Indeed, where I come from, politicians are these days bending over backwards to criticise and disassociate themselves from the Congress they want to be elected to. Sitting at today's launch, one had the sense that a main job for MEPs campaigning will be to explain the virtue of the Parliament to their constituents. Or at the very least, to explain what the European Parliament is.
“Many do have the opposite opinion to what is actually happening,” Parliament vice president Othmar Karras told us. “It is incumbent on the members of this house to put the facts on the table so there are no more misunderstandings.”
“This is an information campaign,” added vice president Anni Podimata. “It is trying to inform European citizens about what the Parliament has done and what it can do in the future.”
If that's the case, it's a rather sad reflection on the European demos. These elections, which have taken place since 1979, have had a steadily declining turnout since they started. In the last election in 2009, overall turnout was just 43%. The lowest turnout was in the UK, with just 34% bothering to vote.
Those that do turn out to vote are usually not voting on European issues but rather based on national politics. Citizens are presented with a list of national parties on their ballot, which then sit in European groups in Brussels. But the ‘European' policies of that party and its group in Brussels are a mystery to the average voter.
Governing parties are often ‘punished' in these elections, with people voting for whoever happens to be out of power nationally regardless of what that might mean for the actual institution they are electing them to.
“This time it's different” the European Parliament has insisted of the 2014 elections. In fact, they are right. The Lisbon Treaty has conferred an enormous amount of power to the Parliament, the only directly elected institution of the EU. The Parliament is now equal in power to the other branches of EU governance – the Council (made up of national governments) and the Commission (made up of appointed leaders).
The Parliament will also for the first time choose the European Commission President, who is effectively the head of government for the EU.
So this time, the stakes are different. But will the turnout be different? Will this new ‘power to the people' brought in by the Lisbon Treaty be able to interest the people?
While it seems likely that this election will be more about ‘European' issues than in previous years, that may not necessarily translate to anything the European Parliament actually does. Eurosceptic far-right and far-left parties are expected to make huge gains in this election, riding a wave of anti-EU feeling sparked by the economic crisis. Some even predict that UKIP, the party which wants the UK to pull out of the EU, could score the largest number of British seats next year. The next legislature in Brussels could come to be called the ‘crazy Parliament'.
So the strategy of the Parliament, as explained to us today, is to communicate to the people what it is this legislature does and why it's important to take it seriously. They've even hired a PR firm to sell the Parliament to the public ahead of the election. The election, then, starts to sound more like a referendum on the European project itself.
In other words, people can cast their vote in one of two ways: they can say ‘yes' to the European project and vote for one of the mainstream parties, or vote ‘no' and vote for a Eurosceptic fringe party. The Parliament is desperate to convince people to vote for the former.
Hence we were treated today to what some of the UKIP persuasion would surely call “europropaganda”. A video promoting the Parliament as the potential savoir of the people during the economic crisis, speeches about the wonderful things the Parliament has accomplished – this is an election about the legitimacy of the Parliament itself. What other legislature would feel obliged to begin an election in this way?
MEPs have their work cut out for them if over the next six months they want to educate their constituents about what the EU actually does – a task that really should be done by the education systems in the member states but isn't.
As long as member states continue to shirk that responsibility (preferring, I suspect, to allow an unknown EU to play the convenient scapegoat for unpopular policy), it's hard to be too enthusiastic about the Parliament's increasing powers. Democracy requires an informed electorate. Few could, with a straight face, argue that this is the case for the European elections.