European Union 2014: Overview
Elections to the European Parliament (EP) were held in the 28 member-states of the European Union (EU) between May 22 and 25, 2014. All 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), elected from their individual member-states, were up for reelection. The EP serves a five-year term and cannot be dissolved.
Electoral systems and theory
The European Parliament has 751 seats distributed between the EU’s 28 member-states, according to ‘degressive proportionality’ which means that while the allocation of seats between the member-states is roughly proportional, the smaller member-states elect more seats than they normally would under a strictly proportional system. A member-state has at least 6 MEPs, and a maximum of 96 MEPs. Germany, the most populous country in the EU, elects 96 for a population of 80.5 million – electing one MEP for every 838,789 inhabitants. Malta, the smallest country, has 6 MEPs for a population of 420,000 – electing one MEP for every 70,227 inhabitants. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the Council of the European Union (‘Council of Ministers’), acting unanimously on the initiative of the EP, adopts a decision fixing the number of MEPs for each member-state.
European elections are subject to certain EU-wide common principles and rule. First and foremost among them is the requirement, instituted in 2002, that elections in each member-state must be based on some form of proportional representation (including STV). Secondly, under the Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, every EU citizen residing in a member-state of which he/she is not a citizen has the right to vote and stand for election in the member-state of his/her residence under the same conditions as nationals. Member-states are free, while respecting these basic principles, to adopt their own laws regarding the electoral system, voter and candidate eligibility. For example, most countries elect their MEPs in a single national constituency but six member-states (Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, Poland and the UK) are subdivided into regional constituencies which each elect a specific number of MEPs. Countries may set variable thresholds or no thresholds (if applicable) in the PR system, as long as it does not exceed 5%. Some countries allow voters to alter the list of candidates (open list PR), while others do not (closed list PR).
Rules on voter and candidate eligibility vary from country to country. The concept of ‘residence’ for EU citizens resident in another EU member-state varies – France, for example, requires EU citizens to be registered in their municipality of residence while the Czech Republic requires EU citizens to be listed on the population register. In some countries, a minimum period of residence is required. Rules on voting by non-resident nationals in their country of origin varies considerably – France now allows all French citizens living abroad and registered on the consular electoral lists (or in a municipality in France) to vote, Greeks residents abroad may only vote if they live in the EU and in Ireland only those resident in Ireland may vote. The age of eligibility to stand varies, although it generally set at 18; in some countries, such as Belgium, voting is mandatory.
The EU is something of a juggernaut, with complex institutions and procedures which are incomprehensible or off-putting to many. The EU Parliament is one of the two institutions of the EU which may be considered as being the EU’s legislative branch. The Parliament, however, lacks the power of legislative initiative – EU laws may only be drafted by the European Commission, the main executive and bureaucratic arm of the EU. The Parliament may suggest legislation, the European Council (the meeting of the 28 heads of state/government) often sets the EU’s policy agenda but only the Commission has the power to draft legislation. Most (and, with each new EU treaty, more) legislation proposed by the Commission falls under the ‘ordinary legislative procedure‘, meaning that it must be approved by both the Parliament and the Council of the European Union (Council), another ‘legislative’ organ representing national executives (composed of different configurations of cabinet ministers from the EU-28 based on the topic discussed; voting is carried out through qualified majority voting procedures or, less often, by unanimity). The text is first read by Parliament, adopting or amending the Commission’s proposal, before it is sent to the Council which adopts Parliament’s position or amends it. If it is amended, Parliament examines the Council’s text in a second reading, where it adopts it, amends or rejects it with an absolute majority. If the Parliament amends the text, the Council holds a second reading where it can either approve or reject all of the Parliament’s approval. In the latter case, a conciliation committee with an equal number of members from both organs seeks to adopt a compromise position (if it does not, the text fails). A compromise position must be approved by both Parliament and Council. On a minority of matters a ‘special legislative procedure’ is used – consultation (Council must consult Parliament, but Parliament’s position is nonbinding) or consent (Parliament must consent to Council adopting legislation proposed by the Commission, but cannot amend it).
The use of the ordinary legislative procedure has been constantly expanded under successive treaties, strengthening Parliament’s role from a powerless consultative and advisory body to a body with substantial legislative power (although still weak compared to national legislatures). In practice, policy-making in the EU is largely achieved through constant negotiations and consultations between different bodies – the Commission works with Parliament and Council throughout the process, and Parliament and Council work informally throughout the legislative process meaning that it is rare that a text is not approved after first or second reading. In the Council, most work is done by committees of high-level bureaucrats from the member-states and only contentious issues are decided at formal ministers’ meetings.
