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Post-Election Analysis: Between apathy and anger - but no earthquake

European elections / COMMENTARY

Date: 09/06/2009
EU citizens have voted, albeit not in very large numbers.
The overall turnout of roughly 43% of the 375 million eligible voters, indeed, represents a historical low (further down from 45.6% in 2004), and displays the high degree of apathy and lack of interest already apparent throughout the electoral campaign across the 27 Member States. Still, the figure is in line with the historical trend since 1979 and, truth be told, less bad than expected (and feared) on the eve of the elections. The fact that a number of governments opted for combining the European Parliament elections with other national or administrative votes contributed to containing the phenomenon within acceptable limits, raising the stakes and bringing more citizens to the polling booths.
Yet the problem remains serious: an ever-decreasing number of EU citizens participate in the election of a body whose powers have constantly increased over the past two decades, thus raising issues of legitimacy and credibility.
If and when the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, the Strasbourg assembly will acquire co-decision powers over as much as 80-90% of EU legislation, including the Common Agricultural Policy and important legal matters affecting the rights of ordinary citizens. Yet the newly-elected 736 MEPs have hardly received a mandate to this end from their constituents. Worse still, they have been elected on the basis of predominantly (if not exclusively) national campaigns centred on very diverse and often unrelated themes.
The most worrying signal comes, arguably, from the new Member States, where the turnout was once again generally spectacularly low, despite the solid popularity the EU now enjoys in most of them. In Poland, for instance, where up to 80% of the population seems quite satisfied with the country’s EU membership, barely 20% bothered to vote (the lowest percentage was Slovakia’s 19%). This is probably also due to the (mistaken) perception that these elections were of secondary importance, as they were not intended to choose a government – although in some EU countries (Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal and the UK), they amounted to a general political test for national elections to come.
Along with the system of proportional representation adopted (with variants) in all 27 countries, this may also explain the outcome of the vote, which has generated a highly fragmented new assembly with a large number of small parties on the fringes of the mainstream political groups. Freed from the incentive to cast a ‘useful’ ballot, in other words, voters have either stayed home or vented their anger against the current state of affairs. Indeed, if there has been a single unifying theme in the campaign, it has not been the EU and its policies, but rather the impact of the economic crisis on European societies.
Winners and losers
European voters have responded in different ways to the crisis. Politically speaking, the ‘family’ that has been hit hardest has unquestionably been the Party of European Socialists (PES). Socialist and Social Democrat parties lost votes and seats both where they are in government (with the exception of Slovakia) and where they are in the opposition (with the exception of Greece). They also systematically lost wherever they form a ‘grand coalition’ with the Christian Democrats - namely in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands – while their coalition partners have done comparatively better. Their losses were particularly heavy in the bigger Member States (worst in the UK, most limited in Spain) and could not be compensated by marginal increases in Malta or Ireland.  As a result, the PES will number only 161 MEPs in the new Parliament, down from 216 in the outgoing one.
The reasons for this painful blow are numerous but converging: they range from political divisions inside the ‘family’ to the lack of an identifiable policy response to the crisis (distinct from that of both the centre-right and that of the other left-wing parties); from the erosion of traditional constituencies (unions and salaried employees) to the absence of leading figures capable of attracting an increasingly volatile and mobile electorate. On top of that, if the current trends continue, in less than a year the PES may find itself in government in only a small minority of EU Member States, with its standing in the broader EU political system thus gravely undermined.
By contrast, and somewhat unexpectedly, the European People’s Party (EPP) ‘family’ has done fairly well, considering that centre-right parties have been in office in many EU countries since the current crisis began to unfold. Greece apart, EPP-affiliated parties have held out in most EU countries, suffering only limited losses as compared to the previous legislative period: they are now credited with 263 MEPs, compared with 278 previously.
