The European elections: More of the same
By Thomas Risse, Freie Universität Berlin. Next to India, the elections for the European Parliament (EP) have been the second-largest democratic voting on the globe, with about 400 million citizens in 28 countries eligible to pick 751 members of parliament. The elections took place against the background of the Euro crisis threatening the core of European integration; austerity policies, the worst recession in decades and widespread (youth) unemployment in Southern Europe; and the crisis in the Ukraine and the Russian annexation of the Crimea.
As a result, many pundits predicted the rise of Euro-skeptical parties on the left and the right. Yet and contrary to what one reads in the media, the most important outcomes of the EP elections have little to do with Euro-skepticism. To begin with, voter turnout for the EP elections stabilized on the low level of 2009 with 43% (interestingly, German voters – by far the largest group of voters in Europe – reversed the trend and turned out in larger numbers than in 2009). In most countries and as always, the elections were not so much about Europe and the EU, but about national politics.
Moreover, as to right-wing Euro-skeptical parties, they will increase their share in the EP to about 15% of the seats. While right-wing populist parties such as the French Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) came out first in their countries, no other of the big member states experienced a similar rise of right-wing parties. The Dutch Freedom Party PVV even lost and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party only received 7 % of the votes. In contrast, center-left and leftwing parties (such as Syriza which won in Greece) gained seats in the new EP. Among the group of Social Democrats, the Italian Prime Minister Renzi’s Partito Democratico won, and the German SPD increased its share by 7% of the votes as compared to 2009. As a result, the “grand coalition” of center-left, center-right, liberal, and green parties which used to control 80% of the seats in the current EP, will still hold on to about 70% of the seats in the current EP. The decrease is mostly due to losses incurred by center-right and liberal parties across Europe. Last not least, the new EP will have quite a few MEPs who do not belong to any party group and will, thus, be largely irrelevant. This includes the MEPs from Beppo Grillo’s maverick M5S (Movimento 5 Stelle) which came out second in Italy.
So, what do the European elections mean in the larger scheme of things?
First, the next president of the European Commission will be either a Christian Democrat from Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, or the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, with the former holding an advantage, since his center-right group (the European People’s Party EPP) remains the largest faction in the EP. According to the current EU constitution (the Lisbon Treaty), the European Council of Heads of States and Governments has to take into account the EP’s position when selecting the next president of the Commission, and the EP has to vote on him or her. The main party groups in the EP have already agreed to propose as Commission head the candidate who can master a majority in the EP. Ironically, Juncker symbolizes the “old Europe” of policy-makers meeting behind closed doors and cutting deals, while Schulz, a rather popular politician, has one big handicap – he is German.
Second and contrary to widespread expectations, the next EP is unlikely to become the supranational public arena in which European politics is debated, fought over, and finally decided. This results from both the growing role of Euro-skeptical parties – both on the left and on the right – and from the increased co-decision powers of the EP under the Lisbon Treaty. The Euro-skeptics will use the EP as a platform to promote their anti-EU views, but they will not contribute much to EU law-making. Legislation will remain the task of the center-right and center-left party groups. Since their share of seats is diminished, they need to coalesce in order to make the EP’s voice heard when it counts, in the trialogue between the Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the EP.
Third, the politicization of EU affairs will continue in the member states. The strong showing of Euro-skeptical parties in some countries, while being rather inconsequential with regard to the EP itself, will reverberate in the domestic politics of some big member states, e.g. France and Great Britain. Here, the mainstream parties will feel increasing pressure to defend the European project against its critics. In the UK, they might have lost this cause altogether already. A British exit from the EU will be a major theme in the coming years. Hopefully, though, mainstream parties will start fighting over the content and substance of EU policies in the domestic public spheres rather than continuing to silence EU affairs. If this is the ultimate result of the EP elections, it isn’t a bad thing.
Thomas Risse is professor of international relations at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and co-director of the Research College “Transformative Power of Europe,” funded by the German Research Foundation. He is author of A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres (Cornell University Press 2010), and editor of European Public Spheres: Politics Is Back, (Cambridge University Press 2014).