Sunday May 25 was Europe’s electoral super Sunday. Roughly 400 million people in 28 European countries were called to cast their ballots to elect the new EU parliament. European elections are usually forgettable events, marked by declining voter turnout and an increasing number of protest votes. The 2014 European parliamentary elections, however, could be different, because they are likely to gauge current popular support for European integration, the strength of anti-EU or anti-euro parties of both left and right, and EU citizens’ views about their governments’ handling of the Eurozone crisis.
The euro crisis has exacerbated one of the deepest contradictions at the heart of Europe: the need for more integration among Eurozone economies, and the voters’ rejection of it. Even if the worst of the crisis is over, economic growth remains weak and unemployment high, with as many as 26 million people remaining out of work. Most Eurozone voters have come to associate the European project—where power is diffuse and decisions subject to compromises in multiple, opaque institutions—with failure and hardship. Some of them might want to keep the euro, but an overwhelming majority opposes the enlargement of the powers of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the European Parliament.
To counter these hostile sentiments and shorten the political distance between Brussels and EU voters, the European Parliament tried to spark public interest by turning the elections into a contest for the next President of the EU Commission, the most powerful EU post and one whose appointment has traditionally been decided by EU national leaders. The leading EU umbrella-parties—EPP, S&D, ALDE, and the Greens/EFA—fielded candidates known by the German word Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates). The idea is that by voting for a member party of a particular group, voters can express their support for one of these candidates and thus send a message to national governments, who are obliged by the Lisbon Treaty to take the results of the election into account when they appoint the new EU Commission President. EU voters, however, have shown minimal interest in this particular aspect of the EU Parliamentary elections; perhaps more importantly, EU government leaders have only shown lukewarm support for the idea, thus hinting at the fact that a protracted negotiation over the nomination of the EU Commission President remains a distinct possibility.
Protest Parties Win a Quarter of EU Parliament Seats
Across Europe, anti-establishment parties of the far right and hard left more than doubled their representation, harnessing a mood of anger with Brussels over austerity, mass unemployment, and immigration. The ‘protest parties’ are determined to stop business in the EU and will represent and unprecedented challenge to the center-right and center-left parties that will continue to control more than half of the 751 seats in the EU legislature.
In the UK, the Independence Party (UKIP) scored an impressive victory. The UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, described it as “the most extraordinary political event in the past hundred years.” This is, just perhaps, an exaggeration, even if UKIP’s victory marked the first time, since 1906, that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour won a national election. Moreover, with 28 percent of the vote, UKIP success showed once again that the Brits still have a strong Euroskeptic strain. The question now facing Prime Minister Cameron’s government is how much of the current support for UKIP will carry over to the UK national election next year. Most of the UKIP voters seem to be Conservatives whose political loyalties are shifting. Addressing this ongoing political exodus has been a serious issue for the Conservative Party over the past couple of years; it might become an even bigger issue in light of the latest poll results.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front won 24 seats with 25 percent of the vote, up from just 6 percent in the 2009 EU elections. The NF capitalized on rising Euroskepticism in France, promising to take France out of both the euro and its obligations under the Schengen Agreement. Over the past couple of years, Madame Le Pen has made an incredible effort to refine the NF political platform so that it could be seen as a “party of power” rather than a “party of protest.” However, Madame Le Pen’s efforts might bring less change than she would like to see. European election votes, particularly in France, have rarely translated to national elections, and anyway such elections aren’t coming anytime soon. Nonetheless, a nationwide vote of protest of this magnitude should not be ignored.
In Germany, the one-year old party Alternative for Germany, which claims to be anti-euro but not anti-EU, won 7 percent of the vote and seven seats in the EU Parliament. Alternative for Germany’s leader, Bernde Lucke, is adamant that his party will not join the Euroskeptics in Brussels and will instead try to form a coalition with Britain’s Tories and other European conservative parties. For the first time, concrete, anti-Brussels rhetoric has become a stable presence Germany’s political landscape, and one that mainstream German parties can no longer ignore.
In Denmark, the anti-immigration far right People’s Party topped the polls with 27 percent of the vote; in Hungary, the extreme right Jobbik, finished second with 15 percent of the vote. In the Netherlands, the anti Islam, Euroskeptic Dutch Freedom Party finished joint second, in terms of seats, behind the pro-European centrist opposition party. In Greece, in a clear message to Prime Minister Samaras’ Government, the radical left, anti-austerity Syriza coalition swept the polls with 27 percent of the vote and six seats in the European parliament. The New Democracy Party won five seats, while the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party placed third with 9 percent of the vote.
Euroskeptics, in short, have gained political momentum, and EU governments face an acute dilemma over how to respond to Europe’s shifting political fault-lines: from left to right and from Europhilia to Euroskepticism.
The Other Winners and Some of the Losers
Center-right and center-left parties won more than half of the EU Parliament seats, but this generally positive outcome was not enough to counter the possible impact of the electoral successes of the “protest parties.”
In the UK, voter turnout was higher than in 2009, even if only 36 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls. The Liberal Democrats lost ten of the 11 seats they won in 2009. The Labour Party, which is more serious about European democracy than most parties in the UK, won twenty seats with 25 percent of the vote. The governing Conservative Party came in third, with 23 percent of the vote and won 19 seats. This result was expected; yet, confirmed that, in the UK, the governing party rarely win European parliamentary elections.