The best performances were registered in Poland, France, Germany and Italy (where the parties are in office) as well as in the UK and Spain (in opposition). While the explanations for this are partly country-specific, and partly the flip-side of the Socialists’ failure, it is also arguable that especially continental centre-right parties have not been blamed by the voters for the economic downturn.
Indeed, the French UMP, the German CDU-CSU, Poland’s Civic Platform and even Italy’s newly created PDL can hardly be accused of being followers of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of unrestrained capitalism that allegedly lies at the root of the financial crisis. On the contrary, they tend to offer a mix of market-oriented and social-policy ingredients that voters seem to consider appropriate at this stage.
As a result, the EPP has further strengthened its pivotal role also in the new assembly, as no viable coalition appears possible without (and against) it to produce consistent legislation and consensual decisions.
The relative ‘defeat’ of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), down from 104 to 80 MEPs (mainly due to disappointing results in France and the UK) was somewhat surprising. One is tempted to attribute this outcome to the difficulty of articulating an explicit pro-EU platform successfully (MoDem and the Liberal Democrats are probably the most Europhile forces in their respective countries), but this is belied by the spectacular score of the Greens in France itself, Belgium, and elsewhere on the continent. True, the centrality of climate change as a policy issue has contributed to that, especially among younger voters. Furthermore, the personality of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-President of the Greens/European Free Alliance, has played a key role in the fortunes of the French-speaking parties. Yet the inroads of the ecologists into centrist/liberal milieus across Europe have been quite significant. As a result, the ranks of the Greens have swelled from 42 to 52 MEPs – although especially the Nordic ones remain quite wary of Brussels, as are most of the (old and new) formations that have made it to Strasbourg from the far left proper, now down from 44 to 35. 
While the biggest ‘winner’ of these elections was unquestionably the ‘party of non-voters’, the most striking result was probably the mixed bunch of populist, anti-EU and anti-immigration forces that have swept almost the entire EU. In reality, these forces are often quite different from one another: some are economically liberal (in the Netherlands or Northern Italy), whereas others are protectionist and statist; some are not only racist but even homophobic and openly anti-semitic (Hungary’s Jobbik, Britain’s British National Party), others pro-gay rights and pro-Israel (Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party); some are bitterly nationalistic (True Finns) and Eurosceptic (the UK Independence Party), others rather regionally-centred (Austria) or just single-issue (Sweden’s Pirates).
However numerous they may turn out to be in Strasbourg, they will probably struggle to form cohesive parliamentary groups and stick together for five years, as the outgoing Parliament’s record has shown. But they certainly signal a serious problem for European democracy and for the integration process as such, and this may require actions and reactions by political leaders (in the capitals as well as Brussels) going well beyond the indignation and condemnation voiced in the wake of the little shock of 7 June.
However, there is at least one good piece of news to report about the populist right ‘camp’, so to speak - the spectacular failure of Libertas, the new EU-wide anti-EU party recently created by Declan Ganley. Not only did his affiliated lists on the continent score very badly (only Philippe de Villiers in France, a familiar face on the populist front in his own right, made it to Strasbourg), but Ganley himself was not elected in ‘his’ Ireland, just a few months after masterminding the successful No campaign against the Lisbon Treaty. This seems to demonstrate that in today’s Europe, while there unfortunately is plenty of room for country-specific populism (statistically classified as “others”), there is virtually none for a single, homogenous, and centrally coordinated anti-EU movement – as underlined by the political demise of its champions in Denmark.
The other relatively good news also comes from Ireland: despite the fears of many analysts and pollsters, Irish voters channeled their dissatisfaction with the current Fianna Fail-led coalition government and its handling of the crisis in the direction of the mainstream opposition, Fine Gael, which is part of the EPP family and a strong supporter of the Lisbon Treaty. This augurs well for the planned second referendum on Lisbon in the early autumn.
What now?
