The forthcoming May European Parliament (EP) elections appear, from this distance, to be a strange mixture of an open race and foregone conclusion. A range of commentators have suggested that the elections will see the success of a wave of protest parties, many with Eurosceptic agendas, riding on the back of the economic crisis and a wider frustration with politics and the European integration project in general. But just how the main European parties will fare, who will do well or badly, is much more up for grabs.
What do we know about EP elections?
The EP has changed dramatically in importance and in its role within the EU over the last few decades. But the nature of EP elections has not changed as much as the institution itself. Conventional wisdom and the political science literature unusually come together on seeing these as ‘second order’ elections. This means we can predict, with some certainty, that voters will view these elections as being of less importance than ‘first order’ national parliamentary and presidential polls and use them to send some particular ‘protest’ messages, often aimed at incumbent governing parties, and sometimes at the mainstream parties more generally.
So, knowing that they are ‘second order’ elections, what can we predict will happen in this EP poll? First, we know that EP elections do not set European citizens alight with excitement. Turnout will be consistently lower than in national elections. The level of turnout varies across countries but eleven of the 25 states at the last EP elections saw turnouts of less than 40%, with the lowest level being Slovakia at 20% and the average being only 43%. Second, we can predict that smaller, fringe parties will fare better in these elections than they do at their national elections. This is classically an arena where protest parties do well. As they are perceived as secondary elections, they are seen as an opportunity for voters to cast votes for parties that they would think twice about voting for in national elections. This is likely to attract much of the media commentary. Third, we also know that incumbent parties currently in national government will generally (depending on where they are in their national election cycles) fare poorly. The secondary nature of the elections allows voters, and even supporters of the governing parties, a chance to express their frustration by abstaining or casting a ‘protest’ vote for the opposition or a minor party.
A European election or twenty eight national ones?
What is frequently overlooked in EP elections is that this European-wide process to an EU institution can actually be a very un-European affair. In effect, the fact that EP elections are second order polls means that they are largely the aggregate of twenty-eight individual national contests. The politicians being sent to commute between Brussels and Strasbourg are actually elected on very national grounds and as the result of voters thinking more about domestic politics than about Europe. While many commentators will attempt to draw European-wide trends on the basis of these results – such as, for example, a pan-European ‘swing’ to the left or right – we should, therefore, be very cautious about doing this.
On the face of it, the euro zone crisis and current European-wide economic problems do offer the chance for these elections to have ‘Europe’ as a much more substantial issue in its own right this time around. But we need to be clear that the nature of the economic crisis in general, and the euro issue specifically, are highly differentiated and dependent upon the country context. The fact that voters, for example, in Greece and Germany may use the elections to pass judgement on the impact of ‘the European issue’ in their countries does not mean that they will be passing the same judgement or even judging the same policies. ‘Europe’ remains a very diverse and multi-dimensional issue and these EP elections will reflect that diversity. We should, therefore, also be very careful about drawing general conclusions about public attitudes towards the trajectory of the European integration project when there will be significant differences in the way that the issue is framed and interpreted in different local contexts.
Common trends and diversity
So while attempts to identify common themes will no doubt dominate much of the commentary on these elections – and, if one looks hard enough, it will certainly be possible to identify some – it is important to remember that there will also be a real diversity in terms of electoral trends. For example, we are likely to see the success of parties with a ‘Eurosceptic’ agenda (broadly defined) in the form, for example, of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns, the Austrian Freedom Party, SYRIZA and Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and even in Germany with the Alternative for Germany. This is one such apparently common trend that commentators are likely to zoom in on. But beyond being protest parties these groupings are, of course very different. Even a shared concern about Europe has taken some very different forms from the rejectionist policies of UKIP, through the specifics of the anti-memorandum positions of the Greek parties, to scepticism that is confined solely to concerns about the euro rather than the European project per se as in the Alternative for Germany. There are real dangers about looking too hard for common themes when there can be some very different agendas.
Looking at Europe often means looking at similarities but looking at EP elections, as they are second order elections, is really an exercise in seeing the sheer range of European experiences and being sensitive to the wide diversity of politics in Europe. It also means that, strange though it may seem, the key to understanding these elections – the only ones to a directly elected European-wide institution – may lie in looking below the European level to see the impact of domestic politics in twenty-eight states.
Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak
University of Sussex