What if Europe Held an Election and No One Cared?


Last June’s European Parliament (EP) election was widely recognized to be a failure. Turnout was low across Europe and, as has been the case in each and every EP election since they were introduced in 1979, voters responded exclusively to domestic cues in deciding how to fill the European Union’s only directly-elected body. Campaigns were waged entirely on domestic issues outside of the purview of the EP and the popularity of domestic Prime Ministers, who were not on the ballot, was the most important factor in determining the results. The EP is supposed to provide a popular check on the other legislative bodies in the European Union (EU), which are either appointed or controlled directly by Member State governments, and hence reduce the EU’s “democratic deficit.” Instead, the failure of EP elections to generate popular feedback on EU policy allows the deficit to fester and undermines the EU’s separation of powers.

This paper argues that the problem of EP elections is much like problems in a variety of American state and local elections. Election laws ensure that national parties are on the ballot, and both legal limitations and strategic considerations make it difficult for major parties to develop separate localized identities, or in the case of EP elections, Europeanized ones. Rationally ignorant voters who know little about the individual figures in these bodies rely on the party heuristic that is available on the ballot, as it is the only relevant information they have, and do so even though it is unclear how closely preferences on European or local policies track preferences about national issues. The result is that national party preference ends up being reflected in these elections, despite the fact that winners will decide policies at another level of government. Put another way, there is a “mismatch” between the institutional role the EP is asked to play in the EU’s separation of powers – the voice of European citizens about European Union policies -- and the level of party competition at which EP elections are contested.

Mismatch problems are endemic in federal systems and are generated by the interaction of constitutional theory about how democratic institutions should function and the actual practices of voters. However, mismatch problems can be solved or at least mitigated with election law tools. Following a procedure used in a variety of developing countries, the EU could pass a law that the EP will only seat members from those parties that both won seats from a given EU country and received a certain percentage of the vote in a quarter of EU Member States. This would force the coalitions formed in the EP – the so-called “Euro-parties” – onto EP ballots, as parties would need to contest elections across Europe. Voters thus would have access to a European, rather than national, heuristic on the EP ballot, which would better allow them to use these elections to express preferences about EU policy.