Europe’s election aftershocks: The down side of multi-country democracy

Europe’s election aftershocks: The down side of multi-country democracy

The recent European Parliamentary elections have introduced a new and potentially unsettling dynamic in European politics, with the inclusion of growing right-wing, left-wing and Eurosceptic parties. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at what happened and what it may mean.

By the time it was all over, after the voting in 28 countries took place between 22 and 25 May, more than 300 million voters in the nations of the European Union picked 751 representatives to speak for them in the European Parliament – or the 43% of Europe’s eligible voters who chose to do so. Democracy had spoken. Or something like that.

For many years, the representatives from the various EU members (originally selected by the countries’ respective parliaments) to the regional institution’s parliament largely mirrored the parliamentary political balances in the respective nations – as the EU grew from ten members to its current twenty-eight. Now, however, EU voters directly elect this supranational legislative body, and what the voters have delivered seems to have come as an enormous shock to the collective European sense of self – even though the polls were clearly pointing to just this eventuality ahead of time.

This revolt has been brewing for some time now. Key in this growing chorus of discontent – both from the left and the right – has been a growing sense that the austerity policies being propounded by the EU, the ambivalent bailout policies of the European Central Bank, and German insistence on “live within your means” economic and fiscal policies have all contributed to making the economic recovery that much more difficult. This has come even as the human costs continue to rise in terms of high unemployment rates and ongoing cuts in government jobs and social and economic benefits. The result has been a steady rise in the popularity of Eurosceptic parties on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum, as well as some support for parties that offer worrying signs of enthusiasm for various kinds of sour, anti-democratic behaviours.

Even as the outcomes were widely predicted, the actual impact of those results simply could not be disguised, especially when a stridently anti-EU party topped the poll in France. Only a few years earlier, the far right National Front (FN) was on the risible, extremist fringe of French politics. But once the actual results of this election became known, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls didn’t even attempt to explain away the results, saying simply that it was “more than just a news alert… it is a shock, an earthquake.”

The shock has been all that more astonishing since France – together with Germany – was, after all, one of the principal architects of the European project, virtually from the beginning. Now, fresh from this electoral victory, National Front leader Marine Le Pen has claimed that this victory is just “a first step in a long march to liberty” away from the EU.

What helped generate this win for the National Front in France? Partly, of course, the vote should be read as a protest over the current national government’s own domestic policies and approaches. Francois Hollande’s Socialist government is widely despised, unemployment remains high and persistent, and the overall economy continues to stagnate. As a result, Le Pen was able to connect with French fears about the repercussions of globalisation and growing job insecurity. Moreover, she was also able to build on fears about immigration into France at a time when some 26 million people are jobless across the entire EU. Discontents similar to France’s helped rally votes to far-right parties in Denmark and Austria as well, even as, on the other hand, the anti-austerity sentiment sent far left support soaring in economically hard-hit Greece.

Previously, Europe’s political centre had controlled the EU parliament – and pretty much everything else involved in the region’s politics and political economy. There has consistently been a broad core of control of individual governments, oscillating between the various centre-left social democratic and centre-right Christian democratic alternatives, nation by nation. Of course the politics of individual EU member nations have had some more challenging fringes on the sidelines, as well as a slowly growing Green faction as a new third way – but there had generally been little to threaten a major tectonic shift or upheaval of the basic political spectrum.

This time around, in many cases, depending on the country, serious right-wingers and some equally serious leftists, the outliers, have seized the high ground instead. This development has made some commentators – and certainly some politicians across the continent – feel the centre is now under serious threat for the long haul stability and success of the European project.

Does that matter? And, in fact, does the EU parliament matter much anyway? Those questions are important, but first a review of what happened for those readers who had been held captive by presidential events in South Africa.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front won a nationwide election for the first time in its existence, in addition to the far-right and Euro-sceptic victories in several other nations. For the shell-shocked losers – this is now being called a political “earthquake.” The National Front ended up with 24.95% of votes, ahead of the centre-right UMP, with 20.8%, and President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party, which came in third with a paltry 14%. France has seventy-four seats in the parliament, just shy of a tenth of the total EU parliamentary membership.

