As the dust settles on the EU parliament elections it’s worth taking a moment to ask if the stakes should be higher, not lower, in Europe.
Not long after last month’s European elections a relative told me he voted for the mildly eurosceptical Irish republican and social democratic party Sinn Féin in order to, as he put it, “slap it into the rich c***s”. I certainly understand the sentiment and have written about it in VoxEurop before, though I personally remain unable to cast my vote in favour of any Irish party.
In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard precisely this sentiment from a family member. Another told me much the same thing after the last round of elections in Northern Ireland. I suppose this qualifies as a protest vote, though the sentiment may be deeper. As I’m not in the business of interrogating friends and family I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling that more than a few people I know voted for parties that are, to varying degrees, critical of Europe. Parties like Sinn Féin, the various far left groups and even, I suspect, Ukip.
The more staunchly pro-EU among readers may well blame non-voters, the likes of me in other words, for the rise of the likes of Ukip. That’s fine. I blame the fact that Europe, a good idea in theory, scarcely seems worth voting for as a result of its aloofness and lack of true democratic credentials. We can argue about it some other time. The thing is, we, the refuseniks, are the majority – and perhaps many of us would have voted for anti-EU parties if we did cast a ballot, so be careful what you wish for.
Not voting is, it turns out, something that people look askance at. Three times in the last few weeks I have enjoyed sermons about how those who do not vote (i.e. me) do not have the right to comment. Happily this is a nonsense. The right to freedom expression does not follow from participation in polling. Even in Europe we hold some things to be self-evident.
I haven’t signed any pact in blood saying I shall never vote again. I may well do so in the future. I have certainly come very close in the case of Ireland’s referendums in recent years. As this is a column and not David Copperfield, I shall spare you my life story, but will simply state that I came of the age of majority in a year and in a place where my vote was, quite literally, meaningless. I voted that one time but haven’t done so since. The vagaries of Irish politics have continued to stymie me since then.
Some think that the best way to get people to turn up to the polls is to make them do it on pain of punishment by state. Such a sentiment should be incomprehensible to any true democrat. Trusting the public to vote means accepting that some will not do so. Mistaking compulsory participation in elections with meaningful participation in politics is a schoolboy error. Thankfully we’re not Australia and enforced voting is not yet on the cards. Nor is Europe the Soviet Union, so voters don’t need to be bribed into turning up with free vodka.
But why do so many people fail to vote?
Here are two simple facts: clearly I am far from uninterested in politics given that I write about it with some regularity. And yet, I, like almost 57 percent of Europe’s population, did not cast a ballot in May’s election. Asking why so many individuals did not vote is an imponderable – there are simply too many contingencies and potential answers – but I submit to you that my example means that at least some of those who didn’t vote are not the apathetic non-citizens they are typically portrayed as.
I am less alarmed than many by the rise of anti-EU parties, but one common thread that does bother me is growing opposition to freedom of movement. The expanded, though still limited, freedom of movement we Europeans enjoy is, in my opinion, the EU’s single greatest achievement.
The restrictions put on the movements of Bulgarians and Romanians by fifteen EU states following the 2005 Treaty of Accession were a disgrace. If Romania and Bulgaria are, for some reason I cannot understand, unfit to be full members of the EU, then they shouldn’t be members at all. Consider it for just a moment and the double standard on display goes some way to undoing the ridiculous idea that anti-migration parties like Britain's Ukip or Denmark’s People’s Party simply fell from the sky in a shower of inexplicable bigotry. Someone was governing those 15 EU nations back in 2005 to 2007, and it wasn’t the eurosceptics.
One thing that might move someone like me to cast a valid ballot is a party making the positive case for migration, not as an economic necessity or some kind of mushy multicultural feel-good factor, but as a fundamental human freedom: a right we hold to be inalienable.
When I do next vote it will in all likelihood not be in a European parliament election. I shall leave readers to mull over why that might be.
Image by El Sol. CC licensed