In 1713 emissaries from war-wearied European countries gathered in the prosperous medieval town of Utrecht to work out a new balance of power. The Treaty of Utrecht didn't hold much longer than any of the other attempts over the subsequent three centuries to keep European nations from one another's throats. The most lasting peace forged among European signatories since then, in fact, is embodied in the European Union: 52 years and counting. Yet the citizens of Utrecht, along with the rest of Europe, appear all but oblivious to the European Parliament elections taking place between June 4 and 7 across all 27 member states.
"I don't even know when they are," says Bas Van den Brule, a 19-year-old student, "and I probably won't vote either." Jacqueline de Kuijper, 21, admits she has no idea what the Parliament does. "I'm not sure I want to spend time finding out," she says. Such apathy has bloomed as never before across Europe. A recent Eurobarometer survey found only 34% of the 375 million eligible voters were likely to cast ballots for the 736-member Parliament, the E.U.'s only popularly elected institution. That would preserve an ignoble pattern: turnout has fallen at each successive direct election to the Parliament, from 63% 30 years ago to 45% in 2004. (See pictures of the changing face of Europe.)
Why do so few care? Some blame the E.U. as a whole for appearing remote, abstract, bureaucratic and dull. The Parliament itself is all of that and less. It lacks visible personalities, and doesn't even have a ruling party or opposition to make it clear what is at stake. Instead, power is split among the big political groups the conservatives, the liberals and the socialists who rule largely by consensus. "This makes it difficult for people to see how their vote matters," says Karel Lannoo, CEO at the Centre for European Policy Studies think tank. "Since they do not do anything like elect a European government, they do not feel they can change anything."
If the structure is flawed, so is the content. The Parliament is often seen as a retirement home for washed-up national politicians. Its debates often drift towards a pomposity that is only amplified by translation into 23 official languages. The body's monthly commute from Brussels to Strasbourg, a nonsensical legacy of French pride, merely reinforces suspicions that MEPs spend lots of money to scant effect. (Read: "Brussels Beats Up On Bulgaria.")
Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of What's Wrong with the European Union and How to Fix It, observes that the elections tend to serve as referenda on national political issues rather than addressing European ones. "It's not a genuine contest for power at the European level," he says. (See pictures of London.)
Indeed, voters in Utrecht seem more concerned by the antics of Dutch anti-Muslim populist Geert Wilders than they are with, say, the E.U.'s plan to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% by 2020. Wilders wants to abolish the European Parliament altogether. "Every voter who wants to signal that the European Union is good for nothing in its current form can do so by voting for Geert Wilders," he said. His PVV party, like other political outliers, is expected to benefit from mainstream voter apathy. The Trotskyite anti-capitalist movement of Olivier Besancenot could muster 10% of France's vote, for instance, and the anti-immigrant British National Party could win its first seat.
Yet sober minds are needed. Despite the dwindling turnout, the Parliament is still a powerful legislative body. MEPs debate, amend and either reject or approve E.U. legislation on vital and concrete issues like climate change, immigration, financial regulation and employment. But in Utrecht, few seem to know or care what MEPs do. That makes campaigning much tougher, of course. "People should be interested," says Judith Merkies, a candidate for the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). "It is about their lives, their place in the community and the world." At the same time, she accepts that voter apathy is a message in itself. "If people aren't interested and do not use their civic rights, that is up to them. That is how democracy works." But it is also evidence of how it doesn't.