European elections 2014: Different this time?
After the financial and sovereign debt crisis, state bailouts and budget cuts, the May 2014 European elections were expected to take the pulse of public confidence towards the European Union. For the first time, voters will also indirectly choose the next president of the European Commission, giving citizens a fresh chance to shape the future of Europe.
In May 2014, 500 million Europeans chose their representatives in the European Parliament. The EU elections were the eight direct elections since these were held for the first time in 1979. The 2014 elections also marked a 'first', as they indirectly determined the person who will lead the European Commission, the EU executive, for the period 2014-2019.
Faced with allegations that the European institutions lack democratic legitimacy, policymakers set up an election campaign focused on the message that “This time it’s different”.
With the entry into force in 2009 of the Lisbon Treaty, the European political parties have pledged to name their candidate for the Commission presidency. The chosen politician will then seek backing in their own country in a similar way to national elections. Political leaders will run the show, casting their shadow over single candidates.
Beyond personalities, the economy will be at the centre stage of national political campaigns. Nearly every national election since the onset of the eurozone crisis in 2010 has been fought between the poles of austerity versus growth policies.
“Far from being national elections these days, national elections have started to become European elections,” said professor Simon Hix, the head of the London School of Economics’ Department of Government.
Increasingly, European economic issues have dominated political discussions in all member states. In Spain, France and Italy, which all have grappled with national elections in the last two years, the government’s handling of the crisis was either praised or punished.
The European elections on 22-25 May will be no different. They will flesh out the debate between a side of Europe that wants to maintain rigorous austerity measures - the centre-right - and another side which favours spreading the fiscal belt-tightening over a longer period of time to boost spending, confidence, growth and reduce unemployment - the centre-left.
But growing social unrest and unease with both exit strategies threatens to spark populism and push the consensus further in the direction of euroscepticism and entrenched nationalism.
Public confidence in the European Union has fallen to historically low levels. The latest Eurobarometer poll found that a record 60% of Europeans tend not to trust the EU, a number that has more than doubled since 2007, before the onset of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and the ensuing eurozone debt crisis.
“At a time when so many Europeans face unemployment, uncertainty and growing inequality, a sort of European fatigue, has set in, coupled with a lack of understanding: Who does what, who controls whom and what? And where we are heading to?” José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, said recently.
Some outgoing MEPs have insisted that Europe is much more than economy and growth. They say that to counter euroscepticism politicians must come up with a new narrative that builds on the common values that bind European citizens together in a globalised world. They advocate for cultural unity.
That narrative is intertwined with the new modus operandi of the European Parliament. In the current legislature, MEPs tried their best to show the growing importance in the only directly elected European body.
In recent years, they have secured restrictions on bankers’ bonuses across Europe, killed a digital antipiracy treaty (ACTA) and rejected a long-term EU budget that they deemed unsatisfactorily small.
The Parliament may have flexed its decision-making muscle, but question remain: have citizens taken note; will they vote to give the Union a greater say in the way European leaders handle their future; will they grasp what’s at stake this time and show up at the polling booth?
To Hix at least one thing is certain: “The political majority that emerges from the elections will not only determine the policies pursued by the European parliament, but also the person who will hold the most powerful executive office in the EU machinery - the Commission president. For the first time these could be genuine ‘European elections,’ the outcome of which will shape European politics for at least the next five years,” he said.
What’s changing with the Lisbon Treaty?
The Treaty of Lisbon has strengthened the powers of the European Parliament, consolidating its role as co-legislator and giving it additional responsibility, which has been showcased in the past legislature in several policies - agriculture, energy security, international trade, health, and justice and home affairs.
As for the 2014 elections - the first to be held under the new Treaty - they will allow the Parliament to elect the president of the Commission on the basis of a proposal by the European Council taking into account the results of the European elections (see Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union).
This important change could play a role in boosting awareness among the citizens on the EU elections and increase voter turnout.
