international analysis and commentary

Why the US should look closer at the EU election aftermath

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After all was said and done, only 43% of the nearly 400 million Europeans eligible to vote ended up casting their ballot in the European Parliamentary elections. If many Europeans did not seem all that interested in the elections, one can imagine that attention levels across the Atlantic were even lower. Media coverage in the United States, negligible in the run up to the vote, was close to non-existent and easily trumped by domestic news on Election Day. Outside of the foreign policy and financial communities in Washington and New York, Europe’s vote did not receive much attention. Although somewhat understandable, this is a shame. For, despite their often arcane nature, European elections may prove more important to the United States than many observers realize.

As for many Europeans, the actual functioning of European Union institutions and the peculiar electoral process is unclear to many in the United States. Additionally, over the years even interested American observers of Brussels and Strasbourg have learned and internalized one lesson: that the European Parliament does not matter much in the making of EU and national policies. The euro crisis of the last few years has only strengthened this view, as the most important decisions were perceived to be made in Berlin (or maybe in Frankfurt). A reorientation towards member state capitals as the main interlocutors for Washington thus seemed to make sense.

But the European Union is evolving. The Parliament may not (yet) be as powerful as national legislatures, but its role is changing and the vast transnational elections to fill its seats are an important bellwether for the European project. The rise of many right-wing parties actively campaigning against European integration, including in key member states like France and the United Kingdom, is thus an ominous sign. This is of importance for the United States in at least three key areas.

First, the recent improvement in economic conditions should not lead to a false sense of security: the euro crisis is not yet over. Actions by the European Central Bank may have calmed markets for the time being, but vast challenges remain, in particular with regard to reconnecting Europe’s south. Long-term and youth unemployment are threatening future economic growth while severe risks remain in many countries’ financial sectors. Institutionally, the EU is taking steps to complete the economic and monetary union by installing a banking union. However, to safeguard against future iterations of the euro crisis, further steps toward integration will likely be necessary. The surge of new right-wing movements and parties seeking disintegration instead can hinder and delay this development, though their numbers are too low to be a serious challenge to the Union itself. For the United States, this means that contagion risks from Europe could linger for the foreseeable future.

Secondly, in recent months many of these right-wing parties in Europe have loudly backed pro-Russian fractions in the ongoing crisis in and around Ukraine. The support ranges from individual praise for Vladimir Putin, to tactical support for the Russian side as a balance to perceived American dominance, to allegedly receiving direct Russian funding, as in the case of the extremist Hungarian Jobbik party. All of this is unlikely to alter Europe’s course in the short term, but could contribute to political disarray in individual member states in the coming months; an outlook that should be of grave concern to US foreign policy stakeholders.

Finally, the European elections may impact the prospects of the ongoing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The proposed deal is already encountering the resistance of many members of the European Parliament. Now, the addition of a growing number of right-wing representatives is only bound to further shrink the ranks of supporters. For sure, criticism of the proposed trade pact reaches deep into established European parties, but it would be a mistake to conflate those legitimate questions and concerns with the brash and complete opposition to any international or transatlantic engagement of right-wing groups. This means that negotiations, still at an early stage, will become even more complicated over the coming months and years.    

While the election results may have sent shock waves through some European capitals, like in France, established and pro-European parties still command a clear majority in Brussels and Strasbourg. Nevertheless, the surge in right-wing and anti-European parties in many countries will have effects reaching far beyond parliamentary votes and procedures. In fact, the results can influence transatlantic relations as a number of key areas of interest to American policy makers and stakeholders are impacted. In light of these European election results, it is high time for the US to pay closer attention to developments across the ocean.