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There is growing concern about the steady decline in the number of people voting in EU elections. And it raises a fundamental question: just how can the Europe of the future be built without the participation of its citizens?
Getting people to exercise their right to vote, and strengthen political legitimacy, is a challenge for authorities everywhere. At the last EU elections in 2009 just 43 percent of eligible voters turned out. Three decades earlier the figure was just under 62 percent.
Hoping to do better in the next European polls in 2014 is Slovakia, an EU member since 2004. It scored the worst turnout at the last two ballots for the European Parliament, with less than one in five casting a vote. Belgium and Luxembourg scored best with more than 90 percent turnout, but they both have compulsory voting.
In Bratislava Euronews met a typical family that has never voted in European elections. Viera Psotova has her own cosmetics business. Her daughter Sylvia Tothova, whose baby girl Emily is six-months old, works in the information technology sector.
“I didn’t go to vote in the European Parliamentary elections in the past because I had very little information about it in the first place,” said Viera. “And I viewed it as distant from my problems. I was concerned with myself and Slovakia, and Europe was still very distant to me.”
Sylvia told Right On: “I don’t think people know what Members of the European Parliament actually do, and whether they can help us here at a local level.”
On why she has not yet voted in EU elections, she said: “I was too young before and had other interests. Young people are interested in other things. I wasn’t into politics at all back then. But the situation is different now; when you’re older you see things from a different perspective. So we’ll see.”
Some people say they are tired of so many rounds of various elections, and it is hard enough to keep up with complicated national politics. Others say they are happy not to vote after years of being forced to cast a ballot prior to independence in 1993.
Those charged with boosting Slovakia’s turnout stress that it did go up three per cent between the last two European ballots, but admit more effort is needed.
Robert Hajsel, the head of the European Parliament Information Office in Slovakia, told Euronews: “Still, it’s a very low turnout. But we are already closer to other member states. But it’s not a consolation for us. This is still a challenge.”
“We have to work on how to really increase the interest in the European Parliament, in the European elections, how to really create a platform for dialogue between our MEPs and different target groups like stakeholders, multipliers and also the broad public.”
But raising interest is no easy task. For its part the European Commission has issued a formal recommendation. It says national political parties should make it clear in campaigning which European parties they are affiliated with.
And to boost the political tempo and intrigue, parties are being told to nominate a candidate for European Commission President and make that known to voters ahead of election day.The European Parliament elects the president based on a proposal by EU leaders, who are supposed to take into account the election results.
Euronews reporter Seamus Kearney explained: “Another recommendation to spark more interest is to make the elections one single event. The commission wants to move away from the tradition of spreading the voting out over a four-day period. Member states are being urged to agree on one single date”.
But achieving a deal on that looks likely to be difficult.
Some observers say the recommendation is a step in the right direction but is still not enough, arguing the Commission has to be more dependent on the Parliament and election results. Political parties also have to communicate better.
Radovan Geist from the EurActiv website in Slovakia, which analyses EU policy, told Right On: “Basically what they have to tell citizens is that they can change something: if they vote for this or that party to the European Parliament they can change something in the direction of the EU. Because citizens don’t vote just because they like the institution, or they know a lot about it … or enough (about it). They vote if they feel they can change something, if they can change the political course.”
Most parties are yet to reveal their strategies for the next EU elections, but already there are calls for more information that is accessible and easy to digest.
Sylvia Tothova suggested: “Perhaps if well-known personalities were more involved in the presentation of the elections, people would become more familiar with the issues and might be prompted to go and vote.”
Her mother, Viera, added: “We should know what’s happening in Europe, who represents us there, and those people should provide us with information about what is going on there.”
Debate continues about other possible solutions including mandatory voting, or the idea of holding EU elections on the same day as local polls. Everyone seems to agree that something has to be done to stop the trend where so few are deciding for so many.