However, the supposed benefits of the Lisbon Treaty have partly been overshadowed by the eurozone crisis, which has created a de facto a parallel union that the secretary general of the European Parliament, Klaus Welle, calls a “Rescue Union”.
This second union, he says, raises issues of democratic legitimacy, of efficiency and expertise. The example of EU ministers deciding to make small savers pay for the Cyprus bailout and not wanting to take responsibility for their proposals showed the limits of the rescue union.
To restore confidence, there’s no need for a treaty change, Welle says, as there is untapped potential in the Lisbon Treaty.
Welle adds that a parliamentary partnership, not only with national parliaments but also with the EU consultative bodies - the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee - would be of great importance to bridge the democratic deficit.
Further, a European Commission’s proposal for a new legal and financial framework for European political parties has not been adopted yet. But it would be seen as a positive step for the European Union to have it in place before the May 2014 elections.
It would allow the European political parties to have full legal status in all member states, a change from the current regime. Eight of the 13 parties are registered as NGOs in Belgium and struggle legally to undertake activities in member states.
The proposal replaces a 2003 regulation governing political parties, and paves the way to amend the financial regulation when it comes into force next year. But it does come with strings attached.
The Commission is demanding more transparency. Under the Commission’s proposal, European political parties will receive direct financial contributions and cease to get grants, which they have received up to now because of their NGO status.
The change puts the European political parties on equal footing with the EU institutions and may strengthen the links between the European Parliament and citizens. “We would like to see political finance rules at European level that allow fair and clean European Parliament elections in 2014,” said Jana Mittermaier,”the director of Transparency International’s EU office.
Meanwhile, last July, the Parliament adopted a resolution, drafted by British Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, calling for European elections to be made “more European”.
The report - which is legally non-binding - said that the European parties should name their candidates for the European Commission president ahead of the elections.
Another change introduced by the EU treaty was to reduce the number of MEPs to a maximum of 750 (with a minimum of six and a maximum of 96 per country), with Italy managing to squeeze in an extra MEP, putting it back on equal footing with the UK (73 seats. France has 74, by contrast). The new '750 plus one' formula assumes that the Parliament president will not exercise his right to vote.
Who will lead the European Commission?
The two biggest political families, the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the European Peoples’ Party (EPP), have already announced that they would elect a candidate for Commission president well ahead the European elections to try to mobilise voters.
In theory, Barroso could run for a third term, but EU pundits say this is highly unlikely.
Parliament President Martin Schulz, who enjoys considerable support in the centre-left political circles (PES) of many countries, is leading the race for their candidature. Other names on the centre-left are also in the frame, including Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister, José Luis Zapatero, the former Spanish prime minister, and Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization.
On the centre-right (EPP), possible candidates are Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, Viviane Reding, the Commission vice-president, Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian president, and Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
The two main parties, the PES and EPP have very different views on how to tackle the eurozone crisis. The EPP is in favour of maintaining austerity policies, whereas the PES strongly opposes this, in line with their centre-left and centre-right party line respectively. Therefore, European citizens will have a clear choice in May next year as to which direction to take the EU’s response to the crisis.
Olli Rehn, the European Commission's vice president in charge of economic and monetary affairs, has reportedly told the Finnish press that he may run to head the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group’s list in European elections, so becoming their candidate to be the next president of the EU executive.
Considering the modest result obtained by ALDE at the last election in 2009 (84 MEPs out of a total of 736), it is highly unlikely that the Liberals will wrestle control of the top Commission job from the other two major political groups, the EPP (with 265 MEPs), or the PES (184).
But the ALDE nominee might stand a chance as a compromise candidate in a situation where no clear winner emerges from the centre-left or the centre-right. Rehn's candidacy is likely to upset at least two political heavyweights. One is the current leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, a friend of Rehn's, who is seen as the natural Liberal candidate. The second leader who would certainly not like Rehn's candidacy is the Finnish prime minister, Jyrki Katainen, from an EPP-affiliated party.
