Britain will shortly go to the polls to decide who will represent its views in Brussels for the next five years. Yet with the MPs’ expenses scandal overshadowing the debate, the 2009 European elections risk being nothing more than a referendum on the national political situation.
We will pay a heavy price as a result; Britain's influence in Europe for the next five, even ten, years will diminish. Essentially, we risk sending a team of MEPs to Brussels that reflect our very immediate domestic political crisis, rather than on the basis of their plans for the EU for the next five years.
This is compounded by the fact that few voters really know what they are voting for.
I have been following the rise of the European Parliament for the past 26 years, ten of them as an MEP. The newly elected Parliament will exercise more powers than ever, so it is clear that the results of this election will have a greater impact on Britain's economy, environment and society than any since direct elections to the Parliament began in 1979.
But not only do voters not really know what they are voting for, it is quite extraordinary that there is no sense of the historic significance of the event itself. We are, after all, taking part in the biggest transnational election in history. Over 375 million EU citizens across 27 Member States will be eligible to elect 736 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Just 20 years ago, ten of participating nations were behind the Iron Curtain, and just as few decades before that Spain, Greece and Portugal were ruled by fascist dictatorships.
The European Parliament is no longer the talking shop it once was. It is the budget-making authority and co-legislator, along with the Council of Ministers, in most areas of policy (and will control nearly all policy areas if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified). It will also exercise a real power of initiative through the influence it will have on the choice of European Commission, President and individual Commissioners.
Every Commissioner-designate will be interviewed by the Parliament and their approval will depend on the extent to which they are prepared to make policy commitments, in line with the manifestos of the dominant political groups.
In terms of the elections themselves, few voters are aware that most MEPs sit in transnational political groups rather than in national groupings. These transnational clusters put forward manifestos for the European Parliament. Unlike a British general election - where manifestos are carefully scrutinised and dominate the campaign via a combination of media coverage, election literature and political debate - in these elections there has been an almost complete absence of debate about the competing plans for the EU for the next five years.
This is all the more significant because for the first time since elections to the European Parliament began, there has been a shift towards the formulation of detailed policy documents which draw some very real political and economic dividing lines.
On economic policy, financial regulation and the role of the state, voters face very clear choices between a system of Europe-wide regulation ‘with teeth’ and those proposals which seek to minimise regulation. On a range of other issues, including climate change policy, energy, enlargement, civil liberties and foreign policy, voters face similar choices. While many of the major parties are using the 2009 elections to push for a significantly expanded and strengthened role for the EU, other groupings fervently resist any further deepening and widening of the EU's authority.
Policy divergence between parties on many issues is significant: with regard to the economy, we see the regulatory and interventionist approach of the Party of European Socialists, which contrasts with the more market-orientated and cautious approach of the European People's Party. The European Liberal Democrats on the other hand, is pinning its hopes on the further development and implementation of the Single Market. The European Green Party, however, envision economic recovery stimulated by the creation of millions of ‘green-collar’ jobs. Similar policy divergences apply in other areas, from civil liberties to enlargement, from energy to climate change policy.
European elections notoriously get get low turnouts, but many fear that the storm in Westminster will have two effects come 4 June: it will either compound voter apathy or encourage protest votes against the major political parties. What is certain, however, is that the EU is growing and moving forward, making this a pivotal moment for voters to have their say in the decisions Europe makes over the next five years, decisions that will have tangible effects on the lives of Europeans across the continent.
Those elected as MEPs will contribute to making and shaping laws that will impact directly on our daily lives. The policies of the competing transnational groupings outlined in their manifestos, not the political crisis in Westminster, should be the real issues for British voters as they enter the polling booths on 4 June. Not least because they will significantly impact on the way the Union and its Member States tackle the worst economic crisis of our generation.
Mark Watts is Director of Luther Pendragon in Brussels and a former MEP and Transport Minister in the European Parliament. To view Luther Pendragon's analysis on the forthcoming EU elections, click here