IT’S BEEN 30 years since European citizens first got the chance to elect representatives to the European Parliament (EP). However, the thrill of three decades of European politics will – according to opinion polls and past performance – prove insufficient to rouse most European citizens from their sofas come election day. So a unified campaign is now being run in all EU member states in an attempt to reverse – or at least arrest - the falling election turnouts in time for this year’s EP elections in June.
Slovakia has been a member of the EU since 2004 and Slovaks have only had the chance to vote in one set of European elections so far – in June 2004. Not many of them bothered to do so: the turnout in Slovakia – at less than 17 percent – suggested that Slovak voters felt just as much indifference towards the EP as fellow Europeans in both the old and new EU member states. Its turnout left Slovakia at the bottom of the class.
A Eurobarometer survey last year suggested that only 15 percent of Slovaks definitely intended to vote in this year’s European elections, which will take place on June 6. Experts echo this dismal prospect.
“I do not expect any significantly higher turnout, as turnouts for EP elections in other countries are also much lower than the turnouts in national parliamentary elections,” Juraj Marušiak, from the Institute of Political Science of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, told The Slovak Spectator.
Silvia Miháliková from the Department of European Studies at Comenius University agrees that Slovakia is not the black sheep of the European family when it comes to EP election turnouts.
“However, it was surprising that Slovakia, a country that had tried so hard to become a member of the European club, ended up among the last countries concerning election turnout [in 2004],”
Miháliková told The Slovak Spectator. Five years have passed since then, which should have been enough time for the public to learn more about the EP. But despite this, she too doesn’t expect turnout in 2009 to be much higher than it was in 2004.
“If [turnout] reaches 25 percent of eligible voters, we can be more than satisfied,” she said.
“It will also depend on the intensity and character of the election campaign which, as of mid-April, still doesn’t really exist.”
According to Miháliková, people generally see members of the EP – or MEPs – as a group of very well paid and not very skilled politicians, who commute from Brussels to Strasbourg without any good reason, give opinions which nobody respects and are not very frequently seen in the media.
Campaign to alert the voters
Analysts suggest that part of the problem is that people simply don’t feel any connection between the EP and their own daily lives. On top of that, Marušiak said, there is a Slovak paradox: while Slovaks don’t show much interest in the European elections, they evaluate Slovakia’s EU membership very positively. That might be the reason why they don’t feel the need to vote in the elections – they don’t see Slovakia’s membership in the EU as a problem, Marušiak said.
“However, the fact is that the EP is still not a body which can take crucial decisions concerning the future of the EU, and therefore its activities and mission are not interesting or intelligible for most people,” Marušiak told The Slovak Spectator.
According to Robert Hajšel, the director of the EP Information Office in Bratislava, the reality is quite the opposite.
“The water we drink, the mobile phones we use, the waste we produce in our households and the fuel we use when driving our cars are all affected by the activities of the EP,” Hajšel told The Slovak Spectator. “Norms, prices and security are all governed by the directives approved by the EP.”
In order to improve Europeans’ awareness of its activities, the EP launched an intensive EU-wide information campaign on March 17. The campaign is intended to be politically neutral. It will cost €18 million – or five euro cents per voter - the EurActiv website reported.
“We will not [just] call on people to fulfil their duty as citizens,” the EP’s deputy speaker, Alejo Vidal-Quadras, was quoted as saying by EurActiv. “We want to stress that there are important decisions [to be made] about policies that have an impact on the lives of citizens.”
The EP Information Office in Bratislava is overseeing the campaign in Slovakia. The campaign’s central idea is to show citizens that by voting for their candidates in the European elections they are choosing between different political approaches to everyday issues. According to Hajšel, the Slovak EP Information Office has chosen three main issues for the campaign in Slovakia: energy sources, consumer protection and European budgetary expenses. Apart from the usual billboards, leaflets or posters, there will be also three 3-D displays erected in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica and Trnava in late April to early May.
In every EU country, including Slovakia, a so-called Choice Box will occupy a special role, Hajšel said. The Choice Box is a ‘multimedia booth’ which provides space for every citizen to send his or her message to the EP. In Slovakia, the booth will be installed in Košice. According to Hajšel, selected recordings will be screened for MEPs and the wider public in Brussels.
Apart from the audio-visual elements, the campaign also comprises seminars, debates, conferences and citizens’ forums for the wider public as well as for specific target groups.
“In contrast with the last European elections, when Slovakia had an especially low turnout, this year citizens will have a lot of information about the European Parliament – thanks to the work of our MEPs, but also thanks to more information about the activities of the EP in the media and, last but not least, thanks to the informational activities of our office,” Hajšel told The Slovak Spectator. “Therefore I believe the turnout at the European elections will definitely be higher than five years ago, despite the fact that after the two rounds of the presidential election citizens could feel some kind of ‘election fatigue’.”