A Dangerous Yawn

Elections to the European Parliament give media outlets on the continent an excellent chance to air out the headline that always accompanies them: "Who cares?"

Vague, technocratic and difficult to understand - more than 50 years after the establishment of the community framework - "Europe" still evokes a big yawn among most of its citizens. If predictions come true, the elections scheduled for the end of next week will have two main characteristics: the lowest-ever participation (34 percent, according to the latest polls), and a massive protest vote by the few participants, who will take the opportunity to punish their governments for decisions and failures at the national level.

European public opinion needs a theater with a stage, actors and a plot. In this respect, the European Union cannot yet compete in the public's awareness with the veteran and deeply rooted "national theaters." Europe remains for its citizens a virtual political arena lacking a strong plot and charismatic actors. Elections to the European Parliament are typified by obsessive involvement with national issues, while burning European issues are pushed to the margins. Meanwhile, some of the actors sent to the European stage are failed politicians who have fallen from grace at home; for example, French Justice Minister Rachida Dati. In ludicrous cases, they are starlets lacking any connection to politics, like those sent to represent Silvio Berlusconi's party.

The great apathy surrounding the European elections might also be ascribed to the EU's major enlargements. They have made Europe more complex and less homogeneous; a continent whose common denominator is fading away. This apathy might also be attributed to the people's boundless ignorance when it comes to the EU and its institutions.

Many people on the continent have not even heard of the European Parliament; clearly they would also not know that the democratic exercise they are supposed to participate in is meant to represent about half a billion people from 27 countries; that it's the only multinational election on earth; that the parliament, with its 736 representatives, has become a key institution over the past few decades, involved in about 75 percent of European legislation; that the parliament also plays a central role in the selection and oversight of the EU's executive body, the European Commission; and that no major decision on issues affecting the continent is made without the parliament, from employment, social policy, health, transportation and the environment to the endorsement of international treaties.

Israel can also not ignore the EU. For better or worse, the parliament is the sounding board of European public opinion, considered its moral compass - that's the source of its influence on other EU institutions and the continent's governments. It therefore comes as no surprise that it's also the EU institution most critical of Israel. Since the war in Gaza, the EU has refused to ratify a framework agreement signed by the European Commission that is meant to allow Israel to participate in EU programs and agencies.

The dangerous constellation of yawning voters and severe economic crisis (reminding some observers of the Europe of the 1930s) could lead to elections that bring out all the national frustrations and strengthen populist and anti-Semitic parties - such as Britain's BNP or Austria's Freedom Party - at the expense of establishment parties. That would be a painful shot in the foot, with the ricochets reaching all the way to us.