You have to be very determined to find anything that is humorous to the bleak mixture of nightmare and tragedy that is the UK’s current government. Yet I am a seasoned humourist and I have managed to winkle something out. Going almost unnoticed amongst the calamity of the Brexit negotiations is the farcical treatment on Monday of one of the twenty-first century’s most luckless institutions: the European Parliament.
The European Parliament isn’t particularly European, in that the average European is more likely to pay no attention to it than to take part in its elections. At its last call on the public in 2014, there was a continent-wide turnout of 43.9%. Interestingly, the larger that the EU becomes, in terms of the collective population of its participating nations, the weaker and less cohesive its electorate. And out of the present 43.9%, there are probably fewer people who are following the ins and outs of what happens in the European Parliament than there are actively enrolled Freemasons.
For just as the European Parliament isn’t particularly European, neither is it much of a parliament. It is essentially the world’s first post-democratic parliament. Its members are practically anonymous, its debates go unreported, its deliberations are ignored, and even its venue at any given time (Brussels or Strasbourg) is a detail that will be known to fewer people than the 11% of British voters who feel confident naming their MEP. As Tychy had noted when the UKIP MEP Steven Woofle was assaulted in the European Parliament in 2016, the BBC, our supposedly Europhilic national broadcaster, didn’t have a reporter within two hundred miles of where this institution was sitting. This is to mercilessly expose the reality of democracy in the EU.
The wretchedness of the European Parliament reached its apotheosis on Monday when Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the EU Commission, literally threatened British voters with compulsory participation in its elections. The UK, he mumbled from within a fog of claret, must be out of the EU by May 23rd or else it will be legally required to hold elections to the European Parliament.
It is worth pausing here to consider just how awesome the degradation of democracy in the EU has become. In Juncker’s estimation, voting is no longer the only available means by which the powerless can wield power and contribute their mite to the destiny of the masses. A parliament is no longer the expression of popular will and a way for ordinary people to show who is in charge. Voting for the EU’s disempowered rump is instead a chore, a bureaucratic obligation, a sort of mild tax or service charge that has to be levied and paid. The cheery festive atmosphere of all of the adverts for the upcoming elections (e.g. “Only 100 days before the European elections 🇪🇺 🗳️ start! Are you ready 🏁? Do you know when, where and how? Make sure you have all the information”) attests to the monumental effort across Europe to remind people that their parliament still exists. It is like a twinge from your liver, or from some other distant, invisible and muffled piece of clockwork.
If I voted on May 23rd, who would I vote for? What would I vote for? How would my vote best convey all that I feel about populism and elitism in the EU? Note this moment well, for it is almost certainly the first time in the UK that anybody has seriously asked themselves these questions. But they are also, at the same time, the wrong questions. You are meant to vote in elections for the European Parliament simply to rubberstamp your approval of the European project and to confirm your corresponding powerlessness. Beyond this, there is no functioning European demos or no active political community with the common language, media, and political parties that are needed to make a parliament function as a parliament should.
Or maybe the times are a finally a changin’. It used to be the case that the UK’s voters predominantly sent UKIP politicians to Brussels, largely as a way of trolling the EU and winding up its suits. Now, like candles being lit across Europe, many other nations are beginning to rejoice in this irascibility. Every clown, cutthroat, and madman is currently in the running to be elected to the European Parliament. And it’s the best place for them.