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In praise of apathy

Posted by Richard Saturday, June 12, 2004

David Harley, the European Parliament's official spokesman, is crowing about the increased turnout in the European elections. The parliament "is winning the war against apathy", he purrs.

With overall UK turnout expected to be in the order of 40 percent, compared with the all-time low of 24 percent for the Euro-elections in 1999, Harley sees this as evidence of the European Parliament "turning the corner". "If confirmed", he says, "it would mean that at last the gap between the importance of what the European Parliament does in terms of people's daily lives and people's perception of the European Parliament is beginning to close."

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this statement is that the man who made it is actually paid a salary. If he is going to utter such facile, nay, moronic bilge, one would at least expect him to do it for free, in his own time.

Not least of the tiny facts that demonstrates Harley's manifest error is the turnout in Scotland, where there were no council or other elections to distract the voters from their solemn task of awarding the lucky few their five-year season tickets on the gravy train. There, the turnout is estimated to be 25 percent, almost exactly the same as the 24.7 percent garnered in 1999.

Second in the catalogue of rather inconvenient facts is a phenomenon which seems to have passed by Harley's dim little brain – that upwards of 25 percent of the British vote will have been cast in favour of UKIP.

If that means that "...the gap between the importance of what the European Parliament does in terms of people’s daily lives and people's perception" is "beginning to close", it also means that a very large number of people have woken up to what it is doing, and want none of it.

Thirdly, as has been noted on this Blog, much of the campaigning, here and in most of the member states of the EU, has been on domestic issues. The electorates of Europe are taking the opportunity, as Prescott so aptly put it, to give their governments "a kicking".

But, if all of that hardly adds up to a ringing endorsement of the European Parliament, the Harley's of this world will still be well-satisfied. What they are concerned with is the "crisis of legitimacy".

In this context, the more intelligent of his colleagues are quite happy to see a place in the European parliament for UKIP – as long as it does not become dangerous. Its presence demonstrates to the world that the EU is "broad church" and can tolerate – or even embrace – dissent. Their "token eurosceptics" are thus regarded with a surprising amount of warmth.

But what these people cannot tolerate – and what they fear most – is being ignored. We are here talking about a federal parliament, which has no inherent legitimacy and is always under challenge from the true representatives of the people, the national parliaments.

Its ultimate ambition is that its own popular vote should match, or even exceed, those of national parliaments. Then it will lay claim to be the superior representative body for the "peoples of Europe" and the right to legislate for them. Therefore, within bounds, it does not care who you vote for in the European elections, as long as you vote for someone. It is not the choice, but the act from which they seek to draw their legitimacy.

Thus, arguably, the most powerful vote against the European parliament is in fact an abstention - a vote for apathy. With that in mind, for the first time in my adult life, I did not cast a vote in an election. Single-handedly, therefore, I have reduced the turnout by 0.0000002 percent. There, now - that will really get them worried.