The future of European politics is bleak unless politicians make an effort to change their blighted image and show more leadership, Dr. Ulrich Reinnhardt, CEO of the Stiftung für Zukunftsfragen (Foundation for Future Studies), a German think-tank, told EURACTIV in an interview. The foundation has released a comprehensive survey of European voters ahead of the June European elections.
Dr. Ulrich Reinhardt is CEO of the ‘Stiftung für Zukunftsfragen’ (Foundation for Future Studies), a German think-tank.
Before I ask you about the study published recently by the Foundation for Future Studies, can you tell me about the background of the foundation? What is the foundation’s raison d’être?
The foundation was founded in 1979, and we are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. From the first day, our only goal was not to predict the future, or what the future will look like, but more how people want the future to look like. We simply say, well, it’s not important what technical things are developed in the future, but how do people want to live and what will be important for them.
So starting from that point, we started by concentrating on things like leisure, media and tourism, and then we slowly moved onto society and values in the 90s, and of course 9/11 was one of biggest years for this whole society discussion in Europe and around the world.
In the last couple of years, we have started to focus on the whole European Union. Before that we had concentrated on the German-speaking market. Since 2006/2007 we have been pushing for a more European view.
We published a book called ‘A Vision for Europe: From economic community to a community of values’. We do not believe that economic things will be the only important one in the future, but values will be especially important. Is this idea of one Europe really going to work? We need more research on the values side of Europe.
Your recently published study ahead of the EU elections on the reasons for lower voter turnout is very comprehensive. What motivated you to commission such a big survey?
Last year we did a study called ‘Future Expectations for Europe’. We wrote this book together with 19 scientists from all over Europe and they interpreted the data for their own country for us, because we of course are not experts on the UK, or on France, or on Finland, or wherever. And we focused on eight main areas, from the future of education, the future of work, the future of the gap between the rich and the poor, the future of integration, etc. That was quite interesting, how the scientists saw their own country.
This year we decided to focus on the elections and on why there are always less people voting. So we did this study with more than 12,000 face-to-face interviews all over Europe.
Did the results of the survey surprise you?
One of the results was that nearly two-thirds of Europeans actually think that election promises are not kept. What surprised us was that this result seemed to vary quite a bit across Europe. For example in Finland it is four-fifths, whereas in Italy it is only 44%. So quite huge gaps there; even if you think of Berlusconi and his Italy, still people believe politicians.
Another finding was that people believe that nothing can be improved by voting, that they are not interested in politics, or they simply say, ‘well it makes no difference if I go voting or not’. And for us this means that this whole idea of one Europe, and even democracy itself, would be in danger, because many citizens feel that they are kind of resigned, or they feel that Brussels is far away, the issues appear quite complex, they are confused and the European elections are simply regarded as not important, which is quite frustrating.
If you think that, at least for Germany, we say that 80% of German law is actually made in Brussels, it means citizens have a different understanding.
For us, this would mean that both parties and politicians must offer in the future more reliability, a more personal profile, even a vision for the future, less interchangeability or just thinking of themselves during the legislative period. That was the first question we did.
The second one that rounded up the whole study was the question of the state or private. What do citizens really want for the state in the future? Of course, the economic crisis really shaped their views, and we could really see that people are worried a little bit. For example, a third of the interviewees said the standard of governmental standing cannot be maintained in the future.
On the other hand, more and more people are actually willing to become more responsible for their own lives once again. In the sixties, this was already taking place in most European countries, and now we are seeing a renaissance of the neighbourhood, of more people pushing for closer bonding between the three generations – grandfather, father, son. Friends are now really close friends and not just somebody you know. All these things are playing a major role in the lives of citizens.
The European elections are coming up in two weeks time. What lessons can be drawn from your survey ahead of the poll? Opinion polls in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are suggesting that anti-system parties like UKIP will do well. What is your impression of how these parties will do in the European elections?
I think they will actually do pretty well. That is, of course, a bit dangerous. If we are assuming that only one-third of Europeans are going to vote, and then if such a party would even get the majority, they would not have the majority of the citizens, of the voters, they would just have one-third of the voters behind them, because simply less people are always voting.
But from our point of view, we think these types of parties will gain lots of votes in the upcoming elections.
Will the turnout be much lower than in 2004? What do you think the turnout will be?
If I would have to guess, I would assume that it will be around 35%. If we are lucky we will get as high as 40%. That would position us at the same level of 2004, but we are expecting that it is going to drop.
Are supporters of the socialists or the conservatives more likely to turn out?
That will really depend on the country. For Germany, I think the real left-wing parties will get votes from the Social Democrats, and the conservatives will still be pretty strong. But, for example, the Green party will probably lose lots of votes in Germany. Simply because the environment, which you could say is their main subject, is not as important as it used to be, because we have the financial crisis and the environment is just something for ‘nice’ periods.
But if you talk about different countries, or the UK for example, the big parties are likely to lose some of their votes. I still do not think that the real small parties will really gain votes. So it depends on the country.
