Duff: Polarisation will boost turnout in European elections

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Ahead of a vote in Parliament today (4 July) on a resolution aimed at giving political parties the same rulebook for the European elections in May 2014, liberal rapporteur Andrew Duff told EURACTIV that campaigns should offer a greater European dimension.

MEP Andrew Duff (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) is a former vice-president of the Liberal Democrats in Britain and a prominent federalist.

He spoke to EURACTIV Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti.

The Parliament will vote today on your report about the practical arrangement of the European elections. Surely, this report is not just about practicalities?

No, it’s not. It is extraordinary if you think about it that the European Parliament has been in operation for 30 plus years. We have extensive, increasing budgetary powers and political control. We have in the house vital politics, which goes on every day and night. It is an interesting, vital and fertile place. There are people here of great calibre, aspiration and experience, but we have to admit that we haven’t really connected, as we would have expected, with the people.

So there are some practical things we can do to improve the style and quality of the campaigning, as well as the intensity of the campaign, which I hope is going to trigger a greater sense of affinity, and identity within the electorate.

Precisely, the quality of the campaign. You are pointing out in the report that electoral campaigns continue to focus primarily on national issues, pushing debate on EU issues into a corner. How do you shift the focus to European issues?

I don’t think you can. The fact is that in an election campaign the voter decides for himself what he wishes to vote about. The political parties and candidates can only encourage, inform and try to inspire. People will vote for all sorts of reasons.

Of course, it is simpler and more straightforward to vote on things that are closest to them, that is often local politics. Certainly is not European politics.

As you see in the opinion polls, when people are asked what is their greatest concern, they would say employment, climate, security, traffic, all sorts of things before getting to Europe.

The fact of the matter is that all these other  issues – climate, employment, security and so forth – have all a strong European dimension.

I think that our job in this next election campaign is to expose and to promote that European dimension.

How can politicians better promote a political campaign focused on Europe?

The absence [of] proper political parties at the federal level has been a great problem. They are good at certain things, organising conferences, balloons and so forth. But they are not proper campaign organisations in the way you expect from a political party. That is sustained by national political parties, who are unfortunately ignorant of and often jealous of the overall powers of the European Parliament, and European affairs in general.

The primary target of this report is to give the European political parties a chance to grow. Imposing on the responsibility to find and support a champion, a person who perhaps can be the putative head of the Commission, but who will certainly be obliged to stand on the platform of the European party and develop a programme for the next Parliament.

In other words, what we want is leaders to come and say: In the next five years, I want this Parliament to do this and this and address the big issues that are confronting us everyday –  budgetary issues, and direction of integration, the forcefulness with which we address contemporary challenges, the task of the Union in world affairs. All issues with which we deal every day are of importance for the electorate, but they are still unaware of it.

So what would the profile of a perfect candidate, a candidate that would fit the job description? A convinced European, maybe …

Not necessarily. We have other political groups in this house that are of nationalist inclination, who seem to disintegrate. It is quite proper that they should also play a part in this election campaign.

Is there a risk that the election would turn into a referendum for or against Europe?

I don’t think so. I think there are two fault lines, which will be discovered. There are the federalist and the nationalist ones.

Here you will see the champions of the EPP, the ALDE and the Greens – they will be arguing more or less for a federalist approach. 

But there are also the classical parties … They still exist and it is important that they are also brought out, teased out in an election campaign.

In your report you are calling for the political parties to ensure that names of candidates are selected and made public at least six weeks before the vote. Isn’t that too short for a real campaign?

I would like it to be longer. But we are trying to create a system that would work for all national cultures and in some countries, candidates are selected the week before the poll. I know it is outrageous, because in Britain we do it months in advance. But in Spain and Greece they do it at the last minute.

The important thing is there is a concentrated period for campaigning [and that] all the programmes and personalities are published in time.

You are calling for a higher proportion of  women, which in the European Parliament is probably higher already than in many national parliaments. But how can you ensure that it happens systematically. Do you think zipped list would do the trick?

I am open to zipped lists and in my own party in the UK in 1999 we had a zipped list and there are more women than there are men.

But we haven’t found it necessary to carry it on, because we had established that quota at the beginning and that is carried on. I think sometimes in order to blast open the door for women it is necessary to have quotas. But as a liberal, my inclination is that they should be a temporary expedient rather than a permanent feature.

It is, however, deplorable that in some countries all MEPs are and always have been men, like Malta.

What we are dealing with here is with a political resolution. It is not a legislative document that I first sought to promote to change the electoral procedure of the European Parliament, because that proved to be blocked by the big groups in the house.

I had this idea of transnational lists for pan-European constituencies and I think that grander scheme will come back, but it will be brought back in the context of a Convention which will alter the treaties as opposed to by the conventional legislative process.

What we are doing here is to encourage, urge and extend good practice where we see it and just to open up the national political scene to a greater degree in European involvement.

This time around there will be supposedly more pan-European televised debates, but it will be difficult to have one electoral night considering the polls will close at different times. How do you reconcile all this?

It is an experiment. But if it works in the US, I don’t see why it should not work here. Of course there they have primaries. Candidates are obliged to go to places where primaries take place. They have the advantage of a common language. But neither travel nor interpretation are intractable problems nowadays.

You have been pushed for a better system as long as I can remember. Do you genuinely think we will have this time a totally different campaign with the new elements put forward by the Lisbon Treaty?

I think it will work in some places better than in others. It is an experiment. It is certainly means that the election campaign is perceived by the press being more exciting, more interesting to report. I hope the personalisation and politisation of the election campaign will stimulate turnout and serve to deepen the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

Should we be concerned about the creeping euroscepticism?

No. There will be a polarisation of the campaign, but that is a good thing.

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