The European political parties will hold their respective congresses in the coming months. The Party of European Socialists is currently nominating their candidates, a process that will last until October. The final decision will be made and the candidate will be announced at the Party’s Congress in February, but the date is yet to be confirmed.
The EPP members will go to Dublin on 7 March to choose their candidate for Commission president and adopt an electoral manifesto.
The Greens will hold primaries in the autumn during which their two candidates will be elected and presented at the party’s congress on 22 February. The Liberals will meet for their Congress in London from the 27 to 29 November.
The Party of the European Left will have its Congress on 13-15 December in Madrid.
A recent Eurobarometer survey found that 73% of Europeans believe that more information about candidates’ European political affiliations would encourage people to vote, while 62% think that having party candidates for Commission president and a single voting day would help bolster turnout.
The next Commission is due to take office on 1 November 2014
With Europe in the throes of an economic crisis, resentment towards Brussels is higher than ever. Many Europeans have blamed the EU for causing the crisis, citing a failure of the euro currency. They also resent the EU for continued rounds of austerity measures, which have seen some communities lose vital services, and for its perceived lack of democratic legitimacy.
‘Hard’ or ‘withdrawalist’ euroscepticism is the opposition to membership or the existence of the EU. The European Parliament’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which includes the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is hard eurosceptic.
‘Soft’ or ‘reformist’ euroscepticism supports the existence of the EU and membership to the Union, but opposes further integrationist EU policies and the idea of a federal Europe. The European Conservatives and Reformists group, including the British Conservative Party and the European United Left-Nordic Green Left alliance, can be described as soft eurosceptics.
However, extremism may be on the rise across Europe in general. “Not since World War II have extremist and populist forces had so much influence on national parliaments as they have today,” said the EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström.
In the context of a long-lasting economic crisis that has caused record-high unemployment and social exclusion across the continent, Europeans have given ever greater backing to far-right parties.
Hix, who also chairs the transparency group VoteWatch, wrote in a report that there would be a rise in the number of eurosceptic votes at the European Parliament elections, which would pose a problem for the two other major EU institutions, the Commission and the Council, and have a knock-on effect for key pieces of European legislation such as free movement of persons and environment.
Eurosceptic parties around Europe made clear their willingness to act on a European level, as is the case with controversial Dutch far-right leader, Geert Wilders, who recently toured Europe in an attempt to forge a new movement of far-right parties ahead of the European elections.
But, as EurActiv has learned, not many supposed “like-minded” parties were ready to join the initiative, and UKIP, the most vocal eurosceptic party in the EP, rejected outright the proposition.
Eurosceptic political parties are blossoming in many European countries, but their backgrounds and causes are very different.
In crisis-ridden Greece, anti-EU parties have gained ground on both sides of the political spectrum, with Syriza on the far-left advocating a form of economic nationalism, and Golden Dawn on the far-right, known for its violence towards immigrants, Nazi emblems and salutes and strong anti-EU stance.
Two founding members of the EU - France and the Netherlands - both face the rising popularity of their far-right parties, the National Front and the Freedom Party, respectively. Both oppose immigration and EU membership and advocate an exit from the euro currency.
In France, the Socialists, currently in power, are very worried by a rise of the far-right, drawing comparisons with the 2002 debacle. In that year the leader of the extreme-right Front National, Jean Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round of domestic elections.
The Socialists warn that the campaign could turn nasty. They are not satisfied with European status quo, calling for more transparency and democracy. But Stéphane Le Foll, the minister of agriculture and former member of European Parliament, said that constitutional changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty would yield a different Europe in the end.
Italy’s last elections saw the rise of Beppe Grillo’s “5 star” movement, which raised concerns about the country’s economic future. Several of its party members also expressed eurosceptic sentiment.
So-called “Europhobia” in the UK is embodied by UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, who has been putting increasing pressure on traditional parties with anti-EU discourse and actions.
New EU member states have not been spared anti-European sentiment. In Poland, Tusk has warned of a “new euroscepticism”, different from that in older member states, consisting of “taking steps that weaken the EU”.
