The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

Festival of Europe Open day 2012 in Strasbourg

It’s hard to know exactly how to place the European parliamentary elections in the constellation of world politics. European_Union

From one perspective, they’re relatively unimportant — a largely apathetic electorate is choosing a body of 751 MEPs in a parliament that has less power within the European Union than most parliamentary bodies have within national governments. The Council of the European Union gives member-states veto power over EU legislation and the European Commission, the regulatory executive of the European Union, has the power to introduce legislation. Voters, since the first direct elections in 1979, have turned out in ever lower proportions with each election cycle. To the extent you talk to European voters who actually care about the elections, they mostly view them as an opportunity for a protest vote.

From another perspective, they’re incredibly important. They represent the one point of genuine democratic participation within the European Union and, given the tumult of the past five years with respect to the eurozone, the European economy and the power of relatively wealthier states to dictate the monetary policy and, increasingly, the fiscal policy of weaker states, the current elections  represent a major conversation about the future of EU policy. That’s especially true in the context of the weighty matters that the next European Parliament will face, including a new data privacy directive and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a potentially game-changing free-trade agreement with the United States.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections

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So which is the right interpretation?

It can be both — and many things besides — depending on your view. That’s because the European parliamentary elections are really four separate political contests, wrapped up and presented as one set of elections. The relative importance or unimportance that a particular actor places on the ‘European elections’ depends upon which of the four ‘contests’ most resonates.

So what are the four contests simultaneously raging across Europe?

1. The elections are twenty-eight national contests

First and foremost, the European elections represent individual national contests within each of the 28 member-states of the European Union. In that sense, each country’s European election  will unfold on traditional left-right ideological values and each will hold consequences for national governments on both the left and the right.

In France, for example, no one expects the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) to do very well — not because the French are particularly right-wing when it comes to European policy, but because French votes are unhappy with the administration of French president François Hollande. So there’s a real chance that the governing Socialists could finish in third place, behind the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) and the nationalist right Front national (FN, National Front) of the charismatic Marine Le Pen.

Conversely, in Germany, the ruling Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) of chancellor Angela Merkel, who won the largest victory of her political career in last September’s federal elections, is expected to register another strong victory, due to Merkel’s continued popularity. That’s despite the fact that she governs in coalition with the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) and Martin Schulz, a German social democrat, is the president of the European Parliament and the candidate of the EU-wide Party of European Socialists (PES) to become the next president of the European Commission.  

Italy’s new, young prime minister Matteo Renzi, just three months into office with a self-proclaimed mandate for economic and political reform, needs a strong showing for his own center-left Partido Democratico (PD, Democratic Party). It will be hard to Renzi to claim a truly democratic mandate for his domestic agenda if the PD falls behind former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia or the anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) of comedian and activist Beppe Grillo. 

It’s the same across Europe. Unpopular center-right governments in Greece, Spain and The Netherlands will be trying to hold off various far-right, far-left and center-left opponents. Likewise, the relatively popular centrist government of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, whose Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform) has been in power for seven years, faces a challenge from the resurgent, more right-wing  Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, PiS).

2. The election is a contest between unionists and eurosceptics

Secondly, the elections represent a wider, emerging contest between pro-European parties, movements, candidates and officials who defend the legitimacy of EU institutions against a growing group of ‘eurosceptics’ that question everything from the democratic values of the European Union to individual EU policies to even their own countries’ very membership in the European Union

Eurosceptic parties could win the greatest share of the vote in at least five countries — the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Great Britain, the FN in France, Geert Wilder’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, the Party for Freedom) in The Netherlands, the Dansk Folkeparti (DF, Danish People’s Party) in Denmark and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria). That’s not even getting to some of the even more hard-right parties like Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik) in Hungary and the hard-right, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή) in Greece, both of which are expected to win record-high support.

It also doesn’t include the growth of mild euroscepticism on the European left, many of whom believe that the federalist project has been co-opted for the purpose of threading conservative budget austerity and fiscal restraint into the European fabric at the expense of faster economic growth, lower unemployment and the European social democratic model.

Euroscepticism has reached even those bastions where pro-European sentiment runs highest. In Italy, the Five-Star Movement seems poised to win at least one-fifth of the vote or more. In Germany, the newly formed Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) will almost certainly win more than 5% of the vote, marking the first time that MEPs from an explicitly anti-Europe party will be elected from Germany, the political and economic engine of Europe.

Eurosceptics are projected to double the number of seats they hold in the current European parliament, from around 50 or so today to 100 or more. Critics note that’s far from a majority, and it’s true that even a 100-plus bloc of eurosceptics won’t be able to do much damage to the European project beyond noisy protest. What’s more, the various eurosceptic parties range from the populist left to the traditional center-right to the truly noxious xenophobic right — that’s impeded their willingness or ability to unite into a powerful bloc.

That doesn’t mean the threat should be taken lightly by unionists. As euroscepticism grows, a 100-person bloc could turn into a 250-person bloc in a decade or more, especially as the European Union assumes a stronger role in everyday governance and economic policymaking. In 2005, voters in France and The Netherlands, two founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community, definitively ended the push for a European constitution by rejecting it via referendum. Even if 2014 doesn’t bring a watershed moment for a truly powerful eurosceptic movement, it could happen in 2019 or 2024 if European elites can’t do a better job of explaining why European integration can improve lives and outcomes.