Getting back to your earlier point that Europe needs greater personalities, greater leadership. How do people view European Union leaders? Do they recognise them at all? What about Barroso?
Well that was part of the qualitative study we did beforehand. We found out that most of the people in the small discussion groups really said ‘how would it be if we really had a European prime minister or a European foreign minister?’
At the moment, they are really thinking of a European Obama – that would be something people would really look up to. Of course that would be very nice. That’s what we are really missing in Europe – that you have a certain face behind it. It’s not the most popular politicians who are running on the European level, and that is one of the big problems.
Would the main groups in the European Parliament putting forward a candidate for the position of president of the European Commission help, as suggested by some commentators? Do you think that would help raise the profile and increase engagement in European politics?
At least it would increase the amount of voters. The problem with the European elections is that most people are not voting for something, but most likely voting against something. Because they have this feeling that ‘well, everything that comes from Brussels, I am not sure if it is really good for me, and this project they’re setting up, what does it really have to do with me?’
So I am a little bit afraid that if you just have certain faces there, that won’t be enough. These faces, together with their parties, together with what they are standing for, have to be something people can look up to. And, if you have these three things combined then that would actually help matters.
You mentioned that the financial crisis was the biggest issue for those surveyed. Do people realise that Europe has done something about it? Was there any recognition of European issues?
No. The point was more or less that people really believe that the financial crisis is something for each individual country. The Germans are dealing with it differently to the French, or to the British, or to the Finns. People do not have the feeling that this has been dealt with in a combined, joined-up effort.
Did the correlation between the vibrancy of a country’s society (its social capital) and voter turnout come out in the survey?
Yes, a little bit. Even in the study we conducted last year, there was this point that people are willing to be more responsible for themselves: ‘If the politicians can’t help me, I’m willing to help myself again. And maybe I can just help my neighbour, or my neighbours’ kids or whatever, and if I am old they’ll probably help me.’
Of course, people are also thinking that this would also entail a points system, e.g. I am now helping handicapped people, or older people, and when I am old I have a certain amount of points, like in a kind of bank account that I can refer to my balance later and someone will help me. Of course they want this kind of insurance deal, they are not all just willing to help for free, or just for the heck of it. That won’t happen. They want some insurance there as well.
If you really look at the closer surroundings of each individual, you can really see that they are once again paying much more attention to their neighbourhood. They are, especially the older generation (of course this is the problem all over Europe – the demographic factor – more and more old people) that makes them sense that they are starting to do that once again.
What are the long-term implications of all this apathy for the political system? Will there be major shifts, major changes and new types of parties?
I really think we have to change the view of the politicians in the future. Otherwise we will have more of a system like in Brazil, where there are lots of poor and a few who are rich, and then people are not voting at all any more. And that is quite a risk in Europe as well.
From my point of view, if this ‘one Europe’ is to work, then politicians really need to change their behaviour, but also make less laws: more power to the people; fewer decisions made in Brussels; more decisions made by the small communities that they can decide again for themselves. I think that would then help.
I suggest in the future, if we continue with the status quo, we will probably one day have 20% voter turnout in Europe, 80% in small communities, and maybe around 60% in national elections. So then the European elections will be even less important in the future.
So bringing power back to the local communities is important for engaging people?
Did the role of the media in politics come up in your research?
Yes it did. I got the feeling that many people think the media is the only vehicle that can change people’s view of politics in the future. If we look at the newspapers now, European politics is playing an absolutely minor role. It’s not important at all what you read in the newspaper about Europe. If you read something about Europe, then probably you are reading a negative story – some scandal going or whatnot.
It’s not really that the media is helping the citizens to understand what’s going on in Brussels or around the European Union. And that will be a big issue for the future.
It is also, of course, a question of education. The smarter the person is, the more likely he is going to want to be informed. From my point of view, the media has to play a much more important role in the future. But, of course, it cannot be that a good story is only one with bad news. It has to be one that is more positive, and maybe optimism has to be emphasised more in the future.
I see you have a PhD related to education and entertainment. Does education play an important role for you in this topic?
Absolutely, if we talk about education, it’s a big problem in nearly every country.
Think of the number of immigrants we have and the problem we have with their education. As long as we are not able to solve this problem, we will have a segregated society in nearly every European country. This is not going to improve; it is going to get worse, because no country in Europe except for Iceland has enough children to keep their society demographically balanced.
So if we are having more foreigners and more immigrants, and we are not able to teach them or educate them well, that’s going to be a big problem in the future.
You think the education systems need to adapt to this issue?
Yes, absolutely. Speaking for Germany, for example, to be honest we have had 200 years of the big educational idols in Germany and not too much has been changed. If you look at the Pisa results, how can it be that countries like South Korea are ahead of every European country?
That simply can’t be. And, of course, there’s always Finland. But Finland is different because you do not have too many people living there, and then you can pay more attention to education. But in general, for nearly every European country, people really have to think about their educational system and adapt that to the new world.