The day before European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was due to deliver maybe his last state of the union speech, the European Parliament unveiled its information campaign for the European elections 2014 with the slogan "this time it's different".
Barroso will deliver his speech tomorrow (11 September), after nine years at the helm of the EU executive.
The 2014 European elections take place in a different context compared to when the Portuguese politician took the helm of the EU executive. For more than three years European governments have tried to weather a storm that started with a sovereign debt crisis in one of the smallest economies in Europe, Greece, and spread across the continent.
Banks have gone bust, leaders have squabbled over rescue packages, unemployment has reached record highs. Political discourse has never been so polarised: austerity versus growth, more Europe versus less Europe, protectionism versus open market.
This time it's different
“The context in which these elections take place is difficult and unique because of the strength of the crisis,” said Greek MEP Anni Podimata, Parliament vice-president in charge of communication and information, adding that citizens’ perception of the EU has therefore deteriorated.
But she also noted that for the first time democratic legitimacy would improve if citizens understood that their vote counted and they could directly influence who would become the next man or woman leading the European Commission.
The 2014 elections are the first to occur after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, according to which the Parliament 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 (see Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union).
“This important change could play a role in boosting awareness among the citizens on the EU elections and increase voters’ turnout,” added Podimata.
Total voter turnout has declined at all seven elections since 1979, dropping to just 43% in 2009, a historic low. Of that, youth turnout has fallen the most, sliding to 29% in 2009 from around 33% in 2004.
Act, React, Impact …and debate
The just-revealed information campaign, which cost €16 million, will launch banners focusing on three words: "Act, React, Impact". The Parliament will try for a year to insist on the crucial role it plays within the EU institutional framework, and make it clear after the elections that it has a role to play in influencing the political agenda for the next legislative term.
Much of the campaign emphasis will be put on the added-value of the European Union. Austrian MEP Othmar Karas, the other Parliament vice-president in charge of communication and information, spelled out economic governance, protection of data privacy, banking surveillance and financial flexibility of the European long-term budget as the battles the European Parliament had fought and won.
“Debate, controversy and conflict are the lifeblood of any democratically elected body,” the campaign material reads. The same was highlighted in the campaign television advertisement, which calls on Europeans to take action if they want change, as they do in their private life, because Europe matters.
Revolving around the urgency of making the right choice, the advert emphasised that Europe faced great challenges and that meeting them would not be easy and that difficult choices had to be made.
Engaging citizens will not be easy. Recent Eurobarometers have shown that Europeans no longer regard the Union as a vehicle for positive change. Euroscepticism and populism have derailed national political balance in recent national polls.
The Parliament aims to focus on different issues to ensure that the debate delivers substance rather than populistic claims for or against Europe. The economy, quality of life, Europe in the world, money and jobs are the five issues chosen to animate the debate in five key member states: France, Italy, Germany, Poland and Spain.
The cost of Europe and non-Europe
Critics already point at the €16 million budget the Parliament is earmarking for the campaign.
Paul Nuttall, a British euro eurosceptic MEP in the UK Independence Party, said in a statement: "The European Parliament is today launching a hugely expense and politically unbalanced EU propaganda campaign. It uses taxpayers money to tell the people what a great thing the EU is while many people believe that the Euro and EU is the problem not the solution to Europe's troubles."
Juana Lahousse, the Parliament’s director general for communication, was quick to slam back at critics. The campaign, which will be run in 28 countries and 24 languages, will cost each citizen just 0.3 cents overall, she said. The amount pales in comparison to the $6 billion the US is paying for a campaign in seven swing states, in just one language, she added.
But despite the effort, and funds put in place, questions remain over whether the 2014 elections will be any different from its predecessors. A EURACTIV poll of top opinion makers, reveals that most agree that the crisis and the Lisbon Treaty may have brough a change in the wind.
However, they warned against picking the wrong candidate for Commission president. Sonia Piedrafita, an analyst at the Centre for European Studies (CEPS), said there was a risk that candidates were known only in Brussels.
“It is important that citizens across Europe actually know them as well. So far, the names that have been circulating are not that promising," she said. "With some exceptions, these are not known by the average European citizen."
There was also the risk that the European parties’ campaigns became the results of the lowest common denominator, said Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre. “There is a risk that they won’t agree and won’t tackle the most difficult issues,” he said, adding that the issue of the banking union for example had split not only member states but also political parties.
According to Piedrafita, the EU institutions and national and European political parties should inform citizens better of the benefits of the European Union, not just the costs.
“They should expose the costs of less or no Europe,” she said.