The European Parliament in 2014

Giacomo Benedetto 

The European Parliament (EP)’s elections of 2014 were heralded as a triumph for Eurosceptics and populists across Europe but this success was overblown. Hard Eurosceptics and MEPs from the extreme right increased their seat share from 7% to 13%, while that of the radical Left increased from 5% to 7%. Although this amounted to almost a doubling in the numbers of the extreme right and hard Eurosceptics – who came first in the elections in the UK, France and Denmark – it was hardly the landslide that was widely claimed. In what follows, I shall focus on the role of the EP and its elections in selecting/electing the incoming President of the European Commission, the changing balance of forces in the Parliament, and the election of the new Commission in the autumn of 2014.

The Lisbon Treaty declares that the European Council nominates a candidate to be President of the European Commission, which the Parliament will then “elect”. The only new feature about this rule is the word “elect”. Previously, the European Council, which consists of the heads of government of all the EU’s member states, nominated the head of the Commission, who was subject to a vote of assent by the EP, allowing the latter to accept or reject the candidate. In 2014, the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES), Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), European Green Party (EGP), and European Left Party (ELP) each selected a candidate, following the spirit of the treaty change and the hope that live television debates would increase public interest and voter turnout, rendering the new Commission and Parliament more legitimate.

Several television debates took place between some or all of the candidates, who included the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Claude-Juncker (EPP), EP President Martin Schulz (PES), former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), MEPs Ska Keller and José Bové (EGP) as joint candidates, and the leader of the Greek Left Alexis Tsipras (ELP). The audience for these was limited primarily to Germany and the Benelux countries, with some networks like the BBC refusing to screen the debates. The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), led by the British Conservatives, refused to select a candidate on the grounds of opposing the direct election of the President of the Commission. The harder Eurosceptic faction in the EP, Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD), led by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), also refused to take part due to its outright opposition to the EU.

Table 1: EP seat numbers and seat share of party groups, 2009 and 2014

Party Group 2009 2014
MEPs % MEPs %
EPP 265 36 221 29
S&D 183 25 191 25
ALDE 84 11 67 9
G/EFA 55 7 50 6
ECR 54 7 70 9
EUL/NGL 35 5 52 7
EFD 32 4 48 6
NA 28 4 52 7
TOTAL 736 751

As Table 1 shows, although it still came first, the most significant loser in the 2014 elections was the EPP, which declined from 36% to 29% of MEPs. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D), who had lost in 2009, retained the same level of representation. The ALDE group also did badly, losing seats in Italy, the UK and Germany. It suffered from the defection of its large Romanian delegation to the EPP but managed to recruit the anti-regional Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD). Alongisde the UPyD, the ALDE group retained the MEPs from the Catalan Convergence and Union and Basque National Party, whose outlook is seemingly incompatible with that of UPyD. The European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) group, led by the British Conservatives, saw the British and Czech parties losing seats while the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS) secured gains. The ECR proved very able at recruiting former allies of UKIP in the forms of the radical right-wing Danish People’s Party, Finns’ Party, Independent Greeks’ Party, and the more moderate new Alternative for Germany (AfD), the German Family Party, an anti-censorship party from Bulgaria, and religious conservatives from the Netherlands. It also recruited the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), with 5 MEPs, previously a regionalist party that had been in the same group as the Greens, as well as the Liberals from Slovakia. So the growth of the ECR happened despite its previous members’ net loss of seats due to defections from elsewhere. The radical left-wing European United Left/Nordic Green Left group (EUL/NGL) increased its seat share due to the growing vote for radical left parties across much of the EU and the emergence of new parties.

Finally, Nigel Farage’s EFD Group, renamed EFDD (European Freedom and Direct Democracy) increased its seat share despite the defections to the ECR. UKIP increased its seats from 13 to 24. The rest of the growth was due to the recruitment of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy with 17 MEPs and the formerly neo-Nazi Swedish Democrats with 2 MEPs. The most significant “winner” was the group of non-attached (NA) MEPs, who are not members of any group. Most of the NA MEPs hail from the extreme right, but are unable to form a group due to internal disagreements within this party family. This bloc consists of the French National Front, the Flemish Interest, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the German National Democratic Party, the Lega Nord, Jobbik, Golden Dawn, Bulgarian ATAKA, and the Polish Congress of the New Right.

The EP is a legislature with a very strong Committee-based system. Following the elections, how have the party groups divided up key positions like Committee chairs?

