The European elections are done and dusted. Although some of the implications of last week’s vote will not materialize for some time to come, we can draw one conclusion already: Europeans are increasingly feeling disengaged from the European Union. This is true despite the EU-wide turnout slightly increasing since 2009, due to many of the votes cast having gone this year to anti-European parties such as Front National in France and UKIP in the UK. In other countries, notably Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the sense of disengagement has morphed into low participation instead – 13 and 20% respectively.
In all fairness Slovakia is not a country with passion for voting. In fact, the country’s last regional elections did not attract more than a fifth of the population. Often when faced with going to the polls or spending the day tending one’s flowers in the back yard the majority of people opt for the latter. Clearly, the duty of citizenry towards one’s country has not yet developed.
The fascinating nature of electoral participation (and lack thereof) has given rise to a whole series of theories postulating about voting behavior. Diverse as they are, they mostly share one aspect in common – they assume that voting for one’s national parliament takes precedence over voting for one’s MEP. European elections are not taken seriously in their own right, and they serve as a “barometer” indicating the current political mood in a society which is in-between national electoral contests. Lack of salience of the EU elections drives the electoral turnout down, but another reason for disengagement can be found in the actual political cycle. The closer to the upcoming national election they are held, the higher participation at the European elections there is. And vice versa; European elections that take place right after the national polls tend to attract fewer voters. This finding is also consistent across the old and new member states (for more please see scholars such as Mark Franklin).
Relevant as these explanations may be, I wish to add another dimension into this debate, one which I believe is also important to consider when having a discussion about countries such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic.
Part of the reason why there is almost zero interest in the EU can be, to some extent, traced to the fact that people still have not accepted their share of collective responsibility for our continental matters. Undoubtedly, some of them are still hesitant in claiming the European project as theirs too– partly because they have witnessed it develop without them and partly due to stigmatization of many nationals in countries of Western Europe. In other words, people feel the lack of ownership in the European Union. Slovaks, while remaining a nation with one of the highest levels of support for the membership of the EU, do nevertheless perceive the Union from an outsider’s perspective. Although positive in themselves, Brussels’ decisions are imposed upon them as if the EU capital was an abstract place with no Slovak representation. Thus, we are confronted with a situation where people enjoy the benefits offered by the EU, being generally satisfied with the membership, but not feeling connected enough to also take their share of responsibility for running the show.
Slovakia’s attitude of looking at the EU through a thick glass of passivity is anything but unique in Europe – although as we now know it has the most passive electorate in Europe. I believe that the lack of the aforementioned ownership has a lot to do with the misleading rhetoric containing poor information value. National politicians and the press blame ‘Brussels’ for everything and praise it for nothing – even though the national representatives themselves, both in the Council and Parliament, directly decide about almost all matters that the EU is put in charge of.
Evidently, misinformation allows for myths to flourish, with a public sphere where people form their opinions based on what they think rather than what they know about the EU. While we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves, understanding the reasons behind people’s disengagement, both as a result of insufficient information on the one hand and misinformation campaigns on the other, could improve the quality of our European democracy. For as long as media and politicians continue to paint Europe in the most insignificant at best and negative colours at worst, we will witness the rise of the anti-European vote while the pro-European vote will not recover.