EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - MEPs on Thursday (29 November) approved a new set of rules they hope will spur citizens to vote in the five-yearly European elections, a pan-European event that has regularly seen turnout fall below 30 percent in the individual member states.
Just days after only 29 percent of the Romanian electorate turned out for the country's first ever European elections, MEPs said that European political parties - currently numbering ten - should be able to use public money to finance political campaigns.
They also voted to set up political foundations. These institutions - to get €7 million in EU funds next year - will be politically affiliated to a particular European party and will be designed to get people talking about Europe.
Welcoming the news, EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom, who proposed the plans earlier this year, said "Europe really needs genuine debate and political controversy to engage citizens."
Speaking to EUobserver, the commissioner said the point of the new measures is "not to ask everybody to love the European Union but to say: 'There is something going on, you had better participate.'"
Low turnout has long been a source of frustration for many euro-deputies who feel their claims to belonging to the most democratic of the EU's main institutions is often undermined by the fact that so few people vote to put them there.
The point is to become more acute from 2009, the date when the EU's new treaty is supposed to come into place.
Under this document, MEPs' power to co-legislate with member states has been doubled and includes politically sensitive areas such as farm policy and justice issues.
MEPs are hoping that a provision in the treaty meaning that the next commission president should come from the political party that does best in the elections will make voters more conscious of the effect of their ballot.
"We need to do something," said Ms Wallstrom, who suggested that one of the topics of the discussion around the election of 751 MEPs from 27 member states in 2009 could be whether a woman will land one of top EU jobs up for grabs that year - either as EU foreign minister, president or head of the commission.
The rules agreed by MEPs also allow parties to carry over 25 percent of their EU funds from one year to the next.
The current system prevents long-term planning as parties rush to spend any left over money by the end of the budgetary year.
German socialist MEP Jo Leinen, in charge of the dossier in the parliament, called it a "major step forward" for European politics - itself a concept representing "new territory."
He said he hoped the measures would create "a new dynamism" in EU politics as well as "a European public opinion."
Answering questions on fears about whether EU taxpayers money will be safely spent, Mr Leinen said that there is a "very compact system of control and audit."