Abstention is a challenge to democracy on par with extremism, both at European and National level
The phenomenon of abstention has been growing in the EU over recent decades to the point where it has become the expression of the majority in several elections. Not to be confused with a “blank” vote representing an elector’s protest against the inadequacy of the political choice offered, abstaining is, to the contrary, an expression of disinterest in “public affairs” whose prevalence is challenging the core of democracy, cornerstone of the Treaty among its 27 Members. By its consubstantial nature to the very existence of the Union, this matter should be at the heart of the debates of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
What are the reasons for this long-term trend, interrupted on occasion due to specific circumstances? One should distinguish between causes at European and National levels.
On the one hand, increasing abstention in successive European elections is attributable to the elitism that has presided over the EU’s construction; this hallmark goes back as far as the initial concept elaborated by the Founding Fathers and further encouraged and sustained continuously by the Heads of State and Government; in so doing they were able to preserve the prerogatives of the European Council and thereby perpetuate their hold on the basic powers that are the incarnation of their respective “national sovereignty”. Furthermore, the Commission and its leading civil servants found it a convenient way to appropriate and exercise – sometimes by default – a number of significant powers. This whole machinery - often summarized under the disdainful caption “Brussels” – refers to a nebulous, opaque, and power-hungry nucleus, increasingly lacking in democratic legitimacy.
On the other hand, successive enlargements and the progressive transfers of competences to the EU, have clearly demonstrated that a Union between 27 democracies does not deliver a democratic Union. The complexity of its institutional architecture and the limitations of the European Parliament’s powers in particular (not to mention latent conflicts of interest or loyalties of MEPs between allegiances to their European or National masters, the unanimous consent needed in the Council on certain matters, a fragmented electoral code breaking the equality between citizens of different MS, or the process of selecting the Commission President or its Members, etc.) have progressively eroded the interest of electors who feel less and less concerned by who represents them or the influence they may have by casting their ballot.
Turning to the situation in the Member States, there is a growing feeling of the worthlessness of the vote: it stems from the perception that electoral programs are regarded as a set-piece exercise, largely independent of the policies implemented by governments. These programs are all too often perverted by pre-electoral deals, based on sordid partisan calculations (like the “arrangements” in the French South East PACA Region ahead of the election at the end of the month) or by post-electoral coalitions instigated by the lure of an allocation of posts which supposedly justify compromises completely ignoring the views of the elector.
A second motive of the citizen’s disenchantment with politics is that national politicians constantly use the EU as the perfect scapegoat, blaming the European rules to justify their incapacity of implementing their promises or to hide their own deficiencies as was only too evident in the handling of Covid. This Eurosceptic narrative, often in flagrant contradiction with an otherwise pro-EU posture, is not – or in any case not enough – opposed either by governments or democratic opposition parties. Ruling administrations are timorous and allow a feeling of normality to set in with regard to the exceptional measures restricting citizen’s freedoms taken in respect of the terrorist threat, of growing violence, or the pandemic, all of which is music to the ears of extremist parties.
It has become crucial to consider, both at European and National level, that abstention has become one of the main threats to the survival of democracy; its dramatic extension reinforces automatically the weight of the extremists, both on the left but, in the present environment, mainly on the right, whose accession to power in one of the MS (particularly in a Eurozone Member), would seriously jeopardize the survival of the EU.
The conflict between “national sovereignty” and “shared sovereignty” at European level needs to be settled once and for all by the confirmation of the pre-eminence of the Treaty, of European Directives and Regulations over National Constitutions, laws and regulations as they may be amended over time. To reflect on a simplification of the institutional framework of the EU as well as improving the transparency of its governance must also contribute to reconcile the elector with the Authorities at all levels and persuade him that he has a vital stake in acting rather than to suffer the consequences of his indifference.
The aftermath of the pandemic will provide an opportunity to verify if the progress enabled by the EU’s actions, in particular the Recovery Plan and the indispensable support provided by the ECB, will turn out to be a springboard to make the EU more competitive in a fast-changing world or whether ideology will limit the outlook for recovery and growth. Trying to find an acceptable compromise based on the old rules will prove nigh impossible as the economic divergence between MS is increasing. A return to financial rectitude, as recommended by Wolfgang Schaüble, must lead to a halfway path which is only achievable at the Union level. The EU must assume a far greater responsibility in financing shared policies including defence, foreign affairs, immigration, the environment, etc., by increasing significantly its “own resources” and mobilizing its under-used borrowing capacity; this would, in turn, restore the MS’s own financing capabilities in exchange of accepting strict budgetary rules as the price to pay for benefitting from the advantages of sharing the Single Currency which is widely endorsed by the population.
Such a choice should not be discussed behind closed doors by self-proclaimed elites but be the subject of a broad public debate where the alternatives together with their consequences would be clearly spelled out. The result could be subject to an EU-wide referendum which could provide a golden opportunity to eliminate the scourge of abstention!
Brussels, June 4th 2021
Paul N. Goldschmidt
Director, European Commission (ret.); Member of the Advisory Council of “Stand Up for Europe”.