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European Union

Disillusionment ahead of European vote

The vote for the European parliament is set to kick off in Britain and The Netherlands. The opening of the polling stations ends the election campaign - along with a great misunderstanding, says DW's Christian F. Trippe.

Few German expressions are understood or actually used in other languages. One, the word "Spitzenkandidat" (top candidate), recently made it into the English language. The first syllable sounds similar to the notorious "Blitzkrieg". But there's another parallel: the idea to position front runners for all of Europe has blindsided many citizens.

An election can only cause a political stir if power is involved.

That truism led europhile party strategists across the board to come to a revolutionary conclusion: the election campaign for the European Parliament must give the impression that this time, the voter is about to answer that most crucial question in a democratic community: Who will lead this place in the future? Who gets the power?

Outcome of little interest

Now, after many TV debates, panel discussions, online forums and Twitter tempests, disenchantment has set in. Opinion pollsters throughout the EU predict voter turnout will probably be stagnant. It may rise in some countries, and slump even further in others: A dismal zero-sum game.

Just one out of five Germans is curious about the outcome of the election, according to a YouGov poll commissioned by Cicero monthly magazine. In other words, 80 precent are more or less indifferent. Any mobilization effect the top candidates' campaign for the job of EU Commission president may have had was short-lived.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) organized a debate with the five top candidates. The program was well-prepared, and the exchange of controversial political positions professionally staged. However, there was little public interest: in Germany, only 160,000 viewers watched the debate. Debates on European policies are regarded as lethal for ratings.

Front runners symbolic

Now that the election campaign has ended, party strategists have begun to examine why it didn't work out as expected.

First assumption: the campaign couldn't be communicated Europe-wide because you can't reach voters in the crisis-stricken south of the continent with the same slogans targeted at worried North Europeans who have been concerned about their savings since the start of the euro crisis. Some countries traditionally set up campaign posters, some favor house calls, and others resort to flyers and street campaigns.

Second assumption: the two top contenders from the two major parties - Jean-Claude Juncker for the Conservatives and Martin Schulz for the Social Democrats - are too similar politically. In fact, both men are fervent Europeans who will sometimes turn a blind eye for the good of their joint project - a politically integrated Europe – and come up with arguments unrestricted by ideologies. That's how Europe works.

The top candidates were extraordinarily visible in very few countries, they were slightly present in many countries, and in Britain, they played no role at all - proof of the biggest misunderstanding in the entire election campaign. After all, the candidacies are purely symbolic on a legal and political level. The question of power is an indirect issue.

Currently, Brussels is looking at innumerable simulation games on who might be elected as the next Commission president - and under what circumstances - instead of the main contenders Schulz and Juncker. No doubt, that would mean cheating the voters. A lively debate might ensue on who is the cheat: those who accepted the full risk and set up virtual top candidates or those who, for whatever reason, nominate a different EU leadership.

What remains is the conclusion that the right direction is not possible in what amounts to the wrong campaign. And the English language has a new German expression.

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