A victorious Le Pen crowed that the result was a sign the people wanted to see fundamental change for Europe. Even though the vote was for the EU’s regional legislative body, there is real potential for an impact on France’s national political as well as Le Pen went on to say, “The sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reigns of their destiny into their hands. Our people demand one type of politics: politics of the French, for the French, with the French. They no longer want to be directed from outside.” Raising the stakes just a bit more, she challenged President Hollande to dissolve France’s parliament to make way for new parliamentary elections as most members of the French National Assembly still are from the usual mainstream political parties.

French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, meanwhile, said the results seem to indicate French voters are increasingly sceptical of the European Union itself. The results were “more than a warning. It is a shock, an earthquake,” he said.

Right-wing parties also turned in strong results in the UK, Denmark and Austria. Such parties and Eurosceptic groups are making headway, says University of Surrey European politics specialist Simon Usherwood, because “I think what’s really changed is you’re seeing a lot more groups on the edges, particularly with the far right, who are going to be much more of a feature of the next five years of the parliament.”

Among two major nations, more standard, more mainline parties won the lion’s share of the vote in Italy and Germany, even though that was not the more general pattern across the EU. Nevertheless, in Germany, the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland party did draw 7% of the vote and to gain seven parliamentarians, and there will also be one member to represent the neo-Nazi NPD.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party held on to capture almost 41% of the vote for the country’s seventy-four seats in the parliament. This big score by Renzi’s centre-left party could be a boost for his domestic economic reforms at home and this vote of confidence in his party may also give Italy a stronger presence in Brussels at the EU headquarters than it has been able to muster in the past. At least one government leader came away happy.

University of Surrey’s Usherwood did note that despite the National Front’s win, together with similar victories in other countries, that did not mean these groups would control the agenda in the EU parliament. Even acting together, these groups simply “don’t have enough votes to stop legislation going through, but what they will get, particularly on the far right, is the time for speaking in debates, the chairmanship of certain committees, which means that they’re going to have much more of a platform on which they can sell their message to voters.”

Generally speaking, the right and Eurosceptic parties have been insisting on tighter border controls, nationalised (as opposed to EU-centralised) decision-making, and dissolution of the currency union – effectively winding down much of the evolution of regional policy-making that has evolved over the past two decades and more. But, crucially, for their immediate chances to affect specific policies, these parties still have relatively little in common besides their visceral dislike of the Brussels bureaucracy, thereby making it hard to achieve real common ground. Or, as Usherwood concluded, “They can agree they don’t like the EU, but they can’t agree what they like and what the answer is.”

Meanwhile, over in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party was the largest single vote getter with over 26% of the votes. And in Spain, while the Popular Party received some 26% of the vote, a new party, barely three months old – Podemos (We Can) – received five seats and 8% of the vote. That put it in third place in the Spanish version of this election, despite having had little campaign funding or organisational depth.

The Guardian commented on this fledgling citizens’ activist party, noting, “Podemos’ lofty list of election promises includes doing away with tax havens, establishing a guaranteed minimum income and lowering the retirement age to 60. The party ran its European elections campaign on a shoestring budget, using crowd-funding and [university professor and party leader Pablo] Iglesias’ ubiquitous presence as a talking head on Spanish television to build momentum.” By contrast, the main opposition Socialist Party lost a third of its support across Spain.

These Spanish results were more than just dissatisfaction with government and EU economic policy. The results highlight the growing division between Catalonia and the rest of the country. More than half of Catalan voters went with parties that support a referendum on the region’s political status and such voter support has grown from around 35% only five years earlier. As a result, both the ruling Popular Party and the Socialists bled support in Catalonia.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, the UKIP – the UK Independence Party – garnered more than 27% of the total vote – more than either the Conservatives or Labour. UKIP’s stunner of a victory was the first time since 1906 (!) when a party other than the Tories or Labour had captured a national election in Britain. While party leaders from the three mainstream parties continue to insist their respective parties still have the cojones and policies to take on UKIP and beat it, based on the results of this election, such spirit was not much in evidence last week.