Table 2: Change in EP Committee Chairs between Party Groups in 2012 and 2014

Group 2012 2014
EPP 10 8
S&D 6 7
ALDE 2 3
G/EFA 2 1
EUL/NGL 1 1
ECR 1 2
EFDD 0 0

As Table 2 shows, in line with its diminishing size, the EPP lost two Committee chairmanships. We see a gain of one for the ALDE, despite the ALDE’s loss of MEPs, and a gain of one for the ECR in line with the group’s increase in size. The EFDD should have been entitled to a Committee chairmanship and had opted to chair the Petitions Committee. However, during the opening session of the Parliament in July 2014, UKIP’s MEPs turned their back on the orchestra playing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. As a consequence, the other party groups decided to deny positions like Committee chairmanships to the EFDD. The EPP group retained the Chairmanships of the Industry and Energy, Environment, Agriculture, Legal Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Fisheries, and Constitutional Committees. Given its reduced numbers, the control of the first four Committees gives the EPP great influence over the regulations passed by the Parliament. The S&D group was able to claim the Economics, Trade, Citizens’ Rights and Freedoms, Culture, Development, Women’s Rights, and Human Rights Committees, of which the first three have regulatory impact. ALDE, with its reduced numbers, was able to chair Budgets, Regions, and Petitions, the first two of which control EU spending. The ECR was able to lay claim to the powerful Internal Market Committee and to the Security and Defence Committee. The G/EFA group chairs the Transport Committee, which enjoys some power of regulation and spending, while the leftist EUL/NGL chairs the Employment and Social Committee, which considers social policy regulation.

As Table 3 shows, in the first sitting of the new Parliament in July 2014, Martin Schulz of the S&D group was re-elected as EP President. This was part of a package deal that emerged as a result of the election campaign, the re-emergence of the EPP as the largest group and the nomination/election of Schulz’s opponent, Jean-Claude Juncker, as President of the European Commission. Parliament elects by secret ballot but the delineation of party group support between the candidates was clear. Schulz was supported by the S&D group and most of the members of the ALDE and EPP groups. The G/EFA and EUL/NGL groups ran their own candidates, whose vote numbers reflected their groups’ sizes. The ECR-proposed Sajjad Karim, who achieved 101 votes, attracted some support from other groups, probably including individual members of the EFDD, EPP and ALDE groups who opposed the election of Schulz.

Table 3: Election of the President of the European Parliament, 1 July 2014

Candidate Votes Support from
Pablo Iglesias 51 EUL/NGL
Sajjad Karim 101 ECR, some EFDD, EPP, ALDE
Ulrike Lunacek 51 G/EFA
Martin Schulz 409 S&D, EPP, ALDE

Two weeks later, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected to the Commission Presidency by a consensus almost the same as that of Schulz for the Presidency of the Parliament and also by secret ballot of MEPs with 422 votes in favour, 250 against and 47 abstentions. The EPP, S&D and ALDE groups declared in favour of Juncker. Although the latter two groups had their own candidates, they accepted the outcome of the EP elections and supported Juncker. The Greens were less supportive of electing Juncker but voiced support for the fact that he should be nominated given that he emerged as the winning candidate in the EP elections.

Besides Juncker, the other 27 future members of the European Commission, nominated by their respective national governments, had to appear before the parliamentary Committee pertaining to their proposed portfolios where they were examined on their competence and suitability. Following the hearings, one of the candidates, Alenka Bratusek from Slovenia, was judged ill-suited by the Committees that had interviewed her. As Prime Minister of Slovenia, she had nominated herself for the post and was under investigation for corruption. The new Slovene government then nominated another candidate in her place. Similar rejections of individual Commission candidates by parliamentary Committees had also occurred in 2004 and 2009. The entire Juncker team was eventually approved by the Parliament in October by an open ballot in a proportion similar to that in July for Juncker himself and for Schulz: with 423 votes in favour, 209 against and 67 abstentions. The grand coalition of EPP, S&D, and ALDE held, while the Spanish Socialists and German and Spanish members of the ALDE group abstained, with a handful of French, German and Irish S&D members voting against. The EUL/NGL, G/EFA, and EFDD groups and most NAs voted against, although the Scottish National Party MEPs voted in favour. The official position of the ECR group was to abstain. This group had opposed the principle of the election of the Commission President and Jean-Claude Juncker, but accepted his policies and the inclusion of Jonathan Hill, a British Conservative, within the new Commission. While 38 ECR members abstained, 12 voted in favour and 20 against. Those in favour included 7 of the 20 British Conservatives, the 4 Flemish New Alliance members, and the MEP from the Family Party in Germany. Those against included 3 British Conservatives, together with the more Eurosceptic ECR MEPs from Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece and the Czech Republic.

