international analysis and commentary

Electing the European Parliament: a view from the member states

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It is a curious paradox that the European Parliament has increasingly gained more rights and political power whilst its democratic legitimacy has been fading due to a lack of popular support.

The argument of critics and non-voters used to be that the Parliament had little impact as the real power lied in the European Council and the European Commission. Whereas in national elections the winning party would form a government, this has never been the case at the European level. Furthermore, electoral campaigns were held within the national borders and there were no recognizable Europe-wide leaders. Yet, the 2014 election is different in many respects: for the first time, with the Lisbon Treaty in place, the political group with the most votes will appoint the next President of the Commission, which is the EU’s executive power alongside the European Council.

The fact that there is an increased visibility of European candidates gives the current campaign the flavor of a pan-European event. However, the campaign is interpreted in different ways in the various national contexts.

In Germany, governed by a “great coalition” of Conservatives and Social Democrats since the beginning of the year, there is little controversy about how to face these elections. As there is a lack of hot topics to discuss and low unemployment, the interest is fairly low. One of the reasons might be that the main parties do not really distinguish themselves from each other as their key electoral messages are not very aggressive or controversial. All of the mainstream parties are officially pro-European, and they more or less agree about the role of Germany in Europe. Only the emergence of the euroskeptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) brings a new dynamic to the campaign: this party calls for returning powers to the member states, restricting immigration and allowing countries to leave the common currency under certain conditions.

The mainstream point of view is quite the opposite in Southern European countries. Billions of euros have been spent to save and bail out banks whereas people feel left behind, suffering under austerity measures that they are not responsible for. Greece and Spain have had the highest unemployment and arguably undergone the most severe cuts in the areas of education, welfare, employment and other social policies. As the drastic reforms adopted in Greece were implemented by the two established parties, the conservative Nea Demokratia and the center-left PASOK, there is a great sense of disappointment among the population with these political forces.

This is why the left-wing Syriza has gained a lot of support in the last two years and is likely to become the strongest party after these elections. The breaking news in the Greek political landscape is certainly the emergence of the Potami movement. This is a new political platform formed at the beginning of the year whose members see themselves as anti-politicians and pro-Europeans: according to opinion polls, they come in third behind Syriza and Nea Demokratia. On the far-right of the political spectrum, the nationalist Golden Dawn party is expected to get at least 10%.

It is interesting to see that in Spain there has been no emergence of a far-right movement. The established center-right Popular Party and the center-left PSOE are losing support, but are still likely to get the vast majority of votes. The left-wing Izquierda Plural has not been able to really capitalize on this situation, as it is expecting to get 10% of the votes. The distinctive feature in Spain is that instead of strong left-wing or extreme-right movements, voters are backing smaller regional parties or, more importantly, are unlikely to show up at the ballot box at all, with an abstention rate expected to exceed 50%.

Contrary to Germany, in France there is indeed great concern because of the rise of a far-right party like the Front National. It could become the most voted party, ahead of the Socialists and the center-right UMP. Although this can also be seen as a sign of protest against President Hollande’s highly unpopular socialist government, it shows the general mistrust felt by large parts of the population. The Front National will probably form a nationalist alliance at the European Parliament together with the Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV), possibly including other far-right parties from Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Lithuania and other countries in a wider coalition. The main arguments of these parties is that the European Union – at least in its current configuration – is too expensive, unnecessary and the origin of unemployment and poverty at the national level.

This approach is shared to a certain extent by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which, if given the choice, could not leave the EU quickly enough. Campaigning with highly controversial slogans on immigration, they create a certain angst among British voters, but are well received by large parts of the British electorate. Whereas UKIP would like to abolish the EU altogether, David Cameron’s conservatives have proposed an “in/out” referendum in case they get re-elected in 2015. The Tory government would also aim to negotiate a new deal which would entail taking back control of powers like justice and home affairs. The Labour party is similarly euroskeptic, but it is against holding a referendum on EU membership. It also rejects the concept outlined in EU treaties of an “ever closer Union”. To different degrees, all three parties want to “review” the issue of immigration.

The French and British cases illustrate how often mainstream parties are perceived as out of touch and, as a consequence, nationalist movements get a lot of popular support. This strongly influences the line taken by the other parties. Cameron’s junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, are the only ones voicing support for Europe, as they specifically try to make it clear that scenarios of invading immigrants are unfounded. As the most pro-European party in the UK and with low national approval rates, they are likely to score below 10%. However, according to a YouGov poll, the largest group among the British electorate is the non-voters, amounting to almost 60% of the electorate. It is much more likely than in the past that at least some of them will be mobilized by euroskeptics rather than by pro-Europeans.

The potentially low turnout shows how important it is to vote in these elections. One of the most common arguments against the European institutions is that they lack democratic legitimacy and that the people are not owners of their own destiny anymore. It has become very common – and easier than in the past – to blame the EU for problems at the national level. Some of the euroskeptic parties are even driven by xenophobic tendencies: their ultimate goal is generally to abolish the European Union as a supranational construct and return to nation states. All the assets and the benefits represented by European integration, as the absence of internal violent conflicts or the freedom of movement, would be therefore destroyed.

Never has the EU been criticized as much as today and never have the people had more power in their hands inside the ballot box.  Indeed, by going to the polls at this year’s elections, the European voters have their best chance so far to actively participate in moving one step closer to more transparency and democratic legitimacy.