The European Parliament election – a wake-up call?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

John Palmer, EPC Director, comments on the low voter turnout and the results of the European Parliament election and examines the political balance of forces within the new Parliament and the wider debate about the proposed Constitutional Treaty.

The European Parliament election – a wake-up call?

The spiralling decline in voter participation and the wholesale rejection of incumbent governments across the European Union – the two most striking features of the European Parliament election results – project a sombre background for the meeting of the European Council in Brussels later this week. The political body blows sustained by almost all the governments of the 25 Member States will not make it easier for the Heads of Government to display the degree of flexibility that will still be needed if there is to be an agreement on a new Constitutional Treaty on Friday. The hope must be that EU leaders understand that any failure or delay in agreeing the treaty will only intensify the political agony and further weaken their own political standing.

With the exception of Spain, Greece, Finland and Luxembourg voters have rejected governments in office across the board, both of the centre left and the centre right. More worrying is the further decline in the level of voter turnout for the European Parliament election from just under 50% five years ago to about 45.5 %. Although high, when compared, for example, with United States Presidential elections, this decline cannot continue without the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament and – more generally – of the European Union being increasingly called into question.

On the face of it the election results do not prefigure any radical change in the internal balance of political power within the European Parliament. Although not all the final results are in, it seems clear that the centre right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) will retain its position as the largest single group with some 270 of the 732 MEPs. However in the weeks ahead this picture could change. A number of the French UDF, led by François Bayrou, may leave the EPP. Together with the Italian list, led by the Commission President, Romano Prodi, they are in discussions with the Liberal ELDR group to form a new, strongly pro-EU, pro-integrationist centrist party.

Meanwhile the British Conservative Party, which fought the election campaign primarily on the issue of opposition to the proposed Constitutional Treaty, has lost heavily to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that wants Britain to leave the EU entirely. The Conservative leadership is already coming under pressure from within the party to counter the threat from the UKIP by abandoning its alliance with the generally pro-European integration EPP.

Any such defections could weaken the EPP’s claim – as the largest EP party – that the European Council should propose one of its own leaders as the next President of the Commission. However the EPP was quick this week to insist that as the largest single party it should provide the next Commission President. Given the uncertainties surrounding the final make up of the European Parliament political groups, it is even possible that EU Heads of Government may decide to delay their nomination of the Commission President when they meet this week to be better able to judge the final political shape of the new European Parliament.

The risk with any such delay is that it will be represented in the media as another setback to the proper functioning of the European Union. Moreover the longer the delay in choosing a candidate for the Commission Presidency who can be assured of European Parliament support, the more problematic it will be to maintain the tight schedule for selecting and ratifying the 25 member Commission. The entire process must be completed in time for the new President and the new Commission to take office in November.

With some 200 MEPs, the Party of European Socialists (PES), will certainly not be able to mobilize a left of centre majority in the Parliament even after talking into account the incr eased numbers of the Green and Regional group and members and the left socialist GUE group. However it is far from clear whether the EPP will be able to mobilize a right wing majority on sensitive social and environmental policies given the differences in policy among some of the smaller groups including the increased number of “euro-sceptics” elected in Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.

Inevitably, much media attention has focused on the successes of the euro-sceptics in these countries. However it is worth noting that the long established euro-sceptics in Denmark suffered quite a serious defeat and they did not make the gains predicted in France. Nor is it necessarily the case that the breakthrough made by the UKIP in Britain will make it even more difficult to win the referendum which will be held next year to approve a new Constitutional Treaty.

Until now the anti-Treaty Conservatives have insisted that while urging rejection of the planned treaty, they are also opposed to Britain leaving the European Union. However, the massive inroads made by the UKIP into the Conservative vote may force the party leader, Michael Howard, to harden his anti-EU stance still further to the point where he seeks a renegotiation of the terms of British membership. But this would risk re-opening internal party battles with the moderate, pro-European wing of his party. This factor may yet work in favour of the “Yes” camp in any referendum next year.

That said, there is no doubting the public mood of disenchantment – not just with then European Union but also with most national governments – among important sections of EU public opinion. The appallingly low voter turnout is a further demoralizing factor. Demoralising – but surely not surprising. Given the relentless domestic political focus of the election campaigns, the inability of the major political parties to define a clear set of alternative strategies for the EU to put to the public and their refusal even to campaign in support of their preferred candidates for the Commission Presidency, it is unsurprising that many voters opted out of the entire election. In a sense the European Parliament elections are suffering from acute political malnutrition.

One interesting development was the higher voter participation in Member States whose governments had supported President Bush over the war against Iraq. This implies that voters can respond to genuinely strategic political issues when presented to them. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the European Parliament – indeed facing the Union as a whole – over the next five years is whether the political groups will evolve into coherent trans-national European political parties ready and willing to fight for control of the Commission. Only by politicising the EU process will it be possible to connect with voters by giving them strategic choices about the future direction that the Union should take. Unless voters are reconnected in this way we can only expect more dismal results from the next election.

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