While the increase in the number of MEPs from the populist right and left in the 2014 EP elections was only small, it made inter-party cooperation between the centre-left and centre-right more necessary than ever. If the super-grand-coalition of EPP, S&D, and ALDE holds on the most important policies, the surge of Eurosceptics will have no effect on the EP until at least 2019. The breaking of the “Luxleaks” scandal in November 2014 – which alleged that Juncker, as Prime Minister of Luxembourg, had established a predatory tax regime in his country – led to a motion of impeachment being tabled by MEPs from the EFDD and NA blocs. The fact that this was overwhelmingly defeated by 461 to 101 votes – with the Greens voting together with the EPP, S&D and ALDE, and the EUL/NGL group choosing to abstain – shows the robustness of the super-grand-coalition with respect to the minority hard Eurosceptics on the right.

Giacomo Benedetto is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway University London.

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Does Eastern Europe chart a course from anger to apathy?

The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.

In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe, anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.

The most spectacular gains were made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, and Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, the scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe, even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.

Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria, The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, casually assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’

But, in fact, it was not: outsider and anti-establishment parties, perhaps surprisingly, did not perform well in Central and Eastern Europe. The extreme right, with the marked exception of Hungary, has long been weak in the region and flopped badly even in countries like Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia where polls had suggested it might pick up some MEPs.

Hungary’s powerful extreme right-wing party Jobbik widely reported second place (and 14.8% vote share). But this success was more of an optical illusion caused by the disunity of the mainstream Hungarian liberal left. The radical right party’s vote share in fact fell sharply compared to the parliamentary elections in April.

The only appreciable success in Central and Eastern Europe enjoyed by a new party of the radical right was chalked up by the Congress of the New Right (KNP) in Poland, a political vehicle for the long-time enfant terrible of Polish politics Janusz Korwin Mikke whose eccentric libertarian views variously embrace: the restoration of the monarchy; doubts over Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust; and suggestions that the European Parliament building be redeveloped as a brothel. The KNP’s modest 7.2% vote gives it four MEPs, including the redoubtable Korwin Mikke.

New anti-political parties of a more centrist persuasion which have been so much a feature of politics in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years also failed to make much of an impact: the ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš narrowly topped the pollin the Czech Republic, but had weaker (16%) support than some polls had predicted.  In Slovenia, the hastily formed ‘I Believe’ list created by the former head of the country’s Court of Auditors  Igor Šoltés – whose entire campaign reportedly amounted to an intermittently functioning Twitter account – gained a more creditable 10.5%, while in Bulgaria the more controversial anti-corruption party Bulgaria Without Censorship polled 10.7%.

The real story of Central and Eastern Europe was, however, one of non-voters: ten of the twelve lowest turnouts across the EU in generally low turnout elections were recorded in post-communist member states. The Czech Republic and Slovakia recording the lowest levels of participation on 19.5% and 13% turnouts respectively – levels of abstention which arguably begin to drain those elected of legitimacy. (Only in Lithuania – where the EU poll coincided with second round of voting in presidential elections – did turnout match the 43% average for the EU as whole.)

Epern1

Examining changes in turnout reveals a regionally more mixed picture: the biggest falls since are, on the whole, in Central and East European member states with already low turnout rates. However, some crisis-hit old member states – such as Ireland, Cyprus and Italy – also experience large drop off, albeit from a substantially higher turnout rates, while both Lithuania and, interestingly, Romania appears as outliers, having seen election turnout rise. The overall picture, however, in Central and Eastern Europe is one of draining participation, at odds with the stability over EU-wide turnout between 2009 and 2014 which leaders of EP groups were quick to gloss in optimistic terns as a crisis averted.

Epern2

 

European elections have, in many ways, always been a story of turnout failure. Since their inception in 1979, turnout in has been low (and declining) and since Eastern enlargement turnout has always generally been lower still in Central and Eastern Europe, where European integration has always been a technocratic, top-down project with limited societal engagement. Voters in the region may sense that small, poorer post-communist states have a limited real influence on the direction of EU affairs, but few realistic exit options.

It is also perhaps worth reflecting that Central and East Europeans have already turned to new anti-establishment protest parties in large numbers in recent national elections: they have not needed the opportunity of the European elections to cast mass protest votes triggering electoral earthquake of the kind UKIP celebrated last week. Having now used up this option, many voters in the region have moved on to the next stage and simply switched off and disengaged from the electoral process altogether.

Given this prior history, it is tempting to wonder that, in some ways, Central and Eastern European voters may be ahead of the game. If the various victorious protest parties of 2014 disappoint, in 2019 will we see the spread of near-critical rates of abstention seen in Slovakia or the Czech Republic? Non-voting, rather than populist protest voting could prove the real long-term threat to sustainability of the EU’s troubled democratic institutions.

Sean Hanley

Dr Seán Hanley is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His personal research blog can be found at: http://drseansdiary.wordpress.com/.

The 2014 European Parliament elections: What should we look out for?

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