Think tank: no reason to rejoice about high EU election turnout

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The relatively high turnout seen at this weekend’s European elections was not driven by a sudden rise in interest about European matters, nor by the supposed election of a new President of the European Commission, analysts argue. Rather, it was driven by anger and the rejection of the European project, according to analysts from the Centre for European Policies Studies (CEPS).

Speaking one day after the EU elections, political analysts said there was no reason to rejoice at the turnout figures, which are often seen as a critical test for European democracy.

Turnout has fallen steadily and consistently since 1979, from 62% in the first election in 1979 to 43% in the 2009 election.

This time, in spite of negative forecasts, the average turnout across the 28 member countries remained stable and even increased slightly, at 43.1%.

Different this time?

This gave Europhiles enough reasons to rejoice.

Guy Verhofstadt, the “spitzenkandidat” of the liberal family to succeed to José Manuel Barroso as Commission President, saw the turnout figure as a good sign for Europe [read more].

But Daniel Gros, Director of CEPS, said voter turnout had “stabilised” at 43%, mainly because of the protest vote.

Indeed, figures show that turnout was higher than the previous election, precisely in countries where anti-European or far-right parties performed better, such as in France, and the UK.

Sonia Piedrafita of CEPS also appeared to refute the myth that the race for the spitzenkandidaten had contributed to the increased turnout.

Nowhere except in Germany did the spitzenkandidaten raise turnout, she said. It is known that the German centre-left electorate has been mobilised thanks to the successful campaign of Social Democrat leading candidate Martin Schulz in his own country.

There was, however, one positive result of the race of the spitzenkandidaten which she recognised, specifically, improved media coverage. Indeed, this time it has been easier for the press across Europe to put faces on the political battle.

‘There is a mess, we don’t like it’

Daniel Gros presented figures showing that citizen’s trust in the European Parliament remained higher than for national parliaments. He also compared the confidence in the European parliament with that of American citizens in the US Congress, which was presented as even lower than the confidence of Europeans in their national parliaments.

The message of the European elections was directed at national politicians, not to the EU institutions, Gros argued. He translated this message as “there is a mess, we don’t like it”, and that it was up to the national politicians to sort it out.

Gros also stressed that EU leaders wanted a weak President of the European Commission and would “maybe get one”.

He also appeared to suggest that the choice of the next Commission President will be coupled with a deal concerning the second most important Commission member – the successor toEconomic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn.

As the Commission President has the right to choose portfolios for the commissioners, it is likely that the next Commission President would commit to appoint a successor to Rehn that suits the tastes of EU leaders, Gros argued.

Regarding the possibility of EU leaders appointing a permanent president of the Eurogroup, Gros said that such a move depended on the state of relations of the Eurozone countries with the UK. The matter is not urgent, and the Eurozone had no interest in upsetting London by deepening the integration of its club, he said.

Despite a rise in anti-European parties, political balances remained broadly unchanged in the European Parliament following the elections on 25 May, with the centre-right and centre-left parties on track for a grand coalition.

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) won 212 seats in the European parliament, followed by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with 186 seats (out of 751).

The centrist liberal groups could got 70 seats, Green parties 55 and the right-wing Conservatives and Reformist group, 44.

The far-left obtained 43 seats, while the far-right Europe of Freedom and Democracy group got 36.

The big question mark relates to the 38 Non-affiliated MEPs and the 67 “other” MEPs who do not yet belong to any political grouping. Most of those belong to populist and extremist parties hostile to European integration.

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