3. The election is a presidential-style contest to
lead the European Commission

In the wake of the European constitutional defeat, national leaders pulled together to negotiate the Treaty of Lisbon, which took effect in 2009. Among other changes, it directs a greater role for the  European Parliament to elect the next president of the European Commission (more on that below). The next Commission president will succeed former Portuguese prime minister José Manuel Barroso, a conservative who’s been at the helm of the Commission since 2004 and whose Commission will expire within six months of the European parliamentary elections.

In the post-Lisbon era, European parties have selected presidential candidates to wage what amounts to the most thorough attempt to fight European elections on the traditional left-right basis at the supranational level. Polls show that the center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) will struggle to retain its 15-year advantage as the largest bloc in the European Parliament, with the PES, the group of pan-European center-left social democrats and socialists, threatening to outperform the EPP.

Their candidates for Commission president, German social democrat Martin Schulz for the PES and former longtime Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker for the EPP, have criss-crossed Europe campaigning for their respective parties, and they’ve met for presidential-style debates in the lead-up to the elections. But while the two groups will compete for bragging rights to win the highest number of seats, neither the EPP nor the PES is expected to win an absolute majority.

Three other European parties also hope to win significant support, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE) , the European Green Party (EGP) and the Party of the European Left (PEL). They have also selected Commission presidential candidates — former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt for ALDE, German green Ska Keller and French anti-globalization activist José Bové for the Greens and Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras for the leftists, all of whom have gained their fair share of attention in debates against the technocratic, less colorful personalities of Juncker and Schulz.

Though Juncker, Schulz and Verhofstadt are longtime fixtures within the European political elite, and though Tsipras became the bête noire of EU elites with his anti-bailout campaign during the Greek elections two years ago, none of the Commission candidates are exactly household names. Greeks know Tsipras well, Belgians know Verhofstadt well after nine years as prime minister, and Juncker fell from power just last year after 18 years in office. But everyday Germans would be hard-pressed to recognize Keller or even Schultz.

The Lisbon Treaty also created, for the first time, the position of president for the European Council, the body of all 28 European heads of state / government. At the time, observers wondered whether the Council president would be the ‘George Washington’ of Europe — today, after five years, no one would suggest that Herman van Rompuy, another former Belgian prime minister, is the George Washington of anything. Future Council presidents may have the charisma, character and opportunity to transform the role, but today’s it’s just one more power center within a melange of competing institutions.  

In equal measure, it doesn’t seem like the manufactured race to stage presidential-style campaigns among leading European parties has transformed the nature of European politics, either. But that, too, could change in future election campaigns. That representatives  from each major family of European parties have gathered to debate the future of EU integration and policy marks a significant elevation of the European parliamentary debates from national contests into a more supranational contest with European narratives.

4. The contest over the contest to become Commission president is a fight between neofunctionalism and liberal intergovernmentalism

This being Europe, it’s not enough to have a contest of individuals fighting to become the next Commission president. There’s also a contest over the contest to become the next Commission president.

That’s because the Treaty of Lisbon is so vague with respect to the manner in which the next Commission president should be chosen. The treaty suggests that the European Parliament should play the dominant role — it provides that the European Council no longer appoints, but proposes a candidate to lead the Commission, and that the European Parliament elects the Commission president. What’s more, Lisbon directs the European Council to ‘take into account’ the results of the European elections. That language emboldened the European parties to name their own presidential candidates and wage the supranational campaigns discussed above.

But national leaders say, ‘not so fast,’ including the most powerful European leader, German chancellor Angela Merkel. They argue that ‘taking into account’ the election results doesn’t mean that the European Council must necessarily propose the candidate of the largest bloc, nor that the European Council need limit itself to the presidential candidates selected by the parties.  Given that no party will win an absolute majority, there will be some amount of negotiation in order for any Commission presidential candidate to win the majority he or she will need in the European Parliament.

What’s more, the decision-making over forming the Commission has always been the prerogative of the member-states, not European institutions, and certainly not the European Parliament. Those negotiations have always been closed-door, hard-nosed power struggles among member-states, with careful considerations of  ideological and geographic balance. National leaders now view those negotiations in tandem with the election of the next European Council president (Van Rompuy will leave office in December) and the next High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the officer responsible for EU-level foreign policy (British Labour politician Catherine Ashton, the inaugural high representative, will also step down in December).

That’s shaping up to be a fascinating battle between the European Parliament and the European Council. It’s really a textbook fight between the two dominant schools of European integration theory: neofunctionalism, which argues that EU institutions develop organically in light of growing technical capability, regulatory needs and other factors that tend to allow the EU institutions to gain increasing amounts of power over time, and liberal intergovernmentalism, which argues that nation-states, which formed the EU institutions through treaties, continue to determine the limits and expansion of European union.

If you subscribe to the neofunctional school, you’re much more likely to believe that the European Parliament will ultimately prevail and become the key force in determining the Commission — in the same way that a presidential head of state formally and almost automatically proposes a prime minister following national elections, the European Council will, in time, formally propose as Commission president the candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc.

Intergovernmentalists argue that national leaders will never cede a meaningful role in determining something as important as the European Commission president and, accordingly, will continue to dominate negotiations to select the Commission president.

The bottom line is that, though we’ll know the winners of the other three ‘contests’ of the European parliamentary elections by the end of the day on May 25, the most interesting — and perhaps most consequential — ‘contest’ will take place, mostly behind closed doors, in the days and weeks following the voting.

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