May 22, 2014, 4:57 p.m.
By: Caterina Paolucci, Academic Coordinator, James Madison University, European Union Policy Studies Graduate Program
By next Sunday evening, May 25th, the results of the European Parliament (EP) elections will be known. Many analysts consider these elections to be the first divisive, and therefore important, elections since 1979, the date of the first direct election to the EP. But why are these elections so interesting and relevant for the future of the EU? Firstly, given the dramatic economic crisis that has hit Europe since the previous election (2009), the question is: to what extent will the crisis influence the vote? The expected rise of anti-European, anti-Euro, populist parties is also unknown: how many votes will such parties receive, and what consequences will this have on the Parliament’s functioning? Finally, it is the first time elections will be held after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty (December 2009), which suggests a direct link between the results of the popular vote and the choice of the President of the Commission. Will the popular vote significantly influence the selection of the leader of the executive of the Union? Let us look at these issues in more detail.
These elections, taking place in the 28 Member States of the Union between the 22nd and the 25th of May, will allow over 500 million citizens to select the 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), in what is considered the second largest democratic election in the world, the first being the parliamentary election in India. Elections are held in the Member States according to national laws, provided they follow some form of proportional representation. This provides European citizens with a voice in the European hemicycle, although some countries will enforce minimum thresholds that candidates must overcome to prevent excessive fragmentation. For example, the electoral threshold in Italy is set at 4% of the votes cast, while in Germany the electoral system this time will be one of pure proportionality. This results from the Constitutional court in Karlsruhe striking down the 3% threshold as unconstitutional, even after it had been lowered from the previous 5% by the government following a 2011 ruling from the same court. In 2009, the national proportional representation systems, coupled with the unprecedented enlargement of the Union, led to the representation of more than 160 national parties in the European Parliament. This record has the potential to be beaten in these upcoming elections. Following the principle of digressive proportionality, the seats in Parliament are allocated proportionally to the population of the member states, with the exception that the smallest state receives at least 6 seats in the EP (Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Malta). Germany, with their 96 MEPs, is allocated the largest number of seats.
Once they enter the EP, national parties create trans-continental coalitions of like-minded national parties, called European party groups. MEPs who do not wish to become members of any EP party group, decide to leave a group or are expelled from it, become members of the so-called non-attached. Party groups are essential to the daily activities of the Parliament. Presently, there are 7 party groups, plus the group of the non-attached. The two largest groups are the Centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 274 and 194 seats respectively. Together, they comprise nearly two thirds of the European Parliament. These two groups have traditionally formed an alliance, negotiating on the main decisions and propelling European integration. We could call this alliance the integrationist motor of the EU. They are pro-EU, pro-Euro and in favor of deeper integration. The majority of the governing parties in the Member States are represented within either the EPP or S&D. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens are two smaller political groups that share the pro-European stance. ALDE can be considered as moderates between the EPP and S&D, as the party is more free market oriented than the Social Democrats but more socially liberal than the EPP. The Greens are in favor of an environmentally friendly economic and industrial policy, and promote an intensification of the fight against global warming. Currently, these four party groups hold the lion’s share of the seats in the EP, but that is expected to change after Sunday’s vote, with the three groups of so-called Eurosceptic expected to gain more support. These three groups cover both the extreme right and the extreme left of the political spectrum. The right wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) represent some of the most Eurosceptic parties in Europe, such as the United Kingdom’s Independence Party and the Italian Northern League, while the United Left group is home to the national communist parties in Europe.
Opinion polls suggest that the new Parliament will see an increase in the seats gained by Eurosceptic parties. This is primarily attributed to the effects of the economic crisis, which many populist leaders have blamed on the EU and the Euro. Hence, the crisis is expected to have a significant impact on the election. The influence of the crisis will primarily be expressed as protest votes against national governments considered to be either directly prone to Angela Merkel’s staunch pro-austerity vision, or subdued by an inflexible and austerity-dominated technocratic European Union. More doubtful is the impact on voter abstention. Since 1979, turnout has been steadily declining in European elections, reaching an all-time low of 43% in 2009 (down almost 20 percentage points since 1979). Nevertheless, the high visibility that the crisis has brought on the European Monetary Union and its management, as well as the debate about the German rigidity in denying a bailout to Greece, although framed in the simplistic language of North vs. South, and finally the highly controversial proposal by Eurosceptic parties to leave the Euro or even the European Union in several states, has increased the salience of Europe in the citizens’ perception, and may lead to a mobilization “against”, but still, a mobilization and an incentive to go to the polling station.
It is still unclear how many votes the Eurosceptic parties will receive, but, according to political analysts, support for these parties will be very high in France, Italy and the UK. These three countries feature some of the strongest national Eurosceptic parties (the Front National, the Five Star Movement, and UKIP). Given the sheer size of these countries’ representation in the EP, a significant injection of Eurosceptic should be expected. Regardless of whether Eurosceptic parties, several of which are new, will join the established Eurosceptic party groups of the EP (they may want to found a new group, provided they are able to bring together a minimum of 25 MEPs from at least 7 member states) they will nevertheless have problems in working together and producing any effective parliamentary activity. The only thing uniting these parties is that they are against their national governments and the European Union. Ultimately, they lack a common political agenda. Like most populist parties, they mobilize against established politics, but do not have a credible alternative platform. Therefore, even if these parties are bound to gain votes to the detriment of the “pro-European” parties, this may end up being uninfluential on the internal dynamics of the EP. Paradoxically, it could bring the other party groups closer together, and force them to introduce major changes to the way in which traditional, mainstream politics function at the EU level.
A quantum leap has already occurred in the direction of a democratization of EU institutions through a reduction of the so-called democratic deficit (the perceived distance from and lack of accountability of EU bodies towards the average EU citizen). For the first time, each political group has endorsed a “top candidates” for the role of President of the European Commission, the executive body of the Union. The idea that a personalization of the campaign could help raise the stakes and saliency of the vote, and hence reverse the negative trend of turnout, has been one of the main reasons behind this new development, which was spurred on by the institutional change introduced with the Treaty of Lisbon, indicating that the EP elects the President of the Commission on the basis of a candidate proposed by the European Council, after taking into account the outcome of the EP elections. The move by the party families to present their own candidates to the position in the run up to the EP elections is an unexpected one, which could represent a big game changer in the future. In this campaign, 5 party groups were able to propose a “Spitzencandidat”. Several debates were held between them, as they toured the continent to mobilize support for the national party lists associated with their respective party group. They are Jean Claude Junker (EPP). Martin Schulz (S&D), Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), José Bové and Ska Keller (Greens) and Alexis Tsipras for the Left. The Eurosceptics, as a proof of the difficulty they have in finding a common ground, were not able to present a candidate. The question remains, will the Council follow the indication of the party groups (and the voters). Theoretically, and following the Treaty, the Council is still free to choose its own candidate to the Commission’s presidency, provided it respects the overall outcome of the election. But at this point, choosing a Commission head different from the names indicated by the parties may lead to a major interinstitutional conflict. Probably, no matter which result the elections will have, this change in the approach to the electoral process, which increased the powers of the EP and links the shape of the executive of the Union directly to the popular vote will have long-lasting effects on how the EU governing bodies will be acting and interacting in the next years. It may lead eventually to a politicization of European institutions, pushing the European government closer to a federalist model. If this, in turn, will reduce the attractiveness of Eurosceptics, or increase their support even further, is yet to be seen.