Goodbye apathy? We must raise turnout for the EU elections

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On May 22nd every single one of us will have the opportunity to vote in the European elections for our all-important MEPs, who decide on legislation in Brussels that could change the way we live here in the UK. Britain has a total of 73 MEPs from a range of political parties including the European People’s Party, the Party of European Socialists, the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, the Green Party, and many independent candidates. Who will represent your region? It’s time to make your decision, right?

Of course, the above is laden with sarcasm. The truth is that few Britons understand the complexities of the European elections; most either don’t know who is running, let alone who to vote for, or just won’t vote. Even the simplest workings of the European Parliament are far from common knowledge. In the last election in 2009, the UK had a dismal turnout of 43 percent. The figure was even lower in states such as Slovakia – not even 20 percent. The European Parliament almost envies our general election turnout, at 65 percent last time around and four percent higher than in 2005.

As usual, the figures don’t lie: the European elections just don’t have as much relevance to us as the EU and our government like to think. The greatest debate for those in the UK at the moment is whether or not to even stay in the EU, not who to elect as our MEPs. The leaders of the UK Independence Party and the Liberal Democrats, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg respectively, went head-to-head at the beginning of April in a televised debate to raise their profiles in the Europe debate. They answered questions from both David Dimbleby and the studio audience on topics such as the economy and immigration – two big concerns about our membership in the EU – as well as flashing obscure party leaflets at each other and making snide personal remarks. While UKIP was widely thought to have won, it remains to be seen whether public opinion is leaning towards separation from the EU.

In fact, the televised debate did nothing but confuse my own opinion further. Initially, Clegg came across calm and collected, laying out the simple fact that the UK is more likely to benefit from trading within the EU and disputing Farage’s claims that 75 percent of UK laws are made by the EU – a statistic based on UKIP’s own predictions from a 2005 study in Germany. At times, Clegg also got himself into a bit of muddle, whilst Farage’s brash personality triumphed in the face of criticism. A poll from YouGov, detailing that 68 percent of the crowd thought Farage had won, may appear to show public support for UKIP, but are opinions actually clarified enough that we would make the important decision to leave the European Union?

I would argue not. Voter apathy would suggest an indifference from most people concerning our membership in the EU. Yes, there are immigration issues, and yes, it doesn’t seem right that our laws are made in Brussels. Yet with the economy in such fragile recovery, who in their right mind would suggest that we break away from what is, in reality, the UK’s biggest economic trading point? Farage’s suggestion that if we break away from the EU we will still be able to negotiate big trading deals with other countries is pure conjecture. In 2013, 44 percent of our exports went to the EU and 53 percent of our imports came from the EU. Trying to extrapolate an exit plan from smaller countries such as Switzerland cannot be considered reliable.

Unfortunately for a left-winger like me, the reality is that the Conservatives have probably got it right – that there are problems with the EU but that these problems can’t be tackled from outside the union. Until our choice of MEPs and how to vote become more transparent, not much is going to change in our response to the EU elections, nor whether we should remain in the EU itself. It is quite frankly frightening, however, that BNP leader Nick Griffin has been part of the European Parliament for the Northwest of England for the last five years. If people knew more about how that happened and about the EU in general, then maybe the public wouldn’t be so apathetic about Europe.

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