The outcome of the European Parliament elections makes the reappointment of José Manuel Barroso at the helm of the European Commission more likely, of course. Not only was he the virtual candidate of the EPP family, but he was also endorsed by three prime ministers from the PES camp (Gordon Brown, José Luis Zapatero and José Socrates). This, and the defeat of the PES, make it less likely that an alternative candidate may emerge to challenge him, at least at the European Council level (things could be different in the Parliament, when it comes to the formal investiture).
For the time being, however, it is still unclear whether he will be nominated at the forthcoming EU Summit, and then submitted to a vote of ‘investiture’ when the new Parliament opens its session on 15 July, or whether there will be a simple ‘political endorsement’ at the Summit without a formal procedure - while waiting for the referendum in Ireland and the possible entry into force of the new Treaty. By the same token, the appointment of the entire new Commission (including the parliamentary hearings for the Commissioners and the final vote on the College) may be postponed by a few months.
The second top appointment to be made is that of the President of the Parliament itself. The ever-more central role of the EPP, once again, will make it more difficult for the other mainstream parties to coalesce against it. Therefore, it can be expected that one of the two rotating Presidents for the period 2009-14 (probably the first one) will come from the EPP.
At this stage, the top candidate is the former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Busek, sponsored, among others, by the German CDU-CSU and the French UMP (whose Joseph Daul chaired the EPP group in the outgoing assembly). But other demands and ambitions may have to be accommodated, as Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL has become a force to be reckoned with in the new group. It also remains to be seen which other family the EPP will try to ally within a power-sharing agreement: the PES or ALDE (as in 1999-2004) - or possibly both if necessary.
And how is the new assembly in Strasbourg expected to operate and vote more generally? This is difficult to predict, of course. The outgoing Parliament was strongly influenced, from late 2005 onwards, by the formation of the Grand Coalition in Germany: by then, the EPP and PES groups were both chaired by German nationals (Hans-Gert Pöttering and Martin Schultz), and the effects on the Parliament became soon evident. Germany will go to the polls again in late September, and a change of government coalition is equally likely to affect the proceedings of the European Parliament, because of the sheer number of German MEPs. It will also be relevant to see what the British Conservatives eventually decide to do in terms of group membership – right away as well as after a possible election victory at home next year.
In light of the election results, however, it seems reasonable to say that the new Parliament could well turn out to be:
  • less in favour of further enlarging the EU, especially (but not exclusively) to Turkey: the Parliament will not be a central player in this policy area, at least at this stage, but the overall ‘mood’ of the voters will inevitably reverberate on the overall process;
  • more conservative and ‘stingy’ in terms of EU budget resources: particularly when the discussion over the next Financial Perspectives is on the agenda, the prevailing attitude is likely to be one of consolidation rather than expansion;
  • more conservative (but not necessarily stingy) on CAP-related issues, where it will be interesting to observe both the impact of co-decision and the interaction between green/alternative and more traditional/rural interests;
  • more engaged on climate change-related issues and legislation, in part as a result of increased legal competences, and in part as a consequence of the rise of the Greens and of the prevailing public mood;
  • possibly more divided over fundamental rights-related issues (ever-more central in EU legislation), where tensions are likely to emerge especially between the right-wing populist parties, on the one hand, and ALDE and the Greens on the other – with the EPP and the PES caught right in the middle;
  • last but certainly not least, ever-more focused on foreign and security policy matters, but in a more hands-on and less declaratory fashion than during the past five years, especially if Lisbon enters into force and, with it, the new provisions that could give the Parliament a crucial role in funding both the External Action Service and the Union’s peace-building operations abroad.
If so, ironically, it will become ever more arduous for the Eurosceptics to keep arguing that the EU is illegitimate and undemocratic because it is run by unelected officials. Elected MEPs will be involved in shaping more and more policies, sometimes with powers that are stronger than those of national MPs. This makes it all the more lamentable that the recent campaign for the Parliament elections largely failed to address the key issues the assembly will deal with over the next five years.

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