This polarisation, MEP Duff says, may not be such a bad thing at the end of the day, as it will probably boost turnout and interest in European issues.
For decades, elections to the European Parliament have been dismissed as secondary affairs, with turnout declining at every ballot since direct polling began in 1979. A survey released by the European Commission showed 65% of eligible voters below the age of 30 planned to vote next year, with a particular rise among first-time voters. That represents a sharp departure from the past.
Total voter turnout has declined at all seven elections since 1979, dropping to just 43% in 2009, a historic low. Of that, youth turnout has been among the largest decliners, sliding to 29% in 2009 from around 33% in 2004.
Figures from the EU’s statistics office, Eurostat, in July showed eurozone unemployment had reached a record high, 12.1%, with the youth the group worst affected at 23.9%., especially in Southern Europe: Greece and Spain were hovering near 60%, while in Italy and Portugal it stood above 40%.
If the predicted doubling of youth votes does happen, the question will be whether young voters will give their support to the traditional blocs - the centre-right EPP, the liberal ALDE group or the Socialists - or instead lean towards anti-EU parties such as Britain's UKIP or Finland's True Finns. That could alter which group ends up being the largest, which in turn may affect who becomes European Commission president, a powerful job with a direct role in shaping Europe's future.
In June, member States agreed to set aside €8 billion to fight youth unemployment, starting in 2014. The funds will form the basis of a "Youth Guarantee" that aims to provide a job, training or apprenticeship to young people within four months of their leaving school.
After successful negotiations with member states, the European Parliament voted in September for a new € 15 million EU program to support job creation, facilitate worker mobility and combat social exclusions, and that will among other things, be aimed at young Europeans.
But the measure is met with scepticism by professionals and economists. Commenting on the fund, ex-Nokia innovation chief Juhani Risku told EurActiv that “the Youth Guarantee Scheme is a bit random, passive and a temporary solution. We can’t keep on spending productive taxpayers’ money on random, inefficient and temporary measures hoping the problem will go away”.
The European Youth Forum have demanded, with strong support from the European Parliament, that more funds be allocated for the Youth Guarantee and other youth-specific programmes if the EU is to make a difference in that field.
Concern about European youth unemployment was also raised by the OECD, who called for more government intervention, possibly including paying companies to hire young people.
In the UK young people also appear to be showing a much stronger interest in the European elections and issues. Both “Europhobe” and “Europhile” politicians said they would heavily target the 18-44 age group ahead of the possible referendum on whether the UK should leave the bloc after the general elections in 2015.
It is not unrealistic to think that many election campaigns will focus on the youth.
Bridging the democratic gap with smart communication
For the last European elections, in 2009, huge means of communication were already put in place. For example, the Commission teamed up with MTV for a joint campaign ‘Can you hear me, Europe?’, aimed at boosting the participation of young people in the election.
Those elections saw the lowest turnout in the history of the European Union. It became more and more obvious that traditional means of communication are not sufficient and social media should figure more prominently in the campaign.
Bloggers argue that MEPs do not make enough use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook or blogs to connect themselves to citizens.
The European Parliament has launched an aggregator of tweets and official communication called EP News Hub, which gathers all tweets and Facebook posts written by MEPs, as well as gathering photos from Flickr and material produced by the official Parliament television channel, Europarl TV.
There are still big disparities between MEPs’ behaviour on social media. Some MEPs have never tweeted at all, while others are very social media-savvy, potentially affecting the balance of political information posted on the net. The Parliament says that the EP News Hub platform is ideologically neutral and that it is the members’ activities that define the content. The more the MEPs participate, the more balanced the coverage will be, the Parliament argues.
Renowned blogger and social media expert Jon Worth advises MEPs to better organise their presence on the web by first using a hybrid blog-website that gathers their activity from social media and list the MEP’s engagements, legislative activity and all relevant information.
