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Home » Elections and Governance, EU

Trust and Confidence in Politics and Turnout

Submitted by on 15 Apr 2014 – 15:18



By Sir Graham Watson MEP, Editor, Government Gazette

I am a politician. That is what I do – that is my job. And often when I get into a cab and get into a conversation with the driver and tell them what I do, I brace myself for the glee, mistrust or abuse, and in the United Kingdom the fear of the EU, that follows. I would imagine that civil servants get similar treatment. Government and politics, it’s all one and the same. 

Confidence and trust in politics is at an all time low. It has been sliding for years. Across Europe almost three quarters of the population do not trust their national government or parliament. People don’t think their political establishment will tell them the truth, look after their interests or put the country before party.

And yet only 58% of EU citizens say they do not trust the EU, lower than the average level of confidence in national institutions. This might come as a surprise for those of us who are used to the European Union being a scapegoat for everything under the sun. But I would speculate that rather than this relative trust being a glowing endorsement of the EU, it is more a reflection of endemic corruption and maladministration in many of the bloc’s newer member states – the EU is at least more credible than the national government.

If I had to name one recent development that has led people to (justifiably) become ever more suspicious of their rulers it’s the Snowden revelations. And that is why this issue includes a section which has dedicated its attention to those allegations, the legality of the activity and what it means for society. The revelations concerning the PRISM programme which intercepts transatlantic email, telephone and text message traffic on a massive scale, and the network of alleged intercept data sharing between Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and Israel is staggering. It raises questions about the very basics of civil liberties, and suggests a fundamental lack of respect from governments for normal people and their private lives.

If ever there was a time for mistrust of governments, it is now.

It is therefore unsurprising that turnout is so low – and declining – in so many Western democracies. This year will see European Parliament elections across the European Union. Average turnout in European Parliament elections fell from 61.9% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. Less than half of all eligible Europeans bothered to go out and vote at the 2009 elections.

So the Government Gazette has done an investigation into one of the more extreme ways of countering low turnout: compulsory voting. Belgium, Australia, Greece, Bolivia – in total 22 countries worldwide have some form of compulsory voting. It is not exactly the most liberal of remedies for political apathy, but I can see how it could prevent the disenfranchisement of the indifferent and socially disadvantaged groups often under-represented and therefore ignored simply because they stay at home.

Will the three decade long decline in turnout continue for this year’s European Parliament elections? I am hopeful that it won’t. And the reason is the twin crises of unsustainable public debt and undercapitalised private lenders. The crisis has wreaked economic havoc across the bloc, but the one thing it has shown is that Europe has a direct impact on everyday lives across the continent, that Europe really matters. And people know that if it weren’t for the huge amounts of cash that Jean-Claude Trichet and his people at the European Central Bank were injecting into the markets night after night in September 2008, to calm the speculators, and for the action that EU leaders took in subsequent years to create a permanent rescue fund, things could have been much worse.

And yet, while voters stay at home across Europe, while people have to be forced to go to the polls as far afield as Australia and Brazil, thousands of people across the globe in Kiev, Damascus, Beijing and Bangkok, are protesting, fighting, dying for their right to vote and to live under a democratically elected government that respects the rule of law. If anyone has a reason to mistrust their government, it is those people.