The Parliament, since the Lisbon Treaty, has power over the entire EU budget which is prepared by the Commission and examined by both ‘houses’ of the ‘legislature’. The Parliament adopts or amends the Council’s position on the budget; in the latter case, it is sent to a conciliation committee to reach agreement on a joint text, which must be approved by both Parliament and Council – but Parliament can adopt the budget even if the Council rejects the joint text.
The Parliament has oversight powers over other EU bodies. According to the Lisbon Treaty, after EP elections, the President of the Commission is proposed by the European Council on the basis of the election results. The Parliament approves or rejects the European Council’s candidate. National governments appoint one Commissioner (except for the member-states from which the President and High Commissioner for foreign policy are from), who individually appear before EP hearings. The Parliament approves or reject the Commission as a single body; it has never rejected it outright, but in the past, Parliament’s pressure has forced the names of proposed commissioners to be withdrawn. In theory, the Parliament can censure (vote of no confidence) in the entire Commission with a two-thirds majority; this has never been used formally, but in 1999, the Commission was forced to resign after Parliament rejected the budget over allegations of corruption in the Commission.
MEPs sit by political group, not by country. Today, EP political groups must be made up of at least 25 members representing at least 7 member-states, and groups receive funding and guarantee committee seats. Some MEPs are unaligned, formally known as non-inscrits, the French term for members not part of any group. The groups are different from European political parties – the former are created for parliamentary/institutional reasons, while parties are transnational alliances of parties which receive recognition from the EU if they meet certain rules (notably respect the founding principles of the EU, participation in EP elections, have received either minimum electoral support in EP elections or be represented by elected parliamentarians at the EU, national or subnational level in 25% of member-states). Europarties receive funding from the EU. The groups may coincide with Europarties – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is both a party and a homogeneous group; but not necessarily. The European Greens form a group with the regionalist European Free Alliance (EFA), known as the Green-EFA group. Some individual MEPs from parties which are not affiliated with Europarties often join one of the groups.
Relations between groups tend to be consensual, especially as far as the mainstream centre-right and centre-left (and liberal) groups are concerned. The presidency of the EP is traditionally split between the EPP and the Socialist group (S&D) during the five-year term of the EP. Some groups tend to be highly cohesive on votes in the EP – VoteWatch’s stats for the last term showed the G-EFA, EPP and S&D groups to be cohesive on over 90% of votes, while the heterogeneous eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group voted cohesively on less than 50% of matters. Agreement between ideological lines is commonplace for mainstream groups: VoteWatch shows that, for example, in the 2009-14 EP, the S&D group’s votes matched that of the EPP 73% of the time (it also matched that of G-EFA and the liberal ALDE very often).
Over time, the EP has been gradually strengthened, a way for EU policy-makers to alleviate the democratic deficit of the EU. In practice, attempts by the EU to promote the role of the EP, encourage participation in EP elections and promote voting on pan-European rather than national concerns have generally failed. Most citizens are unaware or uninformed of the role played by the EP, hardly surprising when you consider the complexity and – oftentimes – opaqueness – of the EU institutions; additionally, although the EU is (for good or bad) a major source of legislation and regulation binding on the EU-28, many citizens feel distant from the EU or don’t see how the EU impacts their daily lives. The mainstream media takes relatively little interest in the activities of the EP and the work done by MEPs, meaning that the EP remains widely viewed as a ‘Mickey Mouse Parliament’ and the bulk of MEPs remain out of the limelight. A lot of politicians treat the EP as an elected gig with a nice pay, providing a platform for them to (re)gain prominence in national politics; the EP welcomes politicians who lost their seats in the national legislature or parties which struggle to win seats in national legislatures (often far-right or far-left parties) but can win EP seats by virtue of PR. To be sure, most MEPs do work hard and pay attention to EP work, but it’s a relatively thankless job in that few ‘regular citizens’ notice or care about their work. Oftentimes, the MEPs who work the least in the EP are the loudmouths using the MEP as a platform in national politics (or who are in the EP because they need an elected gig they don’t have elsewhere). For example, retiring French MEP Philippe de Villiers (the least active of France’s MEPs) told voters that the EP is useless – but it did take him twenty years as an MEP to reach that conclusion!
