In 2009 only 43% of those eligible across the EU voted, with figures much lower in some regions, including Scotland, which is my own constituency. There is no single reason why turnout is so low. But I think that most people would agree that reversing this trend is vital for European democracy.
As MEPs we are elected to represent the needs of people in our constituencies. But in recent years it seems the gap between the electorate and politicians in Brussels has grown wider and wider. We know that participation in European Parliament elections has declined steadily over recent years.
This is not something unique to EU politics. Questions over voter apathy have been asked in the UK for a number of years. But the problem seems particularly acute for those of us representing our constituents at the European Parliament.
There have been a number of recent initiatives that have attempted to close the gap between voters and MEPs. These are all well and good, but in many cases EU citizens simply do not have sufficient interest in what goes on in Brussels.
The fact is that most of my constituents have never heard of ALDE, or any other European political party or group.
Any casual observer of EU politics will have an opinion on why this might be the case. But for me, one of the major reasons for this lack of interest in EU issues is that campaigns fail to show how EU projects and programmes make a real difference to businesses, families and communities.
A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that 84% of Europeans think more voters would turn out if they had more information about the EU’s impact on their daily lives. The key to ensuring that people understand what the EU has to offer is talking about it in terms that they can understand.
EU institutions and decision-making processes are complex and a lot of very real benefits can easily get lost amid jargon and acronyms.
There are as many languages spoken at the European Parliament as there are member states. But we also have a dialect of our own that is almost indecipherable for anyone living outside of the EU bubble.
And the fact of the matter is that the benefits of EU membership are clear. If we look at the economy, we know that three and half million UK jobs are linked to the Single European Market. The recently announced EU-Canada trade agreement alone will boost the UK economy by £1.3 billion. These are big numbers that everyone can understand. As MEP’s who are positive about the role the EU has to play in our society we must ensure that we are talking about these real benefits in a way that does not make people switch off and stop listening.
The popular representation of the EU in the press as a ham-fisted bureaucratic behemoth also does nothing to help the matter. Some media outlets overlook the support for jobs, growth and infrastructure that the EU provides for member states. And the support is there.
This year I have visited local projects across Scotland funded by the LEADER programme. The aim of LEADER is to increase the capacity of local rural communities and business networks, to build knowledge and skills, and to encourage innovation and co-operation in order to tackle local development objectives.
Liberal Democrats have always believed that local communities are best placed to take decisions about services in their area. The LEADER programme is a particular favourite of mine because the projects it helps work from the bottom up.
The EU is often criticised as a centralising force which takes power away from national governments. But with LEADER, we are putting big money back in the hands of local communities and supporting rural development.
Amongst the projects I have visited was the new children’s driving course at the Grampian Transport Museum. The LEADER-funded project teaches 5-11 year olds road safety through play and has eight electric cars, and miniature road signs and signals.
LEADER has supported hundreds of projects across Scotland. EU funding has helped regenerate country parks across Scotland, creating jobs and boosting our crucial tourism sector. EU funding has built and refurbished halls and community cafes and developed training facilities to help teach new skills for better employability.
Take the example of the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, a world leading research facility, creating high-quality jobs which would never have got off the ground without EU financial support to fund the research programmes developing new treatments for currently untreatable diseases in Europe and beyond.
EU money is helping us build a stronger Scottish economy and giving young people the chance to get on in life. I know that the picture is similar in other parts of Europe.
Where people have seen the benefits that the EU can have for them they are far more likely to take an interest in what is going on in Brussels. Where they feel they have a stake in the decisions we are taking at the European Parliament they are far more likely to get involved and stay involved. This can only be good for our democracy.
LEADER, and other programmes like it, are great examples of how we can connect people with the EU on a local level. We need to do the same in our campaigns to show citizens the positive effect the EU has on their everyday life. Straight talking on the difference the EU makes will go a long way towards ensuring that we can buck the trend and close the gap between politicians and voters across Europe.