hard policy? Something ‘Europe’ is desperately in need of these days? Neither the legitimacy of the Parliament itself, nor the practical interests of the Member States have anything to gain by sending a team of quasi reserves to Brussels. As David Cameron reminded us, only last week:

‘when you vote, you’re sending people to the European Parliament who will legislate on the regulation faced by British business and the bills paid by British taxpayers’. (…) When you think of voting, think of the competence of people that you’re going to send to Brussels or Strasbourg.

It is a lesson, not only for the voters, but for the parties themselves as well.

See the EP Score Chart


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