Turnout in EP elections has declined constantly from the first direct elections in 1979, from 62% in 1979 to only 43% in 2009. In 2009, the lowest turnout came from the Eastern enlargement states of 2004 (a low of 19% turnout in Slovakia) and the UK, although the two key drivers of European integration – Germany and France – had turnout in the low 40s. Turnout in EP elections is slightly higher than in US midterm elections – which is unsurprising, because EP elections can easily be compared to US midterms. Research has consistently shown that voters who do vote in EP elections do so largely on the basis of national political considerations, and those motivated to vote in EP elections are often those who wish to use the elections to punish their national governments (‘voting with the middle finger’). European elections are also a chance for voters to cast protest votes for smaller parties or to vent their anger with domestic politics. European parliamentary history is filled with weird minor parties which enjoyed a flash-in-the-pan success in one country in one EP election before failing in the subsequent national elections. Who remembers the Agrupación Ruiz-Mateos, which won 2 MEPs in Spain in 1989? Or the election of 6 MEPs from Germany’s hard-right Die Republikaner in 1989, before falling back into irrelevance? Who will remember the election of Pirate Party MEPs from Sweden in 2009, twenty years from now?
When EP elections are remembered after the fact, it is usually for specific results in a given country. Many would be challenged to recall the pan-EU results of, say, the 1994 EP elections. In France, for example, the EP election of 1984 is remembered because it was the first electoral breakthrough of the far-right.
Efforts by the EU/EP to promote participation and engagement have basically been dismal failures – largely due to the perception that the EU remains unresponsive to citizens, that EP elections are useless (in that little changes as a result), lack of citizen interest in EU-wide issues, local media and political narratives focusing on national concerns (with many local opposition parties calling explicitly to vote against the national government).
In these elections, the major EU-wide parties each nominated their own ‘candidates’ for the President of the Commission, a ‘race’ made all the more interesting by the retirement of the incumbent President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso. The ‘nomination’ of these candidates reflected the different parties’ views on the EU and the internal dynamics of each of them as it relates to the EU – Eurosceptic groups and parties did not nominate candidates, while some leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the rationale of linking the EP election to the selection of the next President of the Commission.
The centre-right EPP showed perhaps the most reticence to this idea, but it ultimately nominated Jean-Claude Juncker, the former long-time Prime Minister of Luxembourg (1995-2013), a prominent EU-wide personality and committed supporter of deeper European integration. The centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) had a convoluted and open nominating process, but Martin Schulz, the German Social Democrat (SPD) president of the EP, was the only candidate. Like Juncker, Schulz is a major player in EU politics and a strong supporter of European integration.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party selected former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a strong supporter of a federal Europe. The European Democratic Party (EDP), which sit with the ALDE Party in the ALDE group, also supported Verhofstadt’s candidacy.
The European Greens had an open online primary with four candidates, which resulted in the nomination of two co-candidates – German MEP Ska Keller and French MEP José Bové. The Party of the European Left (EL), the Europarty made up of various communist, far-left, democratic socialist or ‘radical left’ parties, nominated Alexis Tsipras, the popular leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), an historically minor radical left party which became the main opposition party in Greece in the historic 2012 elections. Tsipras became a popular icon for the anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal movements in Europe, which have often tried to imitate SYRIZA.
There was an active and concerted attempt to create a EU-wide horse-race between Juncker and Schulz. Several televised debates were held, but viewership was low and the whole race attracted little interest in the actual national campaigns. National parties which are members of the EPP, PES, ALDE, Greens and EL have reacted to the nomination of pan-EU ‘presidential candidates’ in different ways. In France, for example, the terribly unpopular Socialist Party (PS) focused heavily on Schulz and ‘electing a Socialist President of the Commission’ to ‘change politics’ while the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) made little to no mention of Juncker and tried to obscure Juncker’s federalist views which are out of place for a party which has been big on vaguely Euro-critical posturing. Many scoffed at the idea of a ‘presidential race’ which the EU promoted – understanding that Parliament does not actually ‘elect’ the President itself, and sensing that the choice of the President is still largely in the hands of national governments.
The 2014 EP elections came at a difficult time for the European Union. The EU has been badly hit by the economic crisis and/or the Eurozone crisis, some countries more than others and in different way, but nearly every single one of the EU’s 28 member-states have been impacted in one way or another by the economic crisis in Europe. The economic crisis and government policies responding to it has, in a lot of countries, led to a social crisis and major political upheavals.
