A resounding victory to indifference

Opinion: Parliamentarians hoped to boost the ailing profile and legitimacy of the European Parliament

Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images

Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images

Tue, May 27, 2014, 01:01

When European leaders gather in Brussels today to consider the results of the European Parliament (EP) elections the collective, largely gloomy postmortem is unlikely to produce a verdict MEPs will applaud.

Parliamentarians had hoped that personalising the campaign by turning it into a contest for the presidency of the European Commission would transform public interest and boost the ailing profile and legitimacy of the parliament.

Instead they barely maintained turnout levels – just over the 43 per cent achieved in 2009 (as low as 13 per cent in Slovakia) – and gave a resounding victory to indifference and a new platform and headlines to far-right Eurosceptic parties and far-left anti-austerity campaigners, who in at least four countries, topped the poll for the first time. Time then, the leaders will ask themselves, to give the parliament a vote of confidence by endorsing its candidates for the commission? Either Luxembourg’s Jean Claude Juncker of the winning European People’s Party (Fine Gael) or Martin Schulz, the German Social Democrat (Labour) who is former president of the EP? Well, hardly. Despite her public support for Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel is also on the record as saying there is no automatic link between the outcome of the elections and the appointment of the commission president.

Britain’s David Cameron is bitterly opposed to either, regarding both as dangerous federalists, while Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, a liberal, has roundly rejected the parliament’s presumption. “That will probably lead to fierce discussions between the council [national leaders] and the parliament. We aren’t afraid of that,” he told a Dutch website. “The EP doesn’t nominate, the council does that. The parliament can then say yes or no.” Political logic Legally, he’s right. And that’s also the political logic, in no small measure driven by a desire of heads of government to retain their prerogative. Talk of boosting the democratic credentials of the parliament is something for the hustings, not to be taken too seriously, and most of the leaders, after all, regard themselves anyway as personifications of the democratic will of their peoples. A result at today’s meeting in Brussels is most unlikely.

While the election headlines are largely about the success of Eurosceptic parties, notably the poll-topping performances of Ukip in Britain, the Front National in France, and the Danish People’s Party, in reality party blocs in the parliament broadly supportive of the European Union (the EPP, Socialists and Democrats, and Liberals, all of whom have seen seat losses) have between them garnered some 469 of the 751 seats in the parliament. The growth of the hard left and hard right will make business more difficult to conduct, and probably prompt efforts at more formal coalition-building than has been necessary in the past.

While the Nordic region and Denmark remainliberal and open, right-wing parties’ portrayal of welfare benefits under threat from immigration has struck a chord with some voters, helping the Sweden Democrats to win EU seats for the first time and Finland’s Finns Party, to win a second EU seat. The right has, however, seen setbacks – Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik party saw its vote decline six points on recent elections, while in the Netherlands Geert Wilders’s anti-Islamist Freedom Party lost three seats.

Among what might be termed the “Eurocriticals” like the British Tories, who lost seven seats , Poland’s Law and Justice performed well , taking an extra four seats, while they will also be joined by the new German Eurosceptic party Alternative für Deutschland. The growth of the hard left is also noteworthy: in Greece the anti-austerity Syriza also topped the poll, while in Spain the new indignados’ movement’s party, Podemos, will probably take five seats. But, as Ukip leader Nigel Farage put it to journalists, “the real effect of these elections, with big ‘Eurosceptic’ gains in many countries, will be less what happens in Brussels and more what happens within the member states”. He predicts more referendums on EU matters, and in truth in the UK the Farage effect has already been felt ahead of the elections with the Tories’ pledge of a referendum and the tightening of the screw on immigrants.

The prospect of Westminster seats for Ukip, possibly even holding the balance of power, after the general election next year was inconceivable a year ago – now it is causing far more consternation in Tory and Labour ranks than the prospect of massed Ukip ranks on the European Parliament benches. Further tax cuts In France in the face of a poll-topping historic high of 25 per cent for the Front National (FN) , and a historic low of 14 per cent for his Socialist Party, new prime minister Manuel Valls was out quickly to promise further tax cuts for low-earning and middle-class households, acknowledging the FN result was behind the move. In Spain the Socialists responded to their drubbing by ditching their party leader.

The result will have the opposite effect in Italy where polls putting prime minister Matteo Renzi’s PDs on about 40 per cent, dramatically up from the 25.4 per cent in last year’s election, will significantly strengthen his hand in pushing on with broad economic and constitutional reforms.

But the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo (projected on 22 per cent) and the anti-euro Northern League (on 6 per cent) will ensure strong Euroscepticrepresentation in the European Parliament. Patrick Smyth is Foreign Policy Editor

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