Why the European Parliament Elections Matter

Voters in all 28 member states of the European Union (EU) will go to the polls May 22–25, 2014, to elect representatives to the 751-seat European Parliament.

It’s one of the largest democratic events in the world, and the upcoming vote is set to be the most important such elections to date. Over 413 million European citizens will have the opportunity to influence the future direction of the EU.

Why do the European Parliament Elections matter?

The elections are taking place during a period of profound political and economic crisis, and will shape EU politics for the next five years. The results will determine the answers to such questions as:

  • How can the eurozone be made robust and sustainable?
  • Should austerity policies be maintained or abandoned?
  • What forms of political and economic integration in Europe will continue?
  • Will tolerance and democratic values expand or shrink?

Through the ballot box, voters will have the chance to determine the political majority of the European Parliament. More fundamentally, the elections are an opportunity to breathe new life into the European Union and to begin a more inclusive and positive future for the European project.

What kinds of opportunities for a more open society will the elections bring?

As with any election, the European elections are an opportunity for groups representing open society values—tolerance, diversity, inclusion—to campaign for their issues to be recognized by future MEPs.

The elections are an opportunity to increase and broaden political participation and representation. Currently, only 35 percent of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are female, while women make up 52 percent of society in Europe; only 126 MEPs are under the age of 40; only 15 MEPs have ethnic minority backgrounds.

The elections are also an opportunity for EU citizens living in another member state—Polish workers in London for example or British pensioners in Spain—to use their right to vote in their country of residence to participate in and influence issues, like the future of freedom of movement, that directly affect their lives.

And what are the challenges associated with the elections?

Voter participation is a challenge. Turnout at European Parliament elections has declined at each election since 1979 and dipped below 50 percent in 1999.

The participation of young people is a particular challenge. In European Parliament elections held in 2009, 50 percent of those over 55 voted, while only 29 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted. Low voter turnout weakens the democratic legitimacy of the European Union.

Today, many Europeans have understandable anxieties around unemployment, austerity measures, and migration from within the European Union. This is fertile ground for xenophobic, divisive, and exclusionary campaigning. If campaign rhetoric in recent national and local elections is any indication, candidates in several countries are likely to resort to hate speech and xenophobic attacks in the campaigns.

Some analyses indicate that candidates seeking election on these terms may perform strongly in the elections, allowing a political bloc opposed to open society values and fundamental rights to be formed in the next European Parliament. As in national and local elections across Europe, such divisive and exclusionary campaigning might also push mainstream parties to attack the European policies and institutions that protect the open society in Europe.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to help?

We support efforts to broaden political participation and representation, to nurture tolerant and inclusive political debate, to support open society values in the future European Union, and to create greater political accountability within the European Union. Those efforts include the following:

  • Encouraging EU citizens living in another EU member state to use their right to vote. The Polish City Club has launched the “Aspire” project, which aims to increase the participation of Polish migrants in community and political life in the UK, including tackling the lack of information available on voting in elections.
  • Increasing minority voter participation and encouraging people from minority backgrounds to stand in elections. In Hungary, the Colorom Civic Association will work with Roma communities in Northern Hungary to increase voter turnout and encourage dialogue between voters and candidates.
  • Amplifying the voices of women and young people in political discourse during elections. The Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform will address the continued under-representation of women in decision-making and apathy among female voters.
  • Countering the use of hate speech and xenophobic rhetoric as campaign devices. In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia Visegradrevue.eu (V4 Revue) and the Institute for European Policy (EUROPEUM) will use online articles and public events to encourage a fair and balanced debate, as well as fact-checking to expose any inaccuracies candidates may try use in their election campaigns.
  • Promoting a constructive political debate on migration, asylum and integration. In the UK, the Open Society Foundations are part of the Changing Minds Initiative, a group of independent funders who seek to encourage a thriving society where all people, including immigrants, are treated fairly, participate and make a contribution in their community, prosper and succeed and create economic, social, and cultural benefits for the UK.
  • Establishing dialogue among voters and candidates through, for example, public hearings, community-based debates and online campaigns. The League of Young Voters will offer young people and politicians a platform through which they can engage with one another.
  • Creating opportunities for voters to present their demands to candidates. In Greece, the project “Vote for Your Rights!” by Athens Pride in partnership with Colour Youth, an Athens-based youth community organization, will address the issue of invisibility and marginalization of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community.