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Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Speech: Press conference on the European Parliament elections Recommendation
12 March 2013
I am happy to be here today with my colleague Maroš to present today's Commission recommendations to make the upcoming European elections more democratic. And I could not think of any better place to present these than the European Parliament – which is at the heart of European democracy!
We are at a key moment of European integration, as we are taking major steps towards a genuine economic and monetary union, with Treaty changes coming up soon and a European federation at our political horizon. It is important to give citizens and companies a perspective on what Europe will look like in 2020. The 2014 European Parliament elections will prepare the ground.
Business as usual is therefore simply not an option.
It is also not an option because we are now operating in a new environment. The Lisbon Treaty has not only enhanced the role of the European Parliament as a political actor – it now decides on the vast majority of EU legislation and has power over the entire EU budget on an equal footing with the Council.
The Treaty also gives it additional responsibility: it elects the President of the Commission on the basis of a proposal by the European Council taking into account the results of the European elections (Article 17(7) of the Treaty on European Union). In short: the next Commission has to reflect the outcome of the 2014 European Parliament elections as they will be the first under the new Lisbon rules.
Today's recommendations respond to this new Lisbon reality. President Barroso made it very clear in his State of the Union speech last year: “we need a European public space where European issues are discussed from a European standpoint”.
This is why today, the European Commission adopted practical recommendations for the upcoming 2014 European elections. We are asking Member States and political parties to do four very concrete and practical things:
First, political parties should make known which candidate for President of the European Commission they support. If they know who the candidates are, citizens will have a real choice and an opportunity for a real debate around political figures.
Second, before and during elections, national political parties should make clear in all campaign materials to which European political party they are affiliated. Voters need to know that their national political parties are part of a European political family, for instance that Fine Gael in Ireland is a member of the European People’s Party, while the Irish Labour party is part of the Socialists.
Third, Member States should agree on a common day for the European elections with polling stations closing at the same time - today the dates for the European elections are spread out over a period of four days. Having one day would make clear that European elections are a common endeavour and would better reflect common participation by citizens across the Union, as part of the representative democracy on which the EU is founded.
And fourth, national parties should inform voters during the campaign about their candidate for President of the Commission. We could see candidates participating in TV debates informing citizens about their political programmes. Voters would be better informed about the issues at stake in the European Parliament elections so as to encourage a Europe-wide and informed debate.
These recommendations are not revolutionary. They are evolutionary. And they are practical. But they will have a major impact. They will help to strengthen people’s voice in the EU's representative democracy.
This is needed. Why? Because today we see a low voter turnout for the European Parliament elections. In 2009 only 43% of Europeans voted. European Parliament elections are a key moment for European democracy. Our priority must therefore be to address the steady decrease of voters' participation in the elections.
Today's recommendations are the right answer. They are backed by a Eurobarometer survey that we have released today and which reveals that lack of information is one of the major reasons for today's low voter turnout:
84% of people think turnout in European elections would increase with more information about the EU’s impact on their daily lives, and more information about parties’ programmes in the Parliament.
73% believe more information about candidates’ European political affiliations would encourage them to vote,
And finally: 62% think having party candidates for Commission President and a single voting day would help bolster turnout
This makes sense. Just look across the Atlantic: in the United States of America, when elections to Congress take place in the same year as the Presidential election, more people turn out to vote than in mid-term years, when only 40% of voters go to the poll. I am convinced that voter turnout will increase for the European elections if people have a real choice: a real choice of candidates which can mobilise and polarise the political debate and a real choice of policies.
Next year’s elections to the European Parliament should be about European issues, and not be used or abused for national reasons or to express frustration vis-à-vis a national government.
The pieces are falling into place to make this happen. Across Europe, a political dialogue on the future of Europe is taking place. Last year we saw 12.000 citizens participating in one of the largest online public consultations about citizens' rights and the future of the European Union. I was especially encouraged to see that the young generation was most active (34% of the respondents were 18-30 years old). With more and more young people reaching voting age, the young electorate is a real untapped potential which needs to be mobilised. We need the young generation on board to build the Europe of tomorrow in which they will live.
This year is the European Year of citizens which includes a series of citizens' dialogues between European and national politicians in which I and my fellow Commissioners debate face-to-face with hundreds of citizens about the future of Europe, their expectations, their desires.
Today's recommendation will further strengthen the voice of our citizens. It will strengthen the links between EU citizens and the democratic process of the Union.
Integration and legitimacy have to advance in parallel. More democracy is the corollary of greater institutional integration – which is needed to enable the European Union to rise to current global challenges.
With today's recommendations we have made another step in the direction of a genuine European public space and a genuine European debate. We have promised our citizens dialogue, democracy and transparency. We deliver.
The ball is now in the court of Member States: they should implement the Recommendation in time for the 2014 EP elections.