international analysis and commentary

The first election fallout

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Europe’s politics and the debate about the future shape of the Union dominated the 2014 campaign season for the European Parliament. As a result, the line between domestic and European politics has blurred or even disappeared and it has become clear that party politics at EU level will transform the functioning of European institutions in the coming years.

The three main European political parties have already launched frontline candidates for the Commission presidency and committed to supporting them in the European Council and Parliament. Nevertheless, the coming post-electoral wrangling for key EU positions will reflect the strengths and weaknesses of national heads of governments and their respective countries.

In France, the ballot count put the establishment in a state of shock. The Front National (FN) led by Marine Le Pen won its first national election with a resounding 23% of voters choosing the far-right party. In the aftermath of the election, the FN called for a referendum on the EU, the blocking of EU institutions, and a snap general election. Socialists and Conservatives sharply dismissed Le Pen’s demand, but the political earthquake is in full swing. The leader of the center-right party UMP, Jean-François Copé, resigned yesterday after a poor electoral performance and amid fraud allegations. The main defeat, however, is for President François Hollande. After the Socialist Party scored a record low 16% in the polls, President Holland aired a television address calling the election a “grave moment” in the country’s history. France comes out of the election deeply divided and with its European influence diminished.

The French shock was immediately felt in Berlin. Angela Merkel called the rise of far-right movements “unpleasant, especially in France”. France’s instability will weaken the Paris-Berlin axis which in recent years has traditionally been the engine of EU politics and policies. In Germany, the grand-coalition parties secured a wide consensus for the government. Victory went to Merkel’s CDU, the party that more than any other defended the stability and “status quo” of the EU. The Social Democrats actually gained 7% since last year’s general election and did not seem to have suffered from entering into a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats. SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel obviously pledged to support Martin Schultz as Commission President in the forthcoming negotiations, but it is expected that his main priority will be preparing for the next general election. The poor result of the liberal FDP and the relative exploit of anti-euro parties (Alternative for Germany reached 7% of the votes) are also noteworthy. They will be a reminder for Merkel that Germany’s center ground remains pro-European but it is also wary of sharing other countries’ economic burdens.

In Great Britain, the unsurprising success of the “independentist” party, UKIP, poses significant problems for Prime Minister David Cameron and, to a lesser extent, for the Labour opposition. The UKIP, which for the first time came in first in a nation-wide election, has been traditionally strong in EU elections, only to fizzle out in the run up to national general election. This time, however, the UKIP seems to be here to stay. Anti-EU sentiments run deep across party lines and the UKIP has been able to attract voters from Conservative and Labour strongholds, notwithstanding allegations of closet racism. Under the UK single-past-the-post electoral system, the UKIP’s rise may prove fatal for the Tories in next year’s election. David Cameron, in an attempt to stem the tide, has repeated his promise for a referendum on UK’s membership to the EU by 2017 – probably viewed as a mild response to the rising popular hostility towards Europe. Speaking after the ballot count, Labour leader Ed Miliband explained that his party’s strategy in the run up to next year’s general election is to “focus on the economy and standards of living”. In spite of this, the UK’s position in the EU will predictably remain the thorniest issue in British politics in the coming years.

A more diverse picture emerged in northern Europe. In Denmark, the anti-immigration People’s Party topped polls. Kristian Dhal, the party leader, sent a message to “other moderate euroskeptic parties like the British Conservatives” to form an alliance to “steer back the EU” to focus on trade and energy and to be less interfering in national legislation. In Sweden, the election was a key test for the government in the run up to the general election scheduled for next September. The Social Democrats and the Greens largely benefited from the poor performance of governing parties and now seem to be on course to winning an outright majority in the coming election.

Parties of the radical left did well in the crisis-hit southern states of the Eurozone and in Ireland. The anti-austerity leftist parties won over 15 seats in Spain and a further four in Portugal. In Greece the anti-austerity leftist party Syriza won a resounding victory. Syriza’s leader, Alexei Tzipras, called for a new election and a new government to renegotiate the terms of the Greek bailout. EU austerity policies were also met with rising frustration in Ireland, a country which quickly responded to the crisis but it is still saddled by high bank debt. On his arrival in Brussels for the post-electoral meeting of the European Council, Irish PM Enda Kenny warned the Commission that the country was “worn out” and requested a bank debt relief.

A complex electoral picture also emerged in Eastern Europe. Although most of the Eastern EU Member States have a relatively low level of public debt and their economies are back on the growth path, in Hungary and Poland the EU has become increasingly associated with unpopular immigration policies (which mostly benefit Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants). The party of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban scored above 50% in the polls. After the election, Orban announced that he will not support a strong EU Commission president and will fight to re-establish border controls in Hungary.

The most surprising result of the election came from Italy. Only three months after taking hold of the premiership, Italy’s center-left leader Matteo Renzi won the EU election by a landslide, taking more than 40% of the votes. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement scored second at 20%, a considerable result, but well below expectations. The electorate gave Renzi an unprecedented vote of confidence in his reform plan and strengthened the stability of his coalition government.

The main task for European leaders will be to put the complex puzzle of European politics back together and to answer the rising calls for reform and growth that run across the continent. Over the next few months key decisions will have to be made on the EU Commission, the EU Council presidency and, more importantly, over the future of the economic and political union.