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The European Parliament Elections: Out of the quagmire

awardsAt a recent event hosted by the London Academy of Diplomacy and Diplomat magazine, Dr Martyn Bond, former head of the European Parliament Office in London, gave his views of the implications of the recent European Elections to a distinguished gathering of Heads of Mission and diplomats

What do the recent European elections say about the legitimacy of the European Union? What do they mean for the structure of the political groups in the European Parliament? And what effects may they have on the parties in our national Parliament at Westminster? These are just three of the many questions worth asking in the light of these Euro-election results.

First the question of legitimacy, which is closely linked to the numbers who voted. Supporters of EU integration claim that the rise from the 41 per cent of the electorate across the continent who voted in 2009 to the 43 per cent who voted this time shows that the decay in trust in Europe, and especially in the Parliament, has been halted, indeed reversed. Critics argue that the long-term picture still reflects a dramatic fall in trust from the 62 per cent who voted at the first European elections in 1979. In the light of that, a 2 per cent rise this time hardly alters the trend.

Why does legitimacy matter? Because the European Parliament has been given more and more powers ever since the Treaty change in 1987 that accelerated the completion of the Single Market. The Council of Ministers (representing the member states) moved to qualified majority voting then, and the legitimacy of this move was assured – so the argument ran – by ensuring that the Parliament (representing the people) had an equal say in approving the legislation. Falling participation rates in elections undermine the Parliament’s legitimacy in this process, pushing greater legitimacy back onto the governments represented in the Council.

But this argument should be seen in the context of declining participation rates in all elections across Europe. After the euphoria in Eastern and Central Europe in the heady days of their independence after 1989/91, participation rates at national (and even more so at local elections) have all shown a decline.Turnout for the Euro-elections may be just 43 per cent, but turnout for most national elections is also on a falling trend. Given the importance of governmental issues traditionally at stake in national elections, that is hardly a ringing endorsement of legitimacy at that level either. So at EU level, the Council’s claim to legitimacy is not much better than the Parliament’s. That is a growing headache for the EU as a whole, not just for the European Parliament.

In these elections the European People’s Party (EPP) won 28 per cent of the vote, and the Socialists and Democrats (S & D) won 25 per cent. Together they dominate the Parliament, as they have always done since its first election in 1979. Other MEPs form groups when they can attract at least 25 members from at least seven countries: in the previous session of Parliament a Liberal group, Greens, Conservatives and Reformists, the United Left, even the Freedom and Democracy group, which may gather some of the anti-European MEPs elected at these elections. Different national delegations will jockey to form new groups at the fringes, and there will always be several independent MEPs unwilling to join any of the above, or simply unacceptable to all.

Overall there was roughly a 2 per cent swing Europe-wide away from the main established groups towards the smaller and often more radical groups in these elections. This low swing masks much more dramatic swings in individual countries. In the UK, the UK Independence Party came from nowhere to top the poll. In France the Front National, traditionally a right wing protest party outside the mainstream, won convincingly. But in Romania and Bulgaria, for instance, where comparable parties lost votes to the mainstream parties, as did the Lega Nord and the Five Star protest party in Italy. Scary headlines at national level may mask a less dramatic reality overall at European level. Anti-European parties will doubtless cause disruption in the European Parliament and gain considerable publicity, but their effect on legislation is likely to be minimal  – unless the EPP and the S & D disagree fundamentally on some big issues. So far only the social effects of major international trade agreements such as the TTIP and an emotionally and economically charged issue such as immigration and reform of the Schengen arrangements appear likely to give them such an opportunity.

The presence of a range of increasingly radical smaller groups in the EP makes it imperative for the two dominant centrist groups to work harmoniously together on the big issues – whatever superficial quarrels may divide them over details. All the more important for member states, especially the larger ones, to have their representatives in these two groups to help to manage the legislative programme successfully in conjunction with their national governments in the Council. Unfortunately for the UK, that is not the case. With UKIP the largest contingent (24 MEPs) from the UK clearly arguing for a British exit from the EU, with the Conservatives (19) fraternising with Polish and German nationalists, and with Labour (20 MEPs) in opposition at home, the weight of liaison with the national government falls on the one and only Lib Dem MEP re-elected this time. With a grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD in government in Berlin, Germany has 61 MEPs drawn from these parties who can facilitate the achievement of national interests through the Parliament. No prizes to judge which country – Britain or Germany – will carry more clout in European parliamentary debates over the next five years.

When you consider the result of these recent results on the national political scene in the UK, the effect is equally disturbing. Under pressure from UKIP’s success in the Euro-elections and its strong showing in the Newark by-election, some Conservative MPs are worried about their re-election prospects in the May 2015 general election. Recent polls suggest that up to 50 per cent of UKIP voters from the European elections may vote UKIP in the general election next year. That amounts to over two million voters who supported Labour and Conservative candidates five years ago but who might not do so next year. Already, several pro-European MPs have been deselected by their local constituencies, fearful of losing to an aggressively anti-European UKIP challenge. UKIP’s leader has played with the idea of offering a pact to individual constituencies, letting a few anti-European Conservatives stand unopposed by UKIP challengers if a small number of Conservative candidates do not stand in UKIP target seats. While the Conservative Party as a whole – and the Prime Minister in particular – are opposed to any such overall deal with UKIP, the temptation for individual constituency organisations is strong. Better a UKIP MP with whose position on Europe we agree, they may argue, than a split vote that lets through a Labour or a Lib Dem candidate who is pro-European.

Already UKIP has pushed Conservative – and government – policy towards the right, particularly on issues relating to immigration and to relations with Brussels more generally. The effect of a small body of UKIP MPs in the House of Commons after May 2015 could be even more disruptive of ‘normal business.’ With a strong possibility that no single party has a majority, each of the two major parties will be looking for a coalition partner. UKIP, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Ulster Unionists and the Greens could each be courted by the Conservatives and Labour in turn, depending on the number of MPs they have. The composition of the government cannot be predicted. It is all up for grabs following these European elections, and the likelihood of an overtly anti-European government certainly cannot be dismissed. That would be a triumph indeed for UKIP.


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