From the European elections of last month, a number of overarching trends can be identified among voters’ choices and behaviour. Although voting patterns varied between countries, a number of broad conclusions can be drawn which give some indication of the form the next Parliament is likely to take, and some of the key challenges it will face.
1) This was the first European election in which the dominant issues were about Europe. This shows how important Europe has become, and will probably remain in future, in the eyes of the general public and of the media as a result of the crises of the past few years.
2) The election demonstrated the increased influence the European Parliament has acquired since the Lisbon Treaty came into force. The adoption of lead candidates by the European parliamentary groups meant that for the first time a pan-European election took place, or at least the beginnings of one. It is unlikely that coming elections could fall back from that mark. The Parliament will go suitably emboldened into the selection process over the coming weeks and months for the President of the Commission and into the hearings for candidates for the other leadership posts in the EU. Whether it will ultimately be successful or not remains to be seen, but for the sake of strengthening European democracy it is fervently to be hoped that it will.
3) Anti-integrationist and nationalistic movements have made clear gains across Europe, though with wide variations between the individual countries. Whereas in the countries of southern Europe, which were worst hit by the euro crisis, the election was above all a vote on the policy of austerity, and parties of the left made the biggest gains, in most northern countries it was rightwing populist and extremist parties which won bigger shares of the vote. This will have significant impact – not so much on the internal work of the European Parliament, but all the more so on the national and European policies of some of the member States, above all France and Great Britain.
4) Against this background, it is questionable whether in the near future we will still be able to assume the existence of a functioning Franco-German motor to drive European integration. Germany will therefore probably have an even more important role to play, both in the further integration of Europe and as a wise and careful mediator within the EU.
5) The conditions in Great Britain could hardly be less propitious, given the prevailing anti-European atmosphere and the possible referendum on an exit from the EU announced by Cameron for 2017. If the big parties in Britain fail to live up to their responsibility for the European project over the coming years, then it is a genuine possibility that one of the earliest members of the European Union will leave it – with serious negative consequences for Great Britain as well as for the EU.
6) Achieving political majorities in the new European Parliament will be a more complex task because of the success enjoyed by rightwing populists and independents. A grand coalition of conservatives and social democrats can only garner a narrow and unstable simple majority. For most votes in the coming years the conservatives and social democrats will therefore be dependent on the cooperation of the Greens and the Liberals.
7) Almost without exception, Green parties enjoyed better results than predicted. In almost every country the Greens maintained or improved on their showing from 2009. The best results were in Austria, Sweden and Luxembourg. What is more, the Green parliamentary group will be considerably more diverse than in the last parliament. From a geographical perspective, it will have members from at least 15 member states for the first time. And another milestone is the first measurable European success for Green parties in central and eastern Europe (Hungary and Croatia).
8) Although the elections took place at the same time as the Ukrainian crisis, which is the biggest immediate foreign policy dilemma the EU has faced since the end of the Cold War, in most countries foreign policy barely played a role, if at all. This also shows up how irrelevant the European Parliament has been in foreign policy issues to date.
9) At 43 percent, the electoral turnout remained worryingly low given the importance of European politics in recent years and the increased role of the European Parliament. It is difficult to put a positive interpretation on the fact that the continuous decline since the introduction of European elections was halted this time, especially in view of the fact that participation rates in several central and eastern European states were below 20 percent. Clearly, in spite of the greater coverage in the European media and in spite of the introduction of leading European candidates, many European citizens were not persuaded that this election was important to them, nor did they grasp what were the alternatives on offer.
10) This election showed that the fundamental debate over the future of the European Union, something that has been postponed in recent years because of the need for ad hoc crisis responses, is now starting in earnest. How much Europe do we want? What do we need Europe to do for us? What should be Europe’s role in the world of the 21st century? The success enjoyed by the anti-integrationist and anti-European parties also demonstrates that this debate needs to be held urgently and in public.
This article was originally published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.