European elections: The downturn turn-out turn-off
24 May 2009
Against a backdrop of rising unemployment and deteriorating social condtions, the Union has little benefited the working classes, reason for which voter abstention in this June's European elections will be exceptionally high, writes Spanish political commentator Vicenç Navarro.
All polls show that in the forthcoming European elections large numbers of voters will be staying away from the polls. Political apathy has grown progressively over recent years – a phenomenon that was well established before the current economic and financial crisis took hold. The causes for this are obvious. But to understand them you have to look at what is happening in the EU.
1. In the 15 states which made up the EU prior to enlargement in 2004 (the EU 15), unemployment has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, while working conditions for the active population have continued to deteriorate. This is particularly evident in the percentage of the active population which now claims that its working conditions are stressful – from 32% in 1991 to 44% in 2005.
2. The growth rate for annual spending on the welfare state – on pensions, health care, and housing – has continued to fall, declining from 6.2% in 1990, to 4.8% in 2004.
3. Finally, if we look at the percentage of national income accounted for by payroll expenditures, which has declined from 68% in 1975, to 58% in 2005, we can clearly see that the value of wages and social security protection in the event of illness, incapacity for work or unemployment, has diminished.
While these data indicate a substantial deterioration in the social situation of workers in the EU 15, income generated by capital investment has increased at an enormous rate. From 1999 to 2006, corporate profits increased by 33%, while the cost of labour rose only by 18%. As a result, social inequality has increased significantly, and polls show that the European population is conscious of this fact. No less than 78% of EU 15 citizens acknowledge that inequalities are excessive in their respective countries.
The widening income gap is a reflection of policies advocated by the consensus in Brussels (the European equivalent of the free-market consensus in Washington) and implemented by European institutions, in particular the European Commission, which is responsible for the application of the fiscal austerity measures in the Stability and Growth Pact, and the European Central Bank, whose monetary policies have been of enormous benefit to capital investors and the financial services industry, but have failed to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Popular awareness of this situation is reflected by the poor approval ratings for the European Commission and the European Central Bank, which are among the lowest for any European institutions.
These are the reasons for working-class disappointment with the project to build an integrated Europe, and it’s a disaffection that has had a negative impact mainly on centre-left parties, because the social groups that have lost most from liberal economic policies, among them the working classes, are the most loyal centre-left voters.
If the parties of the centre-left are now in crisis, it is because they rallied to free-market economics when they were in power; and an understanding of this error is vital if they are to undertake a much-needed analysis of where they went wrong. As for the Right, it owes its success to the loyalty of its electoral base, which is composed of higher income groups who benefit from free-market policies. In recent times, it has also benefited from the support of a certain fringe of the working class, who have been led to believe that nationalist and anti-immigration policies will compensate for the scarcity of secure employment within the EU. As always, racism is not simply a matter of ignorance but also of a perceived threat to one’s own position within society.