European elections “serves as a reminder of our shared home, which we must contribute to through a committed effort aimed at giving new impetus to a model based on rights, freedom, responsibility and solidarity, in order to overcome critical issues together.” In his message to participants in a meeting of Rete Imprese Italia, held a few days ago, the Italian President reiterated the true significance of the vote of May 26. Only five years have passed since the last European elections but a century seems to have gone by, given the scope and dimension of the transformations occurred at national and international level alike. On May 25 2014, for the first time in a non-local election, less than 60% of Italian citizens went to the polls. The turnout was 58.7% (excluding voters abroad). Although this number placed us fourth in Member States ranking, it signalled a drop of 7.7% compared to the previous elections.
What should we expect from the upcoming election of May 26? Opinion polls registered a significant proportion of undecided voters (both with regard to the choice of the party and the decision to participate in the vote). It is undeniable, however, that this European election has acquired a political relevance that it may never have had in the past. Not only because of the possible internal repercussions, but above all because of the direct consequences it could have on the EU’s equilibrium and identity. Is it conceivable that the trend in Italy will be reversed, with a resumption of participation that has fallen by almost 27 percentage points since the first European elections in 1979?
Recent national precedents do not offer clear indications. With 72.9% of voters, the turnout in last year’s general election marked the lowest turnout in the history of the Republic. Yet all political observers agree that this figure signals a substantial stability with respect to the national elections of 2013, when it fell to 75.2%.
In fact the dreaded drop in voting participation did not occur. This shows that the perception of the importance of what is at stake and the entry of new political forces capable of intercepting the anti-system vote can effectively compensate for citizens’ disaffection with the political system. It is no coincidence that the recent national elections in Spain registered a 9% increase in turnout. As for the local vote, with reference to the first months of 2019, participation increased in the regional elections in Sardinia and Basilicata, while it decreased in Abruzzo and even in the local administrative vote in Sicily. However, it is reasonable to assume that these variations are mainly due to specific factors involving the various situations. Moreover, the forthcoming European elections (as happened five years ago) will also be accompanied by a regional vote (Piedmont) and an important administrative election.
But it is first and foremost citizens’ awareness of the crucial moment that the European Union is experiencing that will determine participation.
There is a widely shared demand for a change of direction in EU institutions. In fact while “in a global context characterised by risks, tensions and uncertainty, the driving thrust of free trade, movement and the single market for entrepreneurial initiatives, investment and growth is becoming increasingly evident” – declared President Mattarella in the above-mentioned message – “the growing disparities and difficulties of many European citizens require a stronger social dimension and instruments for a more balanced, inclusive and sustainable development.”
On the other hand,
“criticism has never before been more radical or aggressive, to the extent that in some cases the founding values of the Union, based on ‘rights, freedom, responsibility and solidarity’ have been called into question”, declared the Italian President. Such criticism often transcends the denouncement of shortcomings and errors, and is fuelled by communication campaigns that disseminate a false perception of the problems. This issue affects all democracies in a disruptive way and it implicates the need for up-to-date regulations. Most of all it requires a dedicated commitment on the part of citizens to document themselves, with careful discernment of sources and news.
In Italy in particular there is a risk that the political clash within (and around) the government majority could ultimately monopolize the attention of public opinion. In fact in all EU Countries the vote of May 26 is bound to have an impact on national apparatus and it would be unrealistic to imagine the opposite, given that the players are the same. But there is a substantial difference when it comes to transforming the European consultation into a national referendum. We are voting for Europe and its future.