Very often we hear people complain about how their rights are not respected. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, as many may want, but this is what the judicial system is for, whose role is to straighten any situation that does not correspond to legal norms. And yet we have to talk about the situation when, although people have rights, they do not take occasion to use them. People themselves should understand that the rights they have are just as important, whether we speak of the right to life or about the right to vote.
Although at first glance it may seem like a huge difference between them, both are fundamental human rights. In this article I intend to talk about the European Elections, especially about the right to vote and how its importance is often overlooked or undervalued by the voters. Starting from the low turnout in elections to the symbolical ‘sabotage’ used by the opposition parties at the expence of the rulling political group, the article shows how the process of establishing a single electoral system in all Member States is an old problem of the European Union. Because of the fact that there is no single electoral system, each Member State has its own election laws, which is why people are reluctant and the lack of interest in voting appears.
While the European voters have the right to vote and can take the occasion to use it in the European elections, this right is not fully enforced for millions of individuals around the world, that includes non-citizens, young people, minorities, criminals, the homeless, disabled persons, and many others who lack access to the vote for a variety of reasons. Some examples are poverty, illiteracy, intimidation, or unfair election processes. For this reason, I consider that people should always think twice before making a decision about their right to vote.
The Europeans have not always had the right to vote the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Until June, 1979, MEPs were elected from the members of the national parliaments, nominated for this position. This system did not work effectively because the national and European mandate did not usually correspond and MEPs had a double load, working simultaneously in two parliaments. However, since 1979, MEPs have been elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year period.
The Article 223 from the the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) says that: ‘The European Parliament shall draw up a proposal to lay down the provisions necessary for the election of its Members by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States or in accordance with principles common to all Member States.’
Establishing a single electoral system in all Member States is an old problem of the European Union, which has been included in the text of the Treaties since the Treaty of Rome, but even until today it has not been possible. A single electoral system would increase the representativeness of the European Parliament, the building of a majority that accedes to the citizens’ choice, the independence of the European Parliament and of the MEPs from national political systems. As a result, the establishment of a uniform procedure would have a positive effect (Chopin, Deloy, 2010.).
But because there is no single electoral system, each Member State has its own election laws and each one decides the date on which its citizens will vote. However, they must all apply the same democratic rules: the right to vote at eighteen, gender equality and the secret ballot.
This is the reason why I think the reticence of the voters appears. In the current Romanian electoral system, the results of the vote are predictable, by using of social research tools. Because the candidates know if they will or not be elected, they will no longer be as committed to the electoral process. In Romania, the candidates for the European Parliament are elected on a national list, in a closed voting system, which cancels any public power that may cause differences between candidates in the vote (Ciucu, Dumitrescu, 2013).
The last European elections were held between May 22 to May 25, 2014 The first elections were held in Romania in 2007 (the year we joined the European Union) and in 2009. In Romania, like in most of the Member States, the minimum voting age is eighteen (except Austria, where the minimum age is sixteen). I was dissapointed when I saw the lack of interest of the European voters. If before the 2014 elections, it was considered that the percentage of participation in the 2009 elections (43%) was the lowest in history, with 26% less than what it was in the 1979 elections (Saryusz-Wolski, 2014), after the elections of 2014, it was 42.54% .
As a law student, I had a different perception about the European elections, unlike ordinary people who, unfortunately, do not always understand the importance of these elections. But why don’t they understand the meaning? Well, the answer is very simple. In Romania, as in most of the Member States, disappointment with the internal political system has a major influence on the European elections. The national parties usually choose to run a campaign without associating themselves with political groups from the European Parliament, most often because of the competition at national level (Sasmatzoglou, 2014).
Thus, voters occasionally used the elections for the European Parliament as an opportunity to protest against the party or parties who are in power in their national government, rather than to express their opinions about which party should have the most seats in the European Parliament. This situation has been observed from the first elections in 1979 until the last elections in 2014. However, the European elections should not be regarded or treated as national elections (Sasmatzoglou, 2014).
People must understand that the European elections provide the citizens of the EU the opportunity to vote for parties that are closer to their ideals, compared to the big parties that have different goals from their own, but have a greater chance to form the majority. Here are some arguments on why I think it is important that people should vote:
1. First of all, the European elections determine who establishes and directs the EU agenda, for a period of five years, which has a direct impact on more than 70% of national legislation (Saryusz-Wolski, 2014, p. 15). The new political majority resulted from the elections will elaborate the EU legislation in areas such as the single market to civil liberties. For this reason alone, voters should pay attention to European Parliament elections and make them a priority. Unfortunately, the opposite often happens.
2. Second of all, the results of the elections in 2014 had a decisive role in choosing the new president of the European Commission. For the first time in EU history, the European Parliament has chosen - and not just approved – the European Commission, following a proposal by the European Council, according to the rules laid down in the Lisbon Treaty (December 2009). The link between the election of the President of the Commission and European Parliament elections in 2014 gives a new meaning and importance to European Parliament elections (Jacobs, 2014).
3. Also, as the only EU institution directly elected by citizens, the Parliament has the power and responsibility to hold the EU institutions accountable. The Parliament is the guardian of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, embedded in the Lisbon Treaty, as well as the newly established right of the citizens’ initiative, which allows people to ask for new policy proposals if one million people have signed a petition asking for it.
4. The Parliament also elects the European Ombudsman (functionary who investigates complaints about maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union) and holds hearings with candidates for the President and Board members of European Central Bank, the Court of Auditors and various EU agencies.
These are only some of the reasons why people should understand that the right to vote is more important than some believe and that they should go and vote and pay more interest to the European elections.
In conclusion, European elections should not be seen as a second-tier national elections. However, after eight rounds of direct elections to this institution (only three in Romania), the link between citizens and MEPs remains extremely weak. The Europeans do not primarily use the European elections to express their preferences on the policy issues on the EU agenda or to reward or punish the MEPs or the parties in the European Parliament for their performance in the EU. They use the European elections to punish the party or parties in power in their national government. Yet I live with the hope that people will understand how important is the role of the European Parliament and that they must go to the future elections in 2019.
By Nina Gavril