Less than four months before the European Parliament elections, Czech President Václav Klaus has accused the institution of contributing to the political alienation among EU citizens. In his speech in the EP yesterday, he likened the decision-making process in the EU to that of a totalitarian regime and said that strengthening the EP’s role by ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would make the problem even worse.
Some MEPs walked out of the room in reaction to Klaus’ speech. But the majority of Czech politicians were quoted yesterday as saying that Klaus’ Eurosceptic views were known and therefore expected. PM Mirek Topolánek refused to comment on the speech but said it was the president’s right to present his opinion in the parliament.
MEP for KDU-ČSL Zuzana Roithová said Klaus did not represent the majority stance of the Czech citizens in the European Parliament.
Klaus is, nevertheless, a popular president at home, and his stance may impact the upcoming EP elections in June. According to an informal online readers’ poll conducted by ČTK yesterday, 61% of respondents said they agreed with the content and form of his speech, while 35% said they considered the speech provocative and harmful to the Czech Republic.
Among Klaus followers is the newly formed right-wing Eurosceptic party, the Party of Free Citizens (SSO). Its chairman, member of the Centre for Economics and Politics, Petr Mach, is hoping to join forces with the Libertas movement of Irish Lisbon Treaty opponent Declan Ganley in the upcoming elections. A parliamentary editor at EurActiv Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener said Eurosceptics could gain around 5% of the seats, especially because of their controversial campaign, which could attract voters to the polls.
Low voter interest in the elections seems to be a key problem of the June European Parliament elections, which otherwise are considered to be the biggest election event ever held with more than 375 million EU citizens eligible to vote this year. Since 1979, the voter turnout decreased from 62% to 47.63% in 2004. According to last fall’s Eurobarometer poll, only 26% of the respondents are aware the elections will be held this year. EurActiv quoted some European politicians as saying the EU’s response to the financial crisis could increase citizens’ interest in the EU and motivate them to come to the polls in June.
To raise awareness of the elections, the Parliament has launched a special website dedicated to the elections in 22 languages and is preparing a campaign in cooperation with the Commission, which is to appear on billboards, in travel multimedia rooms and even on Facebook in all EU countries in the spring.
The campaign will focus on several key issues that the EP has been discussing and that may affect the daily activities of citizens and businesses. The campaigners believe introducing topics rather than putting stress on citizens’ civic duties will be a successful approach.
Some of the topics that the citizens of EU countries can influence by voting include lower prices for SMSs sent or received in another member state, compensation for delays for EU railways passengers, maternity leave extended to 18 weeks and stricter limits for polluting industrial emissions.
The European Parliament is the only EU institution whose representatives are voted directly by the citizens. The first European elections held by universal suffrage took place 30 years ago in 1979. Along with the electoral system, the European Parliament has undergone a number of changes since it was established in 1958. The number of MEPs has jumped from 142 to 785 due to the progressive expansion of the EU. Also thanks to revisions of the EU treaties, the EP has gained more powers and now majority of the EU legislation is decided by its representatives.
Along with the legislative powers, the EP shares responsibility with the Council for establishing the annual budget of the EU and decides on spending in the fields of social and regional funds, energy, research, education, the environment, transport, development aid and culture. Another key role is the supervision over EU institutions, especially the Commission. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament’s powers would be further extended.
The 2009 elections will take place between 4 and 7 June. The actual polling days will vary from country to country according to local customs. In the Czech Republic, elections are always on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, this time it will be 5 and 6 June.
The Parliament is renewing about half of its members in 2009. The Czech Republic is currently holding 24 seats in the EP. But the number of seats will shrink to 22 in line with the Treaty of Nice, which decided after the admission of Bulgaria and Romania to lower the number of MEPs to 736 after the 2009 elections.
All political parties in the Czech Republic have introduced their candidates, excluding the Greens, who will do so after the party’s national council meeting. So far two deputies for the Greens, Kateřina Jacques and Matěj Stropnický, said they would like to run for the MEP’s chair. MEP Jan Zahradil is the leader of the ODS candidate list for the elections, followed by former governor of the Moravia-Silesia region, Evžen Tošenovský. Seven of the ODS MEPs will seek re-election. Number one candidate for the Social Democrats is the former deputy prime minister for economy, Jiří Havel, followed by MEPs Richard Falbr and Libor Rouček. Political parties and movements have until the end of March to submit their lists of candidates.
In the 2004 European Parliament elections, the ODS won nine seats, followed by the KSČM with six seats and SNK ED with three seats. The remaining six seats were taken by the KDU-ČSL, the ČSSD and Nezávislí each gaining two seats.