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The European approach to US elections

Europe US elections
Reading time: 3 minutes

Why are Europeans not as concerned by their own elections as they are by American ones? Now that President Biden has been sworn in after tense months, a couple of thoughts – on Europe – from our December edition.

The 2020 elections in the United States and their aftermath were among the most chaotic and uncertain events of recent history. Results turned out to be the same of four years ago in terms of Electoral College, albeit it was the Democrats prevailing this time. Republicans, who defined the 2016 victory as a “resounding” one, are now refusing to admit defeat while trying to hamper the transfer of power to the Biden administration. However, our readers are likely to be already very well acquainted with such information, and they are in good company. As a matter of fact, American elections were followed with spasmodic interest throughout Europe, perhaps even too much if compared to the regular media coverage and attention span that Europeans dedicate to their own elections, be them EU Parliamentary elections or other countries’ national ones around the Continent. 

This peculiar phenomenon filled our lives during the past weeks: we all know at least one tireless friend or relative who spent hours updating Google trying to find out the final results in Arizona. Most of us are now very familiar with even tiny details of the American electoral system, such as the number of presidential electors needed to win the race, or heard awkward names of remote US counties that became renowned due to alleged ‘fraud ballots’, such as Maricopa County. Maybe some of your friends turned into annoying while explaining the importance of the Democrats’ triumph in a traditionally ‘red state’ like Georgia and, if you don’t know anyone of this sort, then it’s probably you.  

The point is: pick the same friend who is now sharing some CNN posts about Joe Biden or Kamala Harris in her IG story and ask her who Margrethe Vestagher is, or to name three Presidents of the European Commission. There is high chance to receive a hesitant reply if any. Therefore, the key question we should ask ourselves is why Europeans look more concerned by American elections and politics than their own. One could assert it is just a matter of trade, since the US are the main trading partner of the entire EU, but in reality, it goes far beyond that. Germany and France are the main trading partners for the vast majority of European nations, yet the public attention generated by German or French affairs is actually far less intense. 

Related:  Just Around the Corner: The US 2020 Elections

Let us take one step back to the 2019 EU Parliamentary elections: the eventual turnout was 50.66%, an encouraging figure showing a positive trend with respect to previous occasions, yet substantially lower than regular national turnouts. Most importantly, this number tells us that half Europeans did not vote. This signals a relatively scarce engagement of Europeans in EU politics, which is paradoxical when compared to the outstanding thoughtfulness reserved to a distant continent like North America. 

Back to our topic, there may be three potential factors behind our enquiry: the complexity of the EU electoral system, the perceived actual influence of EU Parliament and Commission and, of course, the language barrier. 

When asked about the reasons why they decided not to vote at the last EU elections, 14% of of the abstainers pointed out that voting had no consequences or did not change anything, while 8% of respondents said they did not know much about the European Union or the European Parliament.

EU Parliamentary elections, as well as European institutions in general are indeed terribly complex for regular people. American presidential elections are much easier to comprehend in comparison, despite their peculiar features: two candidates, two parties, one clear winner. All in all, it is quite straightforward. On the other hand, it is often tough to designate a winner of EU elections, where roughly the same coalition made by socialists and populars always form the majority. Moreover, the current President of the EU Commission, once informally chosen by parliamentary groups through the spitzenkandidat procedure, was actually proposed by the Council. In any parliamentary systems, it would be quite strange to see the majority in the Parliament not having a say in appointing its leader and just approving one decided externally. 

While the POTUS is provided with strongly defined powers, such as commanding the armed forces or controlling foreign policy, the powers of the EU Parliament & Commission are somehow limited compared to national bodies. For example, the Commission has no fiscal power, while foreign policy is not unitary within the Union. As for the Next Generation EU program, the main decisions are eventually taken by the Council, which is not the expression of the European democracy, but rather the sum of single Member States. Electors may therefore conclude that it is sufficient to vote at a national level to bring their stakes also in Europe. 

Related:  Notification: Let's Be Alone Together

Last but not least, the language barrier. The EU has 24 official languages, which makes it difficult to build a true Continental public debate, given that only 38% of citizens have sufficient knowledge to hold a conversation in English2. On the other hand, US only have one language, although the Spanish-speaking community is relevant in the country. 

What could be done to raise Europeans’ engagement towards their own elections would be for sure to raise the English literacy rate across the EU, so as to give Europeans more occasions to confront with each other while allowing Continental media to spread. Explaining EU institutions at school would also help, but the true turning policy would be to enhance the extent of powers that the EU Parliament & Commission are entitled to, in order to improve the impact of European elections and their perceived importance. A reform of the current electoral system might also be required, so to decide once and for all who gets to choose the President of the Commission. Then perhaps, in ten or twenty years, your daughter will be primarily concerned by who won in some faraway Finnish village rather than North Carolina, and it will be for her best. 

Author profile
Deputy Director | paolo.barone@studbocconi.it

As a European citizen born in Portici, I'm interested in whatever deals with the economics and politics of our Continent. Sometimes I also pretend to understand philosophy.

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