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Between Apathy and Anger - But No Earthquake

Between Apathy and Anger - But No Earthquake

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Published by JamilMaqsood

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: JamilMaqsood on Jul 16, 2009
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Post-Election Analysis
Between apathy and anger – but no earthquake
EU citizens have voted, albeit not in very large numbers.The overall turnout of roughly 43% of the 375 million eligible voters, indeed, represents ahistorical low (further down from 45.6% in 2004), and displays the high degree of apathy andlack of interest already apparent throughout the electoral campaign across the 27 MemberStates. Still, the figure is in line with the historical trend since 1979 and, truth be told, less badthan expected (and feared) on the eve of the elections. The fact that a number of governmentsopted for combining the European Parliament elections with other national or administrativevotes contributed to containing the phenomenon within acceptable limits, raising the stakesand bringing more citizens to the polling booths.Yet the problem remains serious: an ever-decreasing number of EU citizens participate in theelection of a body whose powers have constantly increased over the past two decades, thusraising issues of legitimacy and credibility.If and when the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, the Strasbourg assembly will acquire co-decisionpowers over as much as 80-90% of EU legislation, including the Common Agricultural Policy andimportant legal matters affecting the rights of ordinary citizens. Yet the newly-elected 736 MEPshave hardly received a mandate to this end from their constituents. Worse still, they have beenelected on the basis of predominantly (if not exclusively) national campaigns centred on verydiverse and often unrelated themes.The most worrying signal comes, arguably, from the new Member States, where the turnoutwas once again generally spectacularly low, despite the solid popularity the EU now enjoys inmost of them. In Poland, for instance, where up to 80% of the population seems quite satisfiedwith the country’s EU membership, barely 20% bothered to vote (the lowest percentage wasSlovakia’s 19%). This is probably also due to the (mistaken) perception that these electionswere of secondary importance, as they were not intended to choose a government – althoughin some EU countries (Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal and the UK), theyamounted to a general political test for national elections to come.Along with the system of proportional representation adopted (with variants) in all 27 countries,this may also explain the outcome of the vote, which has generated a highly fragmented newassembly with a large number of small parties on the fringes of the mainstream political groups.Freed from the incentive to cast a ‘useful’ ballot, in other words, voters have either stayed home orvented their anger against the current state of affairs. Indeed, if there has been a single unifyingtheme in the campaign, it has not been the EU and its policies, but rather the impact of theeconomic crisis on European societies.
Winners and losers
European voters have responded in different ways to the crisis. Politically speaking, the ‘family’ that has been hit hardest has unquestionably been the Party of European Socialists (PES).Socialist and Social Democrat parties lost votes and seats both where they are in government(with the exception of Slovakia) and where they are in the opposition (with the exception of Greece). They also systematically lost wherever they form a ‘grand coalition’ with the ChristianDemocrats - namely in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands – while their coalition partners
have done comparatively better. Their losses were particularly heavy in the bigger MemberStates (worst in the UK, most limited in Spain) and could not be compensated by marginalincreases in Malta or Ireland. As a result, the PES will number only 161 MEPs in the newParliament, down from 216 in the outgoing one.The reasons for this painful blow are numerous but converging: they range from political divisionsinside the ‘family’ to the lack of an identifiable policy response to the crisis (distinct from that of both the centre-right and that of the other left-wing parties); from the erosion of traditionalconstituencies (unions and salaried employees) to the absence of leading figures capable of attracting an increasingly volatile and mobile electorate. On top of that, if the current trendscontinue, in less than a year the PES may find itself in government in only a small minority of EUMember States, with its standing in the broader EU political system thus gravely undermined.By contrast, and somewhat unexpectedly, the European People’s Party (EPP) ‘family’ has donefairly well, considering that centre-right parties have been in office in many EU countries sincethe current crisis began to unfold. Greece apart, EPP-affiliated parties have held out in most EUcountries, suffering only limited losses as compared to the previous legislative period: they arenow credited with 263 MEPs, compared with 278 previously.The best performances were registered in Poland, France, Germany and Italy (where the parties arein office) as well as in the UK and Spain (in opposition). While the explanations for this are partlycountry-specific, and partly the flip-side of the Socialists’ failure, it is also arguable that especiallycontinental centre-right parties have not been blamed by the voters for the economic downturn.Indeed, the French UMP, the German CDU-CSU, Poland’s Civic Platform and even Italy’s newlycreated PDL can hardly be accused of being followers of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of unrestrainedcapitalism that allegedly lies at the root of the financial crisis. On the contrary, they tend to offer amix of market-oriented and social-policy ingredients that voters seem to consider appropriate atthis stage.As a result, the EPP has further strengthened its pivotal role also in the new assembly, as noviable coalition appears possible without (and against) it to produce consistent legislation andconsensual decisions.The relative ‘defeat’ of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), down from104 to 80 MEPs (mainly due to disappointing results in France and the UK) was somewhatsurprising. One is tempted to attribute this outcome to the difficulty of articulating an explicitpro-EU platform successfully (MoDem and the Liberal Democrats are probably the mostEurophile forces in their respective countries), but this is belied by the