N. 10 September 1999 | The real cause of abstentionism in the European elections

Although the discussion on the most important decisions takes place at a European level, interests are organized at a national level. This is due to the fact that we don't have a real european government, we only have a Council made up by sovereign States whose main decisions are subject to no democratic control whatsoever, and they fall prey to the vetoes blackmail.

The electoral campaign that led up to the European elections in June was unfortunately turned, once again, into a political contest focusing on national issues. And it is, without doubt, the lack of any real European vision demonstrated – with a few occasional and partial exceptions – by all the political parties that must be considered the main reason for the worryingly high level of abstention which emerged, albeit to varying degrees, in all the countries of the Union.

How can we explain all this? Why is it that the political parties are so unresponsive to facts, like the coming into force of the single currency, which are of such huge importance to Europe? Why their failure to react to tragic events (like the war in Kosovo) which highlight with dramatic clarity the desperate need for the Union to be transformed into a political subject that is able to make its presence felt?

It is no longer at national, but at European level that all the most important decisions in the continent are now reached (when, indeed, they are reached at all). In other words, it seems that a transfer of real power from national to European level is taking place. What we must seek to understand, then, is why this power has not come to represent the most important stakes over which the different parties fight; why the attention of the electorate is not focused on Europe’s decision-making centres; why the electorate is unable to see the European parliament as the highest expression of the will of the people; and why the citizens themselves still do not feel, except perhaps. in a confused and embryonic manner, like members of a single

European people

The truth is that, for several decades now, real power has been abandoning, progressively, the national framework, but this is not to say that it has been moving into a European one. This vacating of the nation-states is not being accompanied by the birth of an alternative power, and the reason for this is the fact that there is no European government answerable to the European parliament. That which does exist amounts, instead, to nothing more than a council of sovereign states whose most important decisions are subject to no form of democratic control, and are liable to be blocked by veto. As a result – and the exceptions to this are rare – decisions either are not taken at all or, if they are taken, they are (being the result of difficult compromises reached between divergent positions) ineffective and contradictory. They are also unpopular with the citizens who see them as measures imposed from above over which they have no real control.

Thus a void has been created in Europe, a void which the hegemonic power of the United States is inevitably moving in to fill. At the same time, formal power at least remains in the hands of the nation-states. It is only in the national sphere that a politician’s career, like his reputation (created by the channels of information), can be forged. It is the national sphere which provides the framework for the organisation of interests. It is thus inevitable that politics is conducted within this framework, that the debate brings national questions to the fore, and that the citizens, while divorcing themselves from politics in an increasingly alarming manner, associate their power of democratic choice with their vote, placed with a view to the achievement of national objectives, for one or another of the national parties. Europe remains in the background, it does not belong to the political sphere, it is an ideal which nearly everyone shares but which never becomes an immediate objective. And the European Parliament continues to be an impotent body, ignored by the citizens and incapable, even, of exercising the powers which it does possess. Instead of becoming the constituent assembly that Willy Brandt advocated and that Spinelli sought to turn into a reality, it now runs the risk of losing, as indifference grows from one election to the next, even the symbolic value which, as the expression of European suffrage, it embodies.

This is why, while many are aware of the fact that the destiny of Europeans depends on the political unification of the continent, no one does anything to turn this objective into a reality. And yet, something must be done, and soon, to overcome this situation of impasse. The estrangement of citizens from politics is symptomatic of a crisis of democracy which will inevitably lead, sooner or later, to a crisis of the institutions which represent the expression of that democracy.If this point is reached in one or more of the EU member countries, then it will mean the definitive end, and the tragic failure, of the process of European unification. For this to be avoided, it will take someone (in the governments, in the parties, in the European Parliament, in the national parliaments) courageous and clear-sighted enough to promote – in concrete operational terms and not as a vague hope – the question of equipping the Union with a democratic and federal constitution, and of mobilising the popular support on which its realisation will depend.


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