European Union's 'Political Earthquake'

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The highly anticipated elections to the European Parliament were momentous for European politics as it marked the entry of the most radical, nationalist parties across Europe. Gauri Khandekar finds out why these anticipated election results have jolted most euro-observers

European Parliament (EP) elections were held across 28 member states of the European Union (EU) from May 22-25, 2014. Between apathy and anger, voter turnout for this pan-European election stood at a mere 43.09 percent – a slight increase from the 2009 elections but a consistent, significant drop from 61.99 percent of the first elections in 1979.

The highly anticipated parliamentary elections were momentous for European politics for two reasons: EP’s shared role in law-making at the European level along with the European Council; and the entry of 10, amongst others, of the most radical, nationalist parties across Europe. These parties include the Front National of France, the Germany’s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP), Golden Dawn and the radical Left Syriza parties from Greece, Finns party from Finland, Danish People’s Party from Denmark, Party for Freedom of The Netherlands, Jobbik from Hungary, and Austrian Freedom from Austria and Lega Nord from Italy.

Far-Reaching Implications

These political parties are far-Right nationalists in their ideology, anti-immigrant in attitude and more importantly, sceptical of the European Union project. What’s more, reflecting the changing attitudes of the population, European government leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron and President Francois Hollande have called for a ‘rethink of the Brussels agenda’ with a less EU role. While such results were rather anticipated, they have nonetheless jolted most euro-observers. The aftereffects of a prolonged euro crisis are now distinctly visible; ironically in what has arguably been the EU’s most progressive supranational institution, proponent of European integration at home and a champion of human rights internationally. While these elections may not change EU policy outcome much, they will impact how the EU’s external partners perceive the EU.

European parliamentarians have usually come from mainstream political parties and have been largely supportive of European integration. Two parties have historically dominated seat distribution: the Centre-Right European People’s Party and the Centre-Left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. The Alliance of Liberal Democrats for Europe Party has been the third largest Europe wide political party. Far-Right parties, which have held little to no regard for EU politics, were a tiny minority in the EP until now and preferred to focus principally on the national level. But with the global financial and the European debt crises since 2008 having negatively publicised the role of the EU across its member states, frustrations among the European public have been directed to the EU level. Far-Right nationalist parties across Europe are more than happy to become a conduit for these resentments and channel them to the EU level themselves in contrast to mainstream parties, which are seen as more pro-EU. These radical parties have a euro-exit on their agenda.

Direct Manifestation of Discontent

The outcome of the EP elections is a direct manifestation of displeasure amongst the European population to tough austerity measures imposed since 2008 and ensuing societal tensions. The infuriation among people is also due to recognition that pre-crisis comfortable social models are untenable and that the ‘European way of life’ is threatened. Economic conditions have consistently worsened with unemployment rates rising from 7.2 percent in 2008 to 10.6 percent in February 2014, with the highest rates recorded in Greece (27.4 percent in September 2013) and Spain (26.7 percent November 2013).

Since 2008, the European crisis has strained the EU’s relationship with the people who largely blame Brussels for continued economic misery and a lack of democratic legitimacy. In Greece, the uneasy trio responsible for handling the bailout packages — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — have been blamed for imposing highly unpopular austerity reforms leading to continuous violent demonstrations in the country over the past four years. Slow and ineffective recovery has left many unhappy with not only national politics, but now the European-level decision-making system as well. The added inability to devalue the euro in Eurozone member states in order to boost exports has further fuelled tensions.

A Blow to Established Parties

Many prominent European leaders like Nicholas Sarkozy of France or Mario Monti of Italy have become casualties of the European crisis. Established pan-European political parties are only the latest in line to receive a direct blow by the surge in popularity for the less mainstream, radical alternatives. France’s Front National led by Marine Le Pen became the first party to win more than 25 percent of the country’s vote; in Greece the Leftist Syriza cornered 26 percent; and voters in Britain, whose discontent with the EU has been the most publicly debated, pushed the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by controversial leader Nigel Farage, into first place with an unprecedented 28 percent of the vote.

Future Direction of European Politics

The results are nonetheless important as they represent the democratic expression of people and their will with regard to the future direction of EU politics. The influx of Eurosceptics may well render EU politics more in tune with concerns at the grassroots level and allow for a lively (if not futile) debate. The addition of these new popular parties in the decision making process might even add more perceived legitimacy to legislations that come out of Brussels.

Following the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Parliament and the European Council jointly legislate on 95 percent of ‘community legislation’ and some key foreign policy issues, including the approval of free trade agreements with third countries. However, the concern that these ‘protest parties’ can significantly affect decision-making in the EU is needless. Of the total number of seats, only a quarter were won by these parties, which is not enough to upset the established order. Their new-found popularity does not necessarily mean that there will be a fundamental reshaping of the EU. What is important is that the main political groups in the Parliament, who still retain around 70 percent of Parliament seats, are firmly pro-European with the power to push for pro-EU policies. More importantly, Jean Claude Junker, the recently-elected President of the European Commission, the body that proposes legislation and leads international trade negotiations, is a prominent pro-European.

Message to External Partners

While politics at the supranational level might not be deformed significantly, the signal that the rise of nationalism across Europe and at the supranational level has given to EU’s international partners is important. The entry of close-minded nationalist political parties into the mainstream as a trend is watched closely given Europe’s troubled history. A number of Europe’s external partners sense that they will now be dealing with an inward-looking Europe. Furthermore, the call from European leaders to limit the role of the EU is perceived internationally as a vote of no confidence against the EU. This, more than anything else, will deter third countries from further intensifying their relations with the international organisation to a certain extent. Already the vast majority of countries find it hard to comprehend the EU’s complexities and prefer to deal with EU member states bilaterally. A rethink of the Brussels agenda within the EU might just lead to a rethink of the EU outside Europe.

The daunting task for the new EU leadership (presidents of the EU Council, EU Commission and the EP) will now be to convince Europe’s external partners of the vitality of maintaining relations with the EU. This undertaking will be harder given the impending domestic struggle of convincing EU member states of various internal policies and instruments on a daily basis, managing to strike a balance between ‘less and more Europe’. At 28 members, decision-making in the EU is expected to protract further and become more complicated. A more bulky, sluggish EU seems to be in the offing. But the EU and its leaders (including member states) must find the ability to transcend the psychological impact of these elections. Renewing the Brussels agenda and building a stronger EU would be Europe’s best chance of making it in a rapidly shifting global order amongst economic and geographical giants like the US, China, India, Brazil, Russia, Australia and others.



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Author

Gauri Khandekar

Gauri Khandekar is Researcher at Brussels-based think tank FRIDE and Head of its Asia Programme.

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