Yet again, turnout at European elections has reached a record low. Of those Europeans who had taken the trouble to register to vote before the June 2009 elections to the European Parliament, no fewer than 57 percent declined to cast their ballots on the day. The figure is all the more remarkable when we consider that voting is compulsory in some member states, that others sought to boost participation by holding municipal elections on the same day, and that Brussels had spent hundreds of millions of euros on a campaign to encourage turnout. (One of its gimmicks was to send a ballot box into orbit, which critics joyfully seized upon as the perfect symbol of the European Union's remoteness.)
The response of most Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is, if not in so many words, to blame the voters. In the weeks that followed the poll, I listened as my colleagues demanded better information campaigns and more extensive propaganda. Europe was more important than ever, they insisted, and national electorates had to see it. I kept thinking of German poet Bertolt Brecht's eerie lines: "Wouldn't it be easier to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?"
It will not do to claim that turnout is falling in every democracy. It is not. In the United States, for example, it is rising, from 51.3 percent in 2000, 56.7 percent in 2004, and to 61.4 percent in 2008. Indeed, it would not be going too far to claim that most Europeans were more interested in the McCain-Obama contest of last year than in any contemporary elections within Europe.
European interest in US politics partly reflects the fact that the United States is a powerful and important country. It also reflects a greater confidence in the US rather than the European ballot box as a mechanism to deliver change. Forty million people worldwide watched Barack Obama's inauguration speech. I would be surprised if 40 thousand bothered to stay awake to watch the results of the European elections come in.
Not that the abstention rate should have surprised anyone. There has been an unbroken decline in turnout since the first elections to the European Parliament were held in 1979. Still, the statistics are a serious embarrassment for Euro-integrationists. In the early days, they used to argue that the high abstention rate was a consequence of unfamiliarity, a function of the relative powerlessness of the new institution. Give the European Parliament more authority, they contended, and it would attract a higher caliber of candidate. Let it make a real difference to people, and people would take more of an interest in it.
That theory has now been pretty comprehensively disproved. Over the past 30 years, the European Parliament-like the EU in general-has been steadily agglomerating powers. Yet people have responded by refusing to sanction it with their votes. Back in 1979, when no one really knew what the European Parliament was, and Euro-elections were treated as series of miniature referendums on national governments, people voted willingly enough. Now that they have a sense of what the European Union is about, they want nothing to do with it.
A Cultural Distinction
For a long time, Euro-sophists found US elections vulgar and plutocratic. But the most striking thing today, comparing the two continents, is the extraordinary optimism generated by the US system. The United States' political culture generated The West Wing, a drama based on the idea that even the politicians one disagrees with are essentially patriotic. On the other side of the Atlantic, political series tend to be more along the lines of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It; they are based on the idea that all politicians are petty, jobbing cowards.
US friends of mine sometimes attribute the difference to culture. The United States, they say, is an essentially optimistic place, both in its founding ethic and in the appeal that brought people to its shores. …