Europe - or rather the European Union - is according to some estimates responsible for up to 80 percent of the laws and regulations that govern our lives. Even if this figure is on the high side, what happens in the corridors of Brussels affects everyone in the EU’s 28 member states, and beyond.
Despite this, even ardent political nerds find it hard to get excited about European Parliament elections. Only 43 percent of the electorate across the EU bothered turning up to vote in 2009. Even in Sweden, where turnout at the last national election was an admirable 85 percent, only 45 percent of eligible Swedes used their vote in the last European elections.
The next elections are in May and Pierre Schellekens, the European Commission’s man in Stockholm, would like to change all that. Expats from other European countries are in his sights:
“There’s no group with a stronger interest to vote than expats,” he says. He insists that without the EU and institutions like the Commission and the Parliament, free movement between the countries of Europe would fall apart:
“The Nordic countries had arrangements with each other before the EU, but on a wider scale you need institutions and control.”
Schellekens, who was brought up in Antwerp and Gothenburg, has been representing the European Commission - the EU’s executive arm - in Stockholm since 2009, after years at headquarters in Brussels. He’s the Commission’s eyes and ears on the ground in Stockholm, as well as their spokesman.
Make it easier to move around
Like many Eurocrats, Schellekens has spent his life going backwards and forwards between different countries, and thinks it needs to be made easier to live and work elsewhere:
“There are problems with implementation of free movement everywhere,” he says. Even in generally efficient Sweden it’s too hard to get foreign qualifications recognized, with nurses among those having a particularly tough time. Sweden is also bad at informing its citizens about their rights as EU citizens.
Free movement has had a bad press in recent months, not least due to bad tempered debates in many countries about the arrival of often poor migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. But he rejects a link between migration and growing Euroscepticism:
“That’s not the reason, but we’ve gone through an economic crisis which has led to scepticism of political structures. There are only four member states, of which Sweden and the UK are two, in which national institutions are more trusted than the EU.”
“Trust in EU institutions has fallen, but has held up better than trust in national institutions.”
‘You can’t cherry-pick'
One of the big questions hanging over the EU right now is Britain’s future within it, with a referendum promised for after the next election, if the Conservatives win. While he won’t speculate on what would happen to British expats if the country voted to leave, he emphasizes that “the rights granted by EU directives are granted to EU citizens.” In other words, if the Brits choose to quit, there are no guarantees for the millions of expats spread around the continent.
There’s a similar message to Switzerland, where voters opted in a referendum to restrict immigration, effectively tearing up a patchwork of deals on free movement with the EU and sparking frenzied negotiations between Brussels and Bern.
“You can’t take whatever you like out of EU cooperation. There’s no cherry-picking.”
As for Sweden, Schellekens says he’s surprised that it views itself as Eurosceptic. Despite rejecting the euro and some other projects (banking union being the latest example), he says that Sweden has “a normalized debate”.
“There’s no credible political force” pushing for Sweden to quit the union, he says. As for polls showing that less than half of Swedes want to stay in the EU (a major poll last year by SOM Institute put support for staying in at 42 percent), he says this would be “seen as strong democratic support on most issues”.
But why should they care enough to vote in the European elections? After all, the big questions of taxing and spending are reserved for Sweden’s own government? Surely those who are getting excited about them are mostly seeing them as a dry run for the general election in September?
“It will partly be a national election in 28 countries,” he admits, “but there will also be a 29th campaign - the European one.”
Choose your own Commission
To mobilize voters and give a sense of this being one big European election, the main political groupings in the European parliament have for the first time appointed ‘lead candidates’, who will be the main faces of their campaigns.
They’re big names in EU circles - former Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker for the centre-right, former parliament president Martin Schulz from Germany for the Socialists, and former Belgian PM Guy Verhoefstadt for the Liberals. The leader of the largest grouping will be put forward as next president of the European Commission.
But personalities aside, how many people have really got their heads around the often dry issues, like trade policy, for which the European Parliament has responsibility, let alone figured out which party stands for what?
“But many of the laws are not as abstract as people think. Lots of things are decided by the European Parliament that directly impact on people’s lives: rules about food safety, labour market rules, even how we switch on our televisions.”
“There’s also a principle: I prefer to participate rather than let others decide for me. If I don’t join in, I can’t complain. And if we stop using democracy, democracy will end.”
If you’re a citizen of an EU member state and live within the European Union, you have the right to vote in the European Parliament elections. If you live in another member state to that in which you’re a citizen you can vote in either place. For instance if you’re German and living in Sweden, you can opt to vote in either Germany or in Sweden.