Worth says a targeted approach is essential. MEPs should provide an RSS feed of their websites and social media posts, as it makes it easier to keep track of MEPs work by theme keyword or type of issue. E-mail communication should be organised by theme and target group (journalists, party activists, etc.), rather than the classical weekly or monthly newsletter, he says.
Worth stresses the importance of being present on Facebook and Twitter. Blog entries can be posted on both networks but not standard press releases in the format “MEP XX said XYZ”. This style does not match the informal nature of these networks, he says. The best case scenario is for an MEP to write all of their content themselves, rather than have assistants ghost-writing.
As English becomes ever more important in Brussels, there will nonetheless need to be a shift in the language used for communications in election campaigns. Many MEPs use English for their Brussels web communications, but that's no good if they wish to draw in voters from their own country, says Worth.
Worth told EurActiv that in the lead up to the election it will be vital for MEPs to focus on controlling Google results. “MEPs are basically unknown nationally, and at the very least voters may Google the name of a candidate. This means a candidate's website is more important than ever in an election campaign,” he said.
In his view, Facebook might be more important as a tool to reach party activists, as the Brussels-bubble Twitter debate may decline a little prior to the poll.
Other bloggers question MEPs’ use of social media and their level of interactivity. While figures show that there’s been an increase in the use of social networks since 2009, the figures are misleading in a way, says a blogger known as ‘Steffen’. A survey showed that a majority of MEPs who blog and tweet find it more important to “express views directly” than to “engage in dialogue”.
Surveys also show that there has been a drop in blogging among MEPs. So, Steffen asks, “if MEPs are not blogging but are instead using Twitter and Facebook, yet many are not engaging in dialogue, what are they using the tools for? Probably to post press releases or state that they’ll speak at an event”.
However, behaviour can be expected to change in the coming years the more MEPs see others gain from this new form of engagement.
- 10 Sept. 2013: launch of the European Parliament awareness campaign
- 6 Nov. 2013: Announcement of socialist PES's list of candidates
- 8-10 Nov. 2013: European Greens congress in Brussels, presenting contenders in online primaries
- November 2013-January 2014: European Greens' online primaries
- 28-30 Nov. 2013: Liberal election manifesto adopted at ALDE Congress in London
- 1 Dec. 2013: PES opens internal selection procedure for member parties
- 13-15 December: Party of European Left Congress in Madrid
- 19-20 Dec. 2013: ALDE pre-summit meeting and closing of nominations for candidates
- 29 Jan. 2014: Announcement of European Greens' duo of frontrunners, after closing of primaries (28 Jan.)
- 1 Febr. 2014: ALDE electoral congress in Brussels, selecting their candidate
- 28 Febr.-1 Mar. 2014: Socialist party PES congress in Rome
- 21-23 Febr. 2014: European Greens electoral congress, adopting the common manifesto
- 6-7 Mar. 2014: EPP (Centre-Right) Congress in Dublin
- 22-25 May 2014: Elections for European Parliament
Post-elections formation of Parliament & Commission
(Post-election dates are provisional and will change according to the progress made in Parliament-European Council negotiations.)
- 26 May 2014: Informal meetings on the formation of Parliamentary groups start.
- 27 May 2014: Informal European Council meeting to discuss election results and negotiation process
- June 2014: Parliament groups start informal negotiations with EU Council on next Commission president.
- 26-27 June 2014: Nomination of Commission president at the European Council summit.
- 1-3 July 2014: Plenary session of the newly constituted European Parliament. Informal negotiations with EU Council and possible bilateral or multilateral negotiations with heads of state.
- 14-17 July 2014: Parliament votes on European Council’s nomination of Commission president in its plenary session.
- Summer 2014: New president nominates his Commissioners team, scrutinised in individual hearings before Parliament in September.
- Oct. 2014: The new Commission is hoped to be confirmed by the European Parliament.
- 1 Nov. 2014: Target date for new Commission to take office.
- 2015: Referendum in the UK on EU membership