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ImageLast night’s EU election results can be read in two ways.

  • First, the status quo continues, with European People’s Party (EPP) expected to be the largest political group with 212 seats, followed by the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) on 185, with the Liberals trailing in third place with 71 seats.
  • Together with the Greens with 55 seats, this ensures the European Parliament has what could loosely be considered a pro-European majority, and this alone should ensure that policy-making during the next mandate will be largely unchanged, in the sense that laws will get passed, motions will be tabled, and the legislative agenda rumbles along.

That is one way of looking at it. Here is the second.

  • Undoubtedly this has been an historic night for the parties representing the Far Right, the Far Left, and the Eurosceptic bloc. In France the National Front became the largest party in the European Parliament, an honour shared by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the UK and the Far Left Syriza in Greece.
  • However, it is not clear whether these parties will be able to work together – UKIP has already stated that it cannot form a political group with the National Front, and historically parties on the political extremes have failed to form a cohesive unit. With a party group needing to be composed of at least seven Member States, a critical few weeks awaits.
  • Moreover, it should be remembered that MEPs from these parties do not draft legislative reports or play a meaningful role in the political process, meaning that their legislative impact will be limited, even if they continue to make a lot of noise.

The scramble to be kingmaker

  • For all that EPP and S&D remain the largest blocs, both lost large numbers of seats (61 and 11 respectively), and the beneficiaries were undoubtedly MEPs which are not aligned with any existing political group.
  • As many as 67 MEPs have yet to declare which party to stand for, leading to uncertainty over which of the smaller groups could be considered “kingmakers” in the new Parliament.
  • At the current time it looks like most laws will have to get passed through a “grand coalition” made up of the S&D and EPP, which could create problems on certain dossiers, not least those of an economic and financial nature.

A new Commission President in the wings

  • And what of the Commission? The EPP’s victory means that Jean-Claude Juncker, the party’s candidate for Commission President, should theoretically be the Parliament’s first choice. Yet, not only will he likely be black-balled by the Council, there seems to be a likelihood that he will not get the necessary majority in the Parliament. The same scenario confronts the S&D candidate, Martin Schulz and the Liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt.
  • Step forward then Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. As a Social Democrat she would win the hearts of her party group, as a Scandinavian of a non-Euro country she could win over some of the European Conservatives and Democrats group, as well as the Greens and the far left GUE/NGL – all of which would give her a Parliamentary majority. The fact she is an alumnus of the College of Europe no doubt stands her in good stead too.

Time for talk is over

  • It is customary for politicians from the centre to claim they have “learnt the lessons” from such results and to acknowledge the strength of anti-EU and a broader anti-establishment feeling.
  • Yet they said the same thing five years ago, and five years later there are more – many more – MEPs from the extremes of the political spectrum sitting in Strasbourg and Brussels.
  • Indeed, at 43% turnout was up for the first time ever in EU Elections, yet this seems to have played into the hands of parties who want to destroy the entire political dimension of the European Union.
  • For those bent on repelling the anti-EU forces, the time for talk is over. There needs to be real engagement from the centre parties towards the Eurosceptics, and fundamental questions have to be asked about how the EU can win back the hearts and minds it has lost, not just over the last five years, but over recent decades.
  • These elections represent a challenge to the political class – they must meet it head on, or risk becoming politically irrelevant.

– Rob

It’s hardly news anymore when we hear about voter apathy and declining turnout for European elections. So how do we make people care about a ballot that is usually seen as little more than a halftime show between general elections?

One option is to make what’s at stake more important by, for example, not only electing MEPs but also the President of the European Commission.

It’s quite straightforward really.

If the main political parties agree to nominate candidates for the EU’s top job in advance of the elections, then those candidates can tour Europe, drumming up support in the Member States for their associated parties: a vote for CDU MEPs in Germany would be a vote for the centre-right candidate and a more market-friendly Commission for the next five years, while a vote for the UK’s Labour party would mean supporting a more social agenda for the EU executive.

Legally the mechanism exists: since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, it is the European Parliament who “elects” the Commission President.

As one former Secretary General of the Parliament pointed out, the only reason why the idea was not implemented for the 2009 elections is that the Socialists could not agree on who to put forward (the EPP had agreed to back Barroso for a second term).

Since you can’t have an election with only one candidate (in the EU at least), the notion fell by the wayside.

Others have an even more ambitious plan to “Europeanise” EP elections.

Later this month the plenary will vote on a report authored by Andrew Duff (ALDE, UK) proposing to introduce a single, 25-seat, EU-wide constituency. The European parties would present their lists of candidates, and all voters from Berlin to Bucharest would be able to vote for their preferred party.

The 25 seats would then be divided proportionately on the basis of one citizen, one vote. As these lists would be made up of candidates from across the EU, there could be no insular, parochial policy platforms.

What’s the point of changing the system you might ask?

While many of us in the Brussels bubble might be used to working on European solutions to the problems we face, for most people the primary, or even the only, point of reference is national.

If the current crisis has taught us anything, it is that national solutions are simply no longer enough. We need to find ways for European parties to reach across borders and help build a European consciousness.

If in 2014 voters are asked to choose between competing visions for the Commission, or vote for a “Europarty” instead of just our national parties, the ballot paper will for the first time be asking a truly European question.

However we are left with one tantalising question: will voters respond with European answers?

– Nigel

Voting in the EU elections began yesterday, with the UK and the Netherlands first out of the blocks.  Voting takes place on the traditional day of voting in the country, hence different countries vote on different days.  This of course means that the UK and Netherlands will have to wait for three full days before the results are announced (will the UK still have a government by then?)

Voting in the UK – at least for the EU elections – has always been a ridiculously low-key affair, and this year was no exception.  You had to dig a little to get the latest news in the national newspapers, though one story courtesy of the BBC told how some ballot papers had apparently been difficult to unfold, thereby obscuring the parties at the bottom of the list – including everyone’s favourite eurosceptics, UKIP.  Never one to shy away from publicity, the party are said to be considering a legal challenge.

Apart from that, the headlines in the UK are currently revolving around Cabinet Ministers resigning amid rumours that Gordon Brown’s position as leader is about to be made untenable.  The election results may provide his detractors with another excuse to lambast the man who had to wait 10 years to become Prime Minister, only to fail miserably once given the chance.

– Rob

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Barroso had a chance to speak to the French and breathe some renewed European enthusiasm into the campaign, but his interview in Le Monde will hardly do the job. His administrative and institutional thinking lead him to declare that the European elections were none of the Commission’s business, trying as he was to justify his lack of commitment in the campaign. The sentence was picked up by the journalist and immediately stirred up a few (very French) irritated comments.

Barroso does not seem to have any particular vision for Europe apart from the fact that he is likely to be President again and that everything has to be done under the Nice Treaty. We learn one thing about the man though: he says he likes his job and has a European conviction.

– Maxime

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