Opinion

EU's 'death' is greatly exaggerated

As the Continent's voters elect a new parliament, some of them trust the EU more than their own national leaders.

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The news of the European Union's death is greatly exaggerated. Despite forecasts of a miserable turnout in next week's European Parliament elections – and therefore a fatal "democratic deficit" – the EU is alive, well, and, yes, very democratic.

True, the low 46 percent turnout in the last European parliamentary elections in 2004 will probably dip down to an embarrassing mid-30s this time around. But it is offset in two ways.

The first is that representational democracy gives national parliaments and their governments a very strong say in the EU. Voters do elect these governments. They confer on them the power to "pool" national sovereignty and transfer, for example, external economic representation to the European Commission. The commission then speaks on behalf of all 27 EU members and gets them a better deal in world trade negotiations than they could achieve singly. European consumers benefit.

The second offset is both more complex and more unexpected. Opinion polls reveal a phenomenon in the tier of southern member states in particular in which citizens trust the EU far more than they trust their own national governments, points out Pedro Magalhaes, a pollster and analyst at the University of Lisbon's Social Sciences Institute.

In Portugal, Italy, and Romania, citizens perceive the EU as less corrupt and arbitrary than their own politicians. They appreciate the economic development the EU has brought them, and the dwindling of graft as these Mediterranean countries have carried out reforms to qualify for EU grants.

Take Portugal. It was one of the poorest countries in Europe when it joined the then European Community in the mid-1980s. Membership not only helped stabilize democracy in the wake of the half century of the Salazar dictatorship. It also brought an EU-funded system of roads that helped unify and Europeanize the country, along with bank and economic regulations that made it competitive in a globalized world.

It gave many young Portuguese an unprecedented opportunity to study in Paris, Berlin, and London. It accelerated the transition of Portugal from a 19th- into a 21st-century nation. Today, no large Portuguese party would dare oppose EU membership, says Mr. Magalhaes.

In fact, the EU tail now often wags the national politics dog. One prominent campaign billboard for the European Parliament elections here proclaims, "Change Europe, change Portugal" – in that order. It opposes Lisbon's ruling Socialists.

The EU is finally running a vigorous campaign of its own. Posters here encourage voters to choose what kind of energy they want – wind, nuclear, solar, and fossil-fuel power – by voting for their European representatives directly. And a roadshow with a webcam invites voters to speak their messages to an audience on a big computer screen in Brussels.

"The result of EU membership is positive, and if it's not more positive, we have to blame ourselves," says Claudio Rebelo, an insurance analyst. He will vote on June 7. And with time, his generation should fill in that other democratic deficit of Europeans who don't make full use of their EU membership.

Elizabeth Pond is a former European correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

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