assessments

Jun 8, 2009 | 19:00 GMT

6 mins read

EU: The European Parliament Elections

PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Elections for the European Parliament across the Continent have resulted in significant losses for the center-left parties, while center-right parties emerged as clear winners. The election results foreshadow potential political shifts in a number of countries, most significantly in the United Kingdom, where potential early elections could bring to power the Conservative Party which has promised it would hold a referendum on whether the Lisbon Treaty should be ratified in the United Kingdom.
Elections for the European Parliament (EP), the legislature of the European Union representing 388 million eligible voters, officially concluded on June 7 with center-right parties across the region securing victory. The center-right parties maintained their 36 percent share of the seats in the 736-seat legislature, while the center-left parties lost about 6 percentage points, declining to 21 percent. Turnout for the elections — which has decreased with every election since the high point of 62 percent in 1979 — reached a record low of 42.9 percent. The elections for the EP were held amidst a deepening recession in Europe, with ruling parties across the continent facing a litmus test of their performance thus far. Center-right ruling parties in Germany, France and Italy held up, an impressive feat considering the economic crisis, but center-left ruling parties across the region were trounced by voters, foreshadowing potential electoral shifts in many European capitals towards the center right. Also notable were gains by the far right parties across the continent, particularly those who campaigned on anti-foreigner and anti-minority platforms. The EP is often derided as the least powerful of the European Union institutions, despite the fact that it is ceremoniously mentioned first in all of the Treaties that govern the European Union. For a long time, the EP was just that: a ceremonial institution intended to raise the democratic profile of the European Union and give it some electoral legitimacy. Over the years, as the European Union has fought to counter the perception that its institutions are undemocratic, the EP has gained a number of key institutional powers. First, it is involved along with the EU Council in approving legislation, a power that the Treaty of Lisbon, (if ratified by all 27 member states of the European Union) would extend to basically all of the policy areas that the European Union covers. Second, the EP has some powers over the EU budget and can veto the EU's executive branch, the Commission, when the budget is proposed to the Parliament. It can also censure the Commission with two-thirds majority vote at any time. However, the Parliament cannot enact legislation on its own: only the Commission can do that. Furthermore, the Parliament has become a talking shop for extremist views on both sides of the aisle, with voters often using the elections for the EP as a protest vote against the established parties at home. The EP has thus been a venue of choice for many infamous European radical left- or right-wing politicians, such as French ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen and Italian right-wing politician Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini). This trend continues today with the 2009 elections increasing radical right-wing mandates, particularly from central Europe. This is not at all an unexpected outcome, considering the historical correlation between economic recessions and support for anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment in Europe. The lowest turnout ever also benefited the fringe parties as mainstream voters eschewed the elections as a form of protest against governing parties. Significant radical right gains were made in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom. Particularly potent were anti-minority (anti-Roma specifically) platforms of Hungarian Jobbik and Romania's Greater Romania Party and the anti-immigrant (anti-Islam specifically) messages of Austria's Freedom Party, Denmark's People's Party and the Netherlands' Freedom Party. Overall, center-right parties gained power across the continent, further entrenching Europe's political shift to the right that began in 2005 with the rise to power of Germany's Angela Merkel, leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In the EP elections, the decline of the left was extended to the ruling center-left parties and coalitions across the continent. Ruling center-left parties faced significant losses in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, ruling center-right parties in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland fared well compared to their opposition with only the Greek ruling center-right facing the brunt of voter discontent. If the results of EP elections really do foreshadow a wider political shift, then the latest results would seem to forecast an absolute disaster for incumbent center-left parties across the Continent. The generally euro-skeptic platform of the center right, mixed with its usually more restrictive immigration policy, is playing well during the current recession. Furthermore, ruling center-left parties in Hungary, Ireland and Spain are in particularly difficult situations because of the severity of the recession in those countries. Meanwhile, strong performances by the French and German center-right have given the French President Nicholas Sarkozy added fuel to his efforts to spring for the leadership of the European Union, and a pre-election confidence boost for Germany's Merkel. The most important shift, however, may come in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has faced a revolt within his own Labor party as its poll numbers and his own popularity continue to slump. U.K. Environment Minister Jane Kennedy became the seventh member of Brown's cabinet to resign on June 8 amidst the economic recession and voter disenchantment with Labor and Brown's leadership. According to the latest polls out of the United Kingdom, Labor is close to becoming the U.K.'s third-most popular party for the first time in over 100 years, behind the Liberal Democrats. These fears have been confirmed by the results of the EP elections, with Labor coming in third behind the U.K. Independence Party and just slightly ahead of the Liberal Democrats. While Labor can still hold on until June 2010, when the mandate of the current parliament expires, pressure within the Labor party is mounting on Brown to call early elections. At this point, it is almost certain that the Conservative party under the leadership of euro-skeptic David Cameron would replace the Labor party. This would be a significant shift from the EU's perspective because Cameron has vouched that he would call a referendum on the EU Lisbon Treaty (already ratified by the United Kingdom) were he elected before the treaty was ratified by the 27 European member states. Ireland voted the Lisbon Treaty down in June 2008, but is set to hold a second referendum at some point in 2009. The disastrous Labor Party EP election results and mounting pressure on Brown to call for a new election are placing additional pressure on the Irish government to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty as early as they can. The referendum was expected to be held in October, but it is now unclear if Gordon Brown will last that long. And even if the Irish vote for the Lisbon Treaty second time around (polls indicate the "yes" vote would garner 54 percent of the vote), euro-skeptic Presidents of Czech Republic and Poland could continue to stall signing off on the treaty until Cameron had the opportunity to call a referendum in the United Kingdom.

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