Since 1979, the past seven European Parliament elections have served as an occasion for voters to either praise or punish the government in office.
Across EU member states, governments are run by mainstream parties gravitating around the centre of the political spectrum. A EurActiv overview (see infographic below) shows that socialists (belonging to the European Socialists & Democrats) and centre-right parties (belonging to European People's Party) act as single or coalition partners in most of Europe’s governments.
>> Click on the infographic for an overview of the balance of power in EU member states
The European elections, seen as a government scorecard, is often dreary, Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), told EurActiv.
“The standard model is that in European elections, parties in government tend to do badly. Large parties also tend to do badly. So the parties most at risk to get punished, are the large parties in government,” Hix said.
According to Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre (EPC), the low turnout in EU elections adds to this outcome: “Supporters [of mainstream parties] don’t go out and vote,” he told EurActiv.
Mandatory voting for EU elections only exists in Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg, information of the European Parliament shows. Citizens of other countries are not obliged to cast a ballot – and often do not.
Ever since the first direct elections of the European Parliament were organised, participation rates have dropped consistently, leading to a record-low turnout of 43% in 2009.
Protest voters are generally more easily mobilised than the mainstream parties’ core electorate. There are good reasons to think this will be repeated in May: “the level of frustration is high,” says Emmanouilidis. Voters are likely to direct their protest against the raging unemployment and economic situation in Europe, rather than voting in favour of mainstream parties involved in the EU’s crisis response.
Different than in former elections, such anti-forces will address EU issues. “The issues the EU has been dealing with [since the economic crisis] lie close to citizens’ hearts and minds. A lot of anti-forces will make a link to Europe,” argues Emmanouilidis.
For example, “the socialist party in Spain [in opposition since 2011] can’t be blamed for the economic woes. They will bring EU policies on the table and are trying to get involved in a more European campaign,” noted Sonia Piedrafita, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
A view across Europe
The most recent polling data, aggregated by the organisation @electionista, confirms that governing parties in the largest EU member states will have trouble getting voters on their side.
In the UK, the third-largest EU member state, both the Conservatives and Lib Dems in government are set for a loss compared to 2010’s general elections or 2009’s EU vote. Recent polls indicated that the Conservatives could perhaps drop from the largest party to third-largest party, behind the Labour party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
In France, President François Hollande has been coping with record-low approval ratings for months now. His socialist party is expected to drop considerably compared to 2012’s legislative elections, polls show.
Germany’s governing parties, the centre-right senior party CDU of chancellor Angela Merkel and the socialist SPD, will largely remain stable compared to last September’s federal elections.
Emmanouilidis explains that “there’s a period of a hundred days or longer during which people give the parties a chance to govern.”
In Poland, polling results suggest a battering for the centre-right governing parties. In Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's party is set for a loss. Italy has shown widely diverging polls but could be the only country in which the party in government could gain slightly – even though “it is very hard to see at this point, according to Emmanouilidis.
Conflicting powers across institutions
The Treaty of Lisbon, in force since December 2009, introduced equal decision making power for the EU member states and the European Parliament in several policy areas, including trade, agriculture or justice. Will the balance of political power be alike in both ‘chambers’ of the EU institutional framework?
Hungary, Poland, Portugal and Spain have centre-right governments; in Malta and Slovakia, socialist parties are in charge. The map also shows an overall balance between centre-left and centre-right: socialist parties are present in 19 national governments and centre-right parties in 16, but the latter often serves as the senior coalition partner. “Right now, there is a pluralism in the Council,” says Hix.
“It is rare that you get an all-left or all-right dominance in the EU Council of Ministers [the assembly of the EU member states’ ministers in specific policy fields],” he adds. While it has happened in the past, chances are slim that it would ever be the case in an EU with 28 member states.
Experts have argued that the next European Parliament is likely to be dominated by the two largest political groups: the socialist S&D and centre-right EPP, as it has been the case in the past. Parties will look for a stable coalition and, says Hix, “the hunch is that this will be a grand coalition.”
Germany could serve as an example of what this would mean on a European level, he argues: “The government constellation in Germany casts a shadow on the Parliament. When you have a grand coalition in Berlin, you will have pressure on the EP to form a similar coalition,” he says.
In the upcoming summer, Europe’s mainstream political families will negotiate the ins and outs for the next European Commission. While governments of EU member states nominate their commissioner to the EU executive’s president, they must do so “taking into account” the results of May’s poll, and after “appropriate consultations” with the European Parliament.
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The Commission president discusses portfolios with the future commissioners, before putting them up for scrutiny in a Parliament’s grilling session.
“The Commission’s constellation depends on the balance of power in all member states” at the time of EU elections, says Piedrafita. The incumbent Commission is made up of 13 centre-right members; eight liberals; and seven socialists.
“Looking at the whole map, there are plenty of coalition governments across Europe. The balance of political power will depend on these coalitions’ decisions.” As the list of potential nominees from different member states is long, the political balance of the Commission could shift either way.