In France,the Socialist Party was among the losers, coming in third with 14 percent and 13 seats. Economic disappointment and political error are at the heart of the Socialist Party poor electoral performance, even more so considering that President Hollande keeps promising voters that recovery is just around the corner, and promising to bring down unemployment while nothing or the opposite of what he promises happens.
Germany did not suffer much of a Euroskeptic shock. However, some of the results were not necessarily what Chancellor Merkel expected. The Christian Democrats, and the Christian Social Union won 34 seats with 35 percent of votes, which is 3 percent less that what they did 2009, and in Germany domestic politics, a setback.The Social Democrats—Merkel’s coalition partners in Berlin—reached 27 percent, gaining six points from 2009 and winning 27 seats. Commenting on the electoral results, Chancellor Merkel stressed that “moving forward it will be more about pursuing policies that resonate with the people, as they are more interested in whether the European Project is making a difference in their own lives than whether there should be a treaty change or not.”
In Italy, a lower than usual turnout (59 percent) gave Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) 31 seats and 41 percent of the vote. This is a remarkable result, and a resounding vote of confidence in Renzi, his cabinet, and their ambitious program of political and economic reforms. In addition to using the electoral victory to press for easing current EU budgetary constraints and allowing more public investment in growth and jobs, Prime Minister Renzi has an opportunity (thanks to Italy’s EU presidency rotation in the second half of 2014) to become a major political player if he can find common ground with Chancellor Merkel.
The election results were an unexpected wake up call for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), which only won 21 percent of the vote and 17 seats despite exit polls showing that his movement was neck-and-neck with the PD. Millions of M5S supporters switched to the PD to protest Grillo’s decision not to cooperate with centre-left parties. Still, with one-fifth of the national vote, M5S remains one of the most popular political forces in Europe outside the traditional mainstream.
Finally, Forza Italia (FI) won only 17 percent of the vote and 13 seats in spite of former Prime Minister Berlusconi’s statements that FI was going to be one of the big winners of the European elections. The results are likely to make Berlusconi rethink his current collaboration with the PD to move forward key institutional reforms, even more so given that one aim of the reforms is to make Italy more of a two-party democracy; Sunday’s election results showed that those two parties would not necessarily be the PD and FI, as Berlusconi possibly intended when he agreed on letting FI in the current grand coalition government.
For the center-left and center-right parties, the elections re-affirmed how unpopular bailouts and austerity measures have weakened the standing of the Europe project. The voices of those worst affected by the Eurozone crisis have grown in volume; European institutions need to stop squabbling over second-tier concerns and need to focus on finding coherent solutions to Europe’s pressing problems.
Immediate Political Implications
The European Parliament vote could be seen as a referendum on how Eurozone voters feel about their national governments and the post-crisis, ECB-sponsored austerity measures. This perception is likely to put pressure on the weaker EU governments, although it is unlikely to cause any of them to collapse or to change the overall political landscape. The Greek government is the most vulnerable, with just a two-seat majority in a 300-seats parliament, and the responsibility for governing a country that has barely emerged from serious economic troubles. The Syriza coalition, the main challenger to the parties of the coalition government, did well, but not well enough to suddenly transform the Greek political landscape. Spain is another telling example. The ruling party won the most votes (26 percent) but fell short of winning a clear majority because of the fractured political scene that includes many regional parties.
Realistically, the newly elected anti-EU or anti-euro parliamentarians are only going to have an impact in relatively indirect way. First, they are not a coherent bloc. There are the mainstream Euroskeptics, such as UK Conservatives, the single-issue groups like the UKIP, the more far-right groups like the French National Front or the Dutch Freedom Party whose political roots can be found in issues such as immigration and economic integration policies, and the ultra nationalists and neo-Nazi groups like Greece Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik. None of these groups has showed any willingness to work together, which inevitably decreases their ability to influence parliamentary decisions.
Finally, the results of the European parliamentary elections may slow the move to grant greater power to the European Parliament within the EU institutional framework, and they may also delay the choice of the next President of the EU Commission. In fact, the leaders of the 28 EU countries may use these results as a reason to delay the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, who, as the Spitzenkandidaten for the center-right umbrella party EPP, which has emerged as the biggest bloc in the EU Parliament with a relative majority of 212 seats, is entitled to the post.
Contrary to expectations, no decisions emerged from the EU leaders’ informal dinner of last Tuesday. On the one hand, several of the participants, and especially Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, stressed that it was too early to decide about names, that the dinner was more about process, and that the idea of the EU Parliamentary elections automatically designating the Commission President represents a big transfer of power within the EU system and should probably be debated further. On the other hand, UK Prime Minister Cameron strengthened his charge against Juncker’s appointment, mostly based on Junker’s commitment to further European integration. Cameron, however, might be simply promoting his political agenda: Junker is not the Brussels insider bureaucrat one would want in charge if the UK wanted to renegotiate its relationship with the European Union.
In reality, because the term of the current EU Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, does not finish until the end of October, it is very likely that a protracted period of “horse trading” and arguments might lie ahead. The danger in this is that the fight over the EU top job becomes another example of the Brussels inward-looking culture and its inability to focus on the real problems that Europe continues to face.