The Eighth European Parliament: More politicization
By Alexander Katsaitis, University College London. Despite “shocks” & “earthquakes” that took place at the national level, in particular in France and the UK where the far-right humiliated both the centre-right and socialists; this was not the case at the EU level. The European Parliament (EP) remains by at least 2/3 pro-EU with the leaders of the four major PGs agreeing on the importance of a stable parliament. These groups must now form alliances, select the next Commission President and develop a strategy to regain the electorate from the far-right.
The results have been less surprising than anticipated. Get detailed election results from the European Parliament here. Coming in first with 28% of the votes the centre-right Europe’s Peoples’ Party (EPP) is down almost 60 seats (approx. -7%), while all other major parties S&D (25%), ALDE (8.5%) and Greens (7%) have pretty much remained stable with small gains or losses. Eurosceptic parties have made advances but not to the extent initially projected.
Why did the Eurosceptics rise, but not enough to make a stronger impact? First, the EU experienced the worst financial/ debt crisis it has ever seen, almost bringing down the entire euro in 2011. In an attempt to keep the integration project together, authority was given to supranational technocrats that played a significant policy-role both in countries facing austerity measures and those paying the bail-outs.
This created a void of political accountability while unemployment increased, growth decreased and few political counter-proposals were made by governments. Eurosceptic parties fed off the most affected and disappointed of the electorate; low income earners and young voters.
Second, established parties ran poor & out of touch campaigns, underestimated challengers and in some cases moved dangerously closer to their political turf. This gave smaller, less-known parties the necessary space to manoeuvre and capture seats by claiming to better understand the average “bloke”, offering an alternative or simply receiving the protest vote.
However, some member states have managed to fend off major problems during the crisis, while others have given greater importance to EP elections from earlier on, developing a more conscious electorate over time. Government parties in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy, for example, retained primary positions. Finally, in central-eastern Europe the situation in Ukraine pressed voters closer to the EU. Thus, the overall distribution in the EP did not change considerably.
What do the results mean for the 8th EP? First, average voter participation was 43.09% stopping the downward trend of electoral absenteeism. As such the authority of the Institution has not been further challenged. Though there were extremes with Slovakia at 13% and Belgium at 90%, larger and older MS hovered around 40%.
Second, expect to see more politicization in EU policy than before. The pro-/ anti- EU position is a central point on the agenda of all political parties elected, in the most polarized EP ever. This will usher a new era of more politicized debates, post the right/left continuum. Moreover, this is likely to increase input legitimacy; as both sides will raise demand for more political input from their electorate and interest groups rather than technical expertise.
In addition, the fact that the new Commission President will be from the EP will further push upwards the demand of the EU’s executive for political input.
Third, the overall legitimacy of the Institution is likely to increase. National level politicians and the Council will not be able deny the significance of the EP any longer, as politicized debates from the EU will spill-over downwards more easily. The conservatives cannot ignore UKIP, UMP & the Socialists cannot ignore the FN and so on.
Fourth, in practical terms the EP will be more stable and more pro-EU. It will be difficult for the Eurosceptic camp to form a broad alliance and cause any disturbances, due to their vast differences. For example, UKIP has refused to co-operate with the FN while nearly all of the political parties even on the far-right (UKIP, FN, SD) have refused to co-operate with Nazi-like parties such as Golden Dawn.
However, these groups do pick up seats and thus compress the more cohesive pro-EU parties into a tighter space. They will work in smaller circles to produce legislation and deal with the Commission & Council, while avoiding the anti-EU block. We are therefore likely to observe a boost in EU integration rather than stalling or steps backwards, at least on the whole, as the circuit will be shorter.
Fifth, in order to regain votes from the far-right and Eurosceptics this parliament must address long-term EU wide issues. These are primarily linked to slow growth rates, high youth unemployment, small labour mobility and poor business innovation.
There is good reason to retain a positive attitude, especially since politics will take up a more important role; a critique the EU has long faced. Still, potential political instability lies in national political parties where a future broader “earthquake” could damage EU level politics. Beyond that, the ball is now largely in the pro-EU parties’ court.
Alexander Katsaitis is a researcher at the School of Public Policy at University College London.