By contrast, in Greece, the left-wing Syriza Party beat the current prime minister’s New Democracy Party, getting over 26% of the votes – and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn came in third with a tad over 9%. After this vote, Syriza’s leader also called for new national elections to capitalise on this EU parliamentary result.

And over in Ireland, the government there had been struggling to build confidence in its economic policies after the Labour Party had been spanked in both the local and now the European elections that had forced the resignation of Eamon Gilmore as the party’s leader. The party ultimately pulled a paltry 7% in the EU poll and widespread anti-austerity feelings by the Irish even gave a boost for the revival of Sinn Fein.

Now the bun fighting begins over who gets to become the head of the European Commission – a position that while certainly not as powerful as that of the US president, is significantly more important than the leadership of virtually any other regional body, given the EU’s growing impact on the full range of economic policies across Europe.

Previously, the prime ministers of the various member national governments got to pick who the head of the EU Commission was going to be, but the new EU rules now require the decision include the input of the EU parliament in such a decision. In describing the debate over selection of the person who would succeed the current chairman, Herman van Rumpuy, the Financial Times commented on Wednesday, “Brussels is bracing itself for months of brinkmanship over the EU’s new leadership after the presumed frontrunner for the European Commission presidency saw his path to the job stymied with no alternative for the post emerging. EU officials said there was a growing fear of a stand-off between Europe’s prime ministers, who are cooling on the candidacy of former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, and the newly elected European Parliament, which is insisting he be given the first shot at the job. ‘This could still turn into an inter-institutional fight pitting the European Parliament against the council [of prime ministers],’ said one senior EU official briefed on negotiations. The official added that both sides were fighting to set the precedent for how the candidate for the EU’s top job was chosen. ‘It’s not just the power game. It’s about the long-term implications of the power game.’ The prospect of a prolonged and messy fight over the EU’s top job is particularly unwelcome at a time when the bloc is struggling to respond to an election that saw big gains by Eurosceptic parties of both left and right.”

Concurrently, the EU also faces both political and economic challenges that cry out for forceful, energetic leadership at the regional level that can bridge the gap on policy alternatives. On the one hand, the continuing economic slump in many of the group’s members would seem to require measures that can pump prime the region’s faltering economy. In spite of this, Germany’s government continues to insist on austerity measures that would slim down government spending by the hardest-hit economies – inflicting the precise kind of pain that has led to the more extremist results in the recent election.

Beyond economics, the EU as a group, and the member nations individually, are still trying to determine the right path for responding to a more assertive, aggressive Russia as it continues to pressure Ukraine and perhaps nibble away further bits of its territory. This comes even as the EU nations wrestle with developing a more common energy policy towards Russia (especially considering the European nations’ dependence on Russian natural gas), and a more cogent economic rescue policy for Ukraine. Whoever ultimately gets the nod as head of the European Commission will have some real work to look forward to, herding that sack full of European cats. DM

Photo: France’s far right National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen reacts at the end of the summer meeting of the National Front (FN) in Nice, southeastern France, September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Jean-Pierre Amet

Read more:

  • EU braced for prolonged tussle over new Commission president in the Financial Times;
  • European Parliament/About Parliament at the European Union website;
  • Leaders agree to review EU agenda at Brussels summit at the BBC;
  • The House of Habsburg, Revisited at Foreign Policy;
  • That ‘earthquake’ in Europe? It’s far-right gains in Parliament elections at CNN;
  • Round-up: Euro election fallout at the Financial Times;
  • Euro elections: The European revolt at the BBC;
  • European election results: At a glance at the BBC;
  • Merkel blows open race for top Brussels job at the Financial Mail;
  • Eurosceptic ‘earthquake’ rocks EU elections at the BBC;
  • European Parliament election 2014: complete results at the Financial Mail;
  • European election results: Moment of truth for Juncker at the BBC.

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