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Worth voting for an MEP?

Mark Mardell | 08:48 UK time, Friday, 17 April 2009

EU election poster - lion and pussycatInside the Brussels building of the European Parliament blue banners are strung across the main walk way. "How much should we tame financial markets?" reads one, below the picture of a pussycat and a lion. "How open should our borders be?" proclaims another, beneath a picture of a fortress and a hedge.

Other attempts to persuade us all to go to the polls are the subject of a very funny assault by the Daily Telegraph's man in Brussels, Bruno Waterfield.

But the determination is not surprising. A Eurobarometer poll just released indicates that 28% of those Europeans questioned probably won't vote. A startling 30% in Britain said they definitely wouldn't vote: not "perhaps not", or "maybe" - they have made up their minds they won't cast a vote. That is more than double the figure before the last elections. And 71% of those who had decided, firmly, not to vote said it was because they were not sufficiently informed. So some will blame the media for not reporting enough of the goings-on in the parliament.

But I am not sure it is the whole story. General disillusionment with the EU may be the reason, but this isn't very logical: Conservatives and Libertas are both very critical of the existing structure and want to change it and UKIP want to pull out. So there is no shortage of options for those who dislike the EU in greater or smaller measure. EU election poster

There's little doubt that, for good or ill, the European Parliament has gained power and will gain even more if the Lisbon Treaty ever comes into effect, and it is the one bit of an organisation that is often condemned as undemocratic that you can vote for.

So why the indifference? I suspect that, although a lot of our laws are made at European level (more on this next week), people find it difficult to see how their vote matters. In general elections you actually vote for an individual MP but most people think in terms of voting for a government and a prime minister.

In elections for the European Parliament things are not so clear-cut. One prediction suggests not much will change. But if the Socialists, currently the second largest party, became the largest power block instead of the Christian Democrats, what difference would it make? Well, it could make it less likely that Jose Manuel Barroso would be confirmed as Commission President for another term. They would press for him to include a "social dimension" in all proposals. If he wouldn't give that assurance they might push for one of their own like Poul Nyrup Rasmussen to get the job.

When it comes to votes in the parliament there would be a more left-wing flavour to amendments and decisions. A real change, but not high drama. Of course if the Liberals, or Greens, or Eurosceptics swept the board there might be a more dramatic effect. Chatting to the Labour MEP Richard Corbett about this he suggests that this is not a specifically European effect: turnout for the mid-term congressional elections in the US is even lower. Again voters are not choosing a government. There is a general trend of falling turnout in most elections. I've just being talking to some visiting academics and one suggested that his vote changed nothing: it was lobby groups and NGOs that make a real impact, whether in Brussels or Westminster. Does voting change anything? And will you vote?

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