By Alina Mungiu-Pippidi
The night before the European elections I dragged myself – despite not being in top form – to plead for one hour by myself in a TV talk show that my Romanian countrymen should vote the next day. A boycott had been called by a group of Facebook activists under the catchy slogan: “Always voting for the lesser evil amounts in the end to choosing an evil.” As turnout in the previous elections for European parliament in Romania (when I declined being a candidate for the President’s party unless his daughter, a model, stepped down) had been 27%, I was worried that the boycott call would be answered massively in all urban areas. In poor rural areas subsistence farmers are ferried to vote by political entrepreneurs. Leaving Romania, a country of 18 million voters, to be represented by its poorest and most disempowered voters seemed to me an extraordinary forfeit of our efforts prior to 2007 to make the country join EU.
Voters have good reasons to be upset with politicians. They always do. Romania’s successive governments were unable to spend more than 25% of its EU development funds. Had the EU not introduced a rule allowing engaged money to be spent even after the end of the budgetary cycle (but not indefinitely), the opportunity costs would have been at about 18 billion Euro presently and they will probably stabilize at half of this. Romanian MEP Mr. Severin, filmed on tape taking money to pass legislation, was the only MEP who did not resign after the scandal. And at the current rate of growth, the trade with the rest of the Community might get some balance after 2019- until then Romania is a net importer. An op-ed of mine called “Futility of Joining the EU” got 50,000 likes on Facebook in a few hours last November. People do not blame the EU, but they blame their leaders, and for good reason, for wasting a historic opportunity.
But why boycott the vote? How would this help? I was still arguing, my eyes on the clock as the Champions League Final was approaching when I knew everyone would switch the channel, that this will be the strongest Parliament still on record. That issues everybody is concerned with, from Ukraine to fracking (hydraulic fracturing) are far more likely to be decided in Brussels than Bucharest. That the elections for European parliament might not always be, if people like Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen win (they did). At the gas station on the way back home people then asked me how would they even know who in Brussels favors fracking and who is against. They had no idea. In one month of domestic political bickering otherwise known as an ‘electoral campaign’ nobody had told them anything and since they work all day long, they don’t have time to search on the Internet.
All over ‘new’ Europe voters, even in capitals, do not know what these elections were about. This is why only 17% of Slovaks came out to vote (Romanians actually outdid themselves with over 30% turning out this time). People have absolutely no idea:
• What is decided in their capitals and what in Brussels;
• What is the position of the European parties on major issues;
• How their national parties position themselves on issues compared to their EU party family.
In my experience as a pollster, I frequently used a question called “subjective competence” where I asked people: Do you know enough on voters and candidates to make an informed choice? This question is the best predictor of turnout. People do not come out to vote in EU elections in the East because they don’t know the issues and the candidates and they are aware of their ignorance. Their leaders and media failed in informing them during their national disputes and scattered efforts such as mine were too disparate to matter.
According to the Eurobarometer, Eastern Europeans, unlike their Western counterparts, continue to trust EU institutions more than they trust their national politicians. But as national politicians are the ones claiming votes on behalf of the EU, confusion and skepticism reign supreme. And this is how the continent’s perhaps last untapped reserve of Euro-enthusiasts fall out of Europe’s politics.