Frassoni: European elections need ‘a big fight’

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Parties need to base next year’s June European elections on real pan-European issues, and give each other “a big fight” to re-engage apathetic voters, Italian MEP Monica Frassoni, co-president of the Greens in Parliament told EURACTIV in an interview.

Monica Frassoni is the co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Let’s start with a broad question: why is turnout decreasing with each European election? 

Of course the reasons are different from country to country – you couldn’t compare Poland with the UK, for example. But I do think there’s a common lack of understanding that there is a power at the EU level where one can have an impact as a voter. That impact is at the European elections. 

So on one side there’s a lack of knowledge that the European Parliament has real power, and on the other side there is lack of understanding that you [as a voter] can actually have an impact on that power. 

Isn’t that, in a nutshell, the great contradiction: as the power of the European Parliament increases, turnout – and thus citizen power – decreases? 

I believe there is a general problem of representative politics in Europe. In general there is a decrease in participation at all elections, but it’s true that this is even stronger at the European level. 

The EU is perceived to be too far-removed and too powerful for people to influence, and therefore there is not really a consciousness that the Parliament is any different from the Commission or the Council. As a result, people don’t realise that Parliament is a place where they can have an impact. 

So the fact that the Parliament has more power won’t matter to voters until they realise the difference. I think the most important way to get people to vote is to help them understand that there is power to be shared. 

For me, the biggest challenge is to be able to discuss concrete issues, not in general but on concrete party political positions that are important to people. That’s the only way forward. 

Where, then, does responsibility lie in informing people about these things? 

I think we all have a responsibility to inform ourselves, but of course media and national governments are a little more responsible. For example, you could do anything you want at the European Parliament level but if the only news that is taken concerns our earnings or irregularities in our expenses, then we’re not going very far. 

That’s why what happened during this parliamentary session – with the presence of Monsieur Sarkozy or the whole discussion of the Roma in Italy – was extremely good, because it gave the sense that things happen at the European level that aren’t necessarily linked to your own national government. 

You mentioned the media – it seems that when European media do give attention to the EU and the European Parliament, it tends to be a negative tone (you already mentioned MEP expenses, for example). Do you think this is a recurring problem? 

Coverage seems to be either negative or anecdotal, just trying to tell stories. I don’t want to generalise – anecdotal coverage can often be good – but when there’s real power, real laws, things change. 

We’ve had important discussions lately, for example on the return directive and on REACH (the Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), but the coverage at national level is really something you have to look for, it’s not automatic. 

Another common media perception is that the European elections are dull and politically “unsexy”. What can be done to improve that perception? 

I would love to have fantastic campaigns with transnational lists for the European parties, with a candidate for European Commission President at the head of the list. We have to get nearer to that situation. 

This may not happen in 2009, but I do believe that there’s an actual possibility that the different parties – even without transnational lists – would campaign against each other proposing different candidates for Commission President. 

I think this would be very interesting, provided it’s not just candidates from the two big parties. This would give a real political sense to the whole process, and make it less of a strictly national debate. Of course, in order for this to happen, it would really need to be pushed by European leaders in Brussels. 

Do you realistically think this will happen? 

I don’t exclude it – it’s definitely a possibility. A lot will depend on what happens with the Lisbon Treaty and what kind of atmosphere there is among member states. If things become controversial in the European Parliament and the candidature of Mr. Barroso is not backed, then things could develop in an interesting way. 

It is also important that the campaign be fought on real issues, such as immigration. 

We mentioned it earlier, but let’s go into it in more depth: how can European parties and national governments make voters more aware that the issues which matter to them on the national level often have a European dimension? 

By having a big fight! I mean, if parties are having a good fight about, for example, migration or the climate change package, then it’ll be in the newspapers. You can organise a fight. We need a fight and a controversial discussion. 

Talk to us about the Greens – you were the first party to organise a truly pan-European campaign in 2004. How are you building on that for next year’s elections? 

The 2004 campaign was really exciting. We’d had a federation of European Green Parties before, but for those elections we decided to really have one single party campaign. The launching ceremony in Rome was a very moving occasion – everyone really felt like a big family. 

I think the [national Green] parties that decided to use this European dimension for the 2004 elections really gained from it, for example the French and the Germans. Those who did not – like the Italians – made a mistake, I think it was a stupid thing to do. 

In the last elections, we created a team campaign that could be used all over Europe. This time we want to build from there. We are going to invest even more in having a single “look” for the campaign, with two or three common messages. 

The EP voted recently to increase the minimum threshold for forming groups in the Parliament(EURACTIV 28/05/08). What’s your take on this development? 

We were completely against, but on the other hand we worked actively to prevent the worst. The compromise we reached in the plenary was that the minimum threshold to form a group would be 25 MEPs – some wanted it to be 30. 

This was allegedly done in order to prevent the extreme right from building a group, but I think that is such a useless argument. First of all, you have to beat the extreme right in politics, not by mathematics, and secondly, this gives a bad signal to voters that the EP is extremely bureaucratised. 

Moreover, it leads to the nationalisation of groups. If you can’t form small groups, national factions begin to dominate the big groups, and that is certainly not “European”. 

In terms of what’s at stake in next year’s elections, climate change and energy-related issues are very much part of the general consciousness now. Given that you were the forerunners on these issues, is there any feeling among the Greens that other parties are stealing your thunder? 

I must say, if that was the reality, I would not be very worried. However, the reality is that people are talking but their policies are not going far enough. 

When they talk about these issues, they propose policies that are “easier,” so in this way they’re stealing the consensus. The message is given that “yes, climate change is happening, but instead of doing what the Greens tell us to do, like reducing consumption, making different technology for cars or investing in renewables, we can instead reduce taxes on fuels, or make cars a little bit less polluting, or push the nuclear agenda.” 

The fact that people are talking about the same issues does not mean they’re saying the same things. Unfortunately, we’re going in totally different directions, which means that we [the Greens] are made less important and our policies are not put in place – this is tragic. 

If parties go in different directions in a situation of relative emergency, it’s really very dangerous, and as a result of this, my fear for the next parliament is that there will be less people going to vote and more people voting for anti-European parties, because voters simply are not convinced. 

Generally speaking, less people are voting in all elections across Europe as political apathy increases, but it seems that this affects European elections worst of all. 

Definitely. When people are told that national governments and parliaments do all the real work and all the bad things are done by Europe, then of course it’s not easy to motivate them to go to vote. 

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