spectacular score of theGreens in France itself, Belgium, and elsewhere on the continent. True, the centrality of climatechange as a policy issue has contributed to that, especially among younger voters.Furthermore, the personality of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-President of the Greens/European FreeAlliance, has played a key role in the fortunes of the French-speaking parties. Yet the inroadsof the ecologists into centrist/liberal milieus across Europe have been quite significant. As aresult, the ranks of the Greens have swelled from 42 to 52 MEPs – although especially theNordic ones remain quite wary of Brussels, as are most of the (old and new) formations thathave made it to Strasbourg from the far left proper, now down from 44 to 35.While the biggest ‘winner’ of these elections was unquestionably the ‘party of non-voters’, themost striking result was probably the mixed bunch of populist, anti-EU and anti-immigrationforces that have swept almost the entire EU. In reality, these forces are often quite differentfrom one another: some are economically liberal (in the Netherlands or Northern Italy),whereas others are protectionist and statist; some are not only racist but even homophobicand openly anti-semitic (Hungary’s Jobbik, Britain’s British National Party), others pro-gayrights and pro-Israel (Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party); some are bitterly nationalistic (TrueFinns) and Eurosceptic (the UK Independence Party), others rather regionally-centred (Austria)or just single-issue (Sweden’s Pirates).However numerous they may turn out to be in Strasbourg, they will probably struggle to formcohesive parliamentary groups and stick together for five years, as the outgoing Parliament’srecord has shown. But they certainly signal a serious problem for European democracy and forthe integration process as such, and this may require actions and reactions by political leaders(in the capitals as well as Brussels) going well beyond the indignation and condemnation voicedin the wake of the little shock of 7 June.
However, there is at least one good piece of news to report about the populist right ‘camp’, so tospeak - the spectacular failure of Libertas, the new EU-wide anti-EU party recently created byDeclan Ganley. Not only did his affiliated lists on the continent score very badly (only Philippe deVilliers in France, a familiar face on the populist front in his own right, made it to Strasbourg), butGanley himself was not elected in ‘his’ Ireland, just a few months after masterminding thesuccessful No campaign against the Lisbon Treaty. This seems to demonstrate that in today’sEurope, while there unfortunately is plenty of room for country-specific populism (statisticallyclassified as “others”), there is virtually none for a single, homogenous, and centrally coordinatedanti-EU movement – as underlined by the political demise of its champions in Denmark.The other relatively good news also comes from Ireland: despite the fears of many analystsand pollsters, Irish voters channeled their dissatisfaction with the current Fianna Fail-ledcoalition government and its handling of the crisis in the direction of the mainstreamopposition, Fine Gael, which is part of the EPP family and a strong supporter of the LisbonTreaty. This augurs well for the planned second referendum on Lisbon in the early autumn.
What now? 
The outcome of the European Parliament elections makes the reappointment of José ManuelBarroso at the helm of the European Commission more likely, of course. Not only was he thevirtual candidate of the EPP family, but he was also endorsed by three prime ministers from thePES camp (Gordon Brown, José Luis Zapatero and José Socrates). This, and the defeat of thePES, make it less likely that an alternative candidate may emerge to challenge him, at least atthe European Council level (things could be different in the Parliament, when it comes to theformal investiture).For the time being, however, it is still unclear whether he will be nominated at the forthcomingEU Summit, and then submitted to a vote of ‘investiture’ when the new Parliament opens itssession on 15 July, or whether there will be a simple ‘political endorsement’ at the Summitwithout a formal procedure - while waiting for the referendum in Ireland and the possible entryinto force of the new Treaty. By the same token, the appointment of the entire newCommission (including the parliamentary hearings for the Commissioners and the final vote onthe College) may be postponed by a few months.The second top appointment to be made is that of the President of the Parliament itself.The ever-more central role of the EPP, once again, will make it more difficult for the othermainstream parties to coalesce against it. Therefore, it can be expected that one of the tworotating Presidents for the period 2009-14 (probably the first one) will come from the EPP.At this stage, the top candidate is the former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Busek, sponsored,among others, by the German CDU-CSU and the French UMP (whose Joseph Daul chairedthe EPP group in the outgoing assembly). But other demands and ambitions may have tobe accommodated, as Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL has become a force to be reckoned with in thenew group. It also remains to be seen which other family the EPP will try to ally with in apower-sharing agreement: the PES or ALDE (as in 1999-2004) - or possibly both if necessary.And how is the new assembly in Strasbourg expected to operate and vote more generally? Thisis difficult to predict, of course. The outgoing Parliament was strongly influenced, from late2005 onwards, by the formation of the Grand Coalition in Germany: by then, the EPP and PESgroups were both chaired by German nationals (Hans-Gert Pöttering and Martin Schultz), andthe effects on the Parliament became soon evident. Germany will go to the polls again in lateSeptember, and a change of government coalition is equally likely to affect the proceedings of the European Parliament, because of the sheer number of German MEPs. It will also berelevant to see what the British Conservatives eventually decide to do in terms of groupmembership – right away as well as after a possible election victory at home next year.In light of the election results, however, it seems reasonable to say that the new Parliamentcould well turn out to be:
less in favour of further enlarging the EU, especially (but not exclusively) to Turkey: theParliament will not be a central player in this policy area, at least at this stage, but theoverall ‘mood’ of the voters will inevitably reverberate on the overall process;

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