European elections: fraught with danger?
As the only ballot in which the members of a European institution are directly elected, the forthcoming European Parliament elections should genuinely arouse the interest of the 350 million citizens called to cast their vote. In spite of this, voter turnout has been falling steadily and debate continues to be dominated by national rather than European issues. And yet, the European Parliament’s powers have broadened over the years, to the point where it now equitably shares legislative power with the Council of the European Union in areas within its remit, as well as exercising democratic control over EU institutions. And it is no puppet: during the last parliamentary term, the European Parliament exercised its power to amend texts put forward by the European Commission in 82% of votes (compared with 48% ten years ago), signalling a real and growing impact on the life of Europe’s citizens.
MATHEMATICS IS NOT A MATTER OF OPINION
Debate around the election has mainly been characterised by the rise of nationalist parties. This trend, the implications of which were initially overestimated, appears no longer to be a major concern, with successive opinion polls pointing to a high probability of a continued clear pro-Europe majority.
The two traditional parties have admittedly fallen short of a majority in opinion polls, coming in at 42%. However, the liberals can supply additional support to guarantee a majority and, together with the Greens, a more comfortable majority still. The UK’s continued participation in the European Parliament limits the social democrats’ loss of seats thanks to the involvement of the Labour Party, shifting the coalition leftwards and complicating any dialogue between the traditional right (the European People’s Party/EPP) and the conservatives of the ECR (the European Conservatives and Reformists). The UK’s participation in the elections will also strengthen the nationalist constituency. The ECR group could maintain its current size and the EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) group could win a few seats. The alliance with the ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedoms) would allow nationalist parties to increase their share of parliamentary seats to 23%. In the end, the scenario of a broader alliance of Eurosceptics of all stripes aimed at destroying the Union now looks anachronistic set against the stated desire of many of them to “change Europe from the inside”.
Nothing new under the sun, then? While the death of two-party politics is a recent development, it was already reflected in domestic political trends during the last election cycle. Furthermore, at the European level, conflict around the left/right divide has often been diluted by the need to reach compromises to form a grand coalition between conservatives and social democrats (with or without the support of the liberals) due to the proportional voting method, as a result of which no other majority has been formed since 1979.
A FORCE FOR CHANGE VERSUS THE STATUS QUO
A major change is afoot, however, that will be of concern to citizens and political parties alike: while the great compromise has yet to meet with any real challenge, opposition is now forming around a sovereigntist front which, while far from united, is beginning to coalesce around shared economic and political questions. Unlike the grand coalition aimed at a European people that really has yet to exist, these sovereigntist forces are aimed at national populations found across the continent; they are taking advantage of the space left by European constitutional pluralism to reforge their own constitutional history in keeping with a populist narrative and thus justify the political and legal process (“illiberal” democracy). Unlike the market economy, this narrative advocates for renewed control over industrial and financial activities to fight social polarisation by repatriating skills.
To hide behind the certainty that there is a pro-European majority is to run the risk of missing out on current thinking – including among more Europhile citizens – about the turmoil caused by the European political and economic project. It would be dangerous to respond to citizens’ need for clarification with political and cultural inertia satisfied with the status quo. Sovereigntist forces are setting themselves up as a force for change and, in spite of their contradictions, projecting themselves beyond national borders as well as claiming European sovereignty. Their diversity means it will take time and effort for them to overcome the contradictions between domestic and EU-wide concerns. Traditional parties will need to approach these challenges with plenty of imagination and respond to citizens’ bafflement and need for recognition of their national identity, as well as to the issue of social polarisation.
INSTITUTIONAL IMPLICATIONS NEVERTHELESS
The entire process of democratisation of the European Union needs to be rethought – starting with Parliament’s role in appointing the Commission. The logic of a European Commission, seen as a parliamentary government, thanks to the automatic appointment to the presidency of the candidate who tops the list of the party that wins the European elections, no longer enjoys the appeal it once had. This process, designed to democratise the Union, turns out to be risky in the face of a potential sovereigntist majority. It will no doubt prove unworkable if the grand coalition has to open up to a third or even fourth party, resulting in a broader distribution of key positions in the three centres of European power (the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council). Faced with a Council dominated by the right and the liberals, the Parliament and the Commission could change colour. In the end, the outcome of these elections will be more significant for the political orientation of the new European Commission than might at first blush appear. Governance is going to have to be rethought to meet the need for a sovereign Europe through a holistic conception of industrial policy, foreign trade and competition, moving away from an approach based solely on strengthening the single market, so as to provide an effective and coherent response to (geo)political challenges arising both within and outside the Union.