The impact of the economic and social crises on the EU have been immense. For the EU as a political project, the last five years have been particularly challenging. With rising unemployment and major economic and fiscal problems, many politicians and parties have questioned and/or attacked the viability of the Eurozone or the desirability of further European integration. There has been a clear and marked rise in Eurosceptic sentiments across the board, even in traditionally Europhile countries (such as Italy); bred by frustration with the economic crisis, disillusion with the EU as a political project, discontent with the EU’s management of the economic crisis or nationalist sentiments against ‘bailouts’ for poorer member-states or against ‘bailout’ conditions imposed by countries such as Germany and institutions such as the EU and the IMF. Naturally, the rise of anti-establishment and oftentimes Eurosceptic movements or parties in many countries owes a lot to domestic political factors and conditions – but given that a lot of these factors are the result of the EU-wide economic and social crisis, there’s certainly a common trend to be found. We need to be careful about imagining pan-national trends in support for political movements: the ‘rise of the far-right’ which everybody talks about is often real, but it is not universal and it has come in different forms with parties of vastly different outlooks and levels of extremism (from neo-Nazis in Greece and Hungary to respectable and polished right-wing populists).
In individual member-states, the crisis and popular sentiments resulting from the crisis have led to substantial political changes compared to the political situation as it stood in 2009, when the EP was last elected. In Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, realignments of the political systems in those countries may be taking place. In Spain, the hegemony of the two traditional parties of government in the country has been severely weakened by the economic crisis in the country. In countries such as France, Austria, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Hungary, populist movements on both the left and right have emerged or gained strength, often adopting an anti-establishment outlook which is both critical of the domestic political elites and of the EU.
Since the last elections to the EP in 2009, a number of European governments and leaders have been defeated at the polls and replaced by new governments – in a lot of these cases, the defeats of the incumbents owed a lot to the economic crisis and the unpopularity of the government’s response to it. Ireland, the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, Lithuania, Finland and Denmark (among others) have governments of a different political stripe than that which existed in 2009. The most recent national elections in Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic and Ireland (all held since 2009) saw historic results which may or may not portend some lasting political realignments.
The turnout across the EU was 43.09%, unchanged from 43% in the 2009 election. According to the EP’s official website, the distribution of new MEPs according to the groups which existed in the 2009-2014 EP is as follows (the recount of votes in some countries may change this distribution):
EPP – 214 seats (-60)
S&D – 191 seats (-5)
ALDE – 64 seats (-19)
G-EFA – 52 seats (-5)
ECR – 46 seats (-11)
GUE-NGL – 45 seats (+10)
EFD – 38 seats (+7)
NI – 41 seats (+8)
New parties (unaligned) – 60 seats (+60)
On these preliminary results, which will change with the creation of new groups and the affiliation of independent MEPs to existing groups, the centre-right EPP has retained its plurality in the EP, although it now controls only about 28-29% of the seats and suffered the sharpest loses of any group. EPP parties lost ground, sometimes substantially, in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania and Greece. The S&D failed in their attempt to replace the EPP as the largest group – the centre-right has held a plurality of seats in the EP since the 1999 EP elections.
Although it had been expected to come out strengthened from the election, the Socialist group is basically unchanged from the pre-election situation. Strong gains in Italy and Romania and a stronger performance in Germany did not cancel out major loses by S&D parties in France, Greece, Spain and the Czech Republic.
The liberal group, ALDE, was another of the major losers of the election – it could be ascribed to the unpopularity of the liberals’ European federalist traditions at the present time, but the culprits are the major loses suffered by large ALDE parties in the UK and Germany (and the loss of all seats in Italy, held by the moribund Italia dei Valori, which had done very well in 2009).
The Green-EFA group will likely come out a bit smaller from the election, after a fairly strong intake for the Greens back in 2009. The Greens lost ground in Germany and France (the two largest EU countries), but performed well in some smaller member-states such as Sweden and Austria. Especially in France but also in Germany, the Greens had performed extremely well (abnormally well in France) in the 2009 EP elections, but had since lost support in national elections. The G-EFA group is likely to amputated by four seats when the new groups are formed, as the right-wing Flemish nationalist N-VA is likely to be kicked out of the group or choose to join a more right-wing group, such as the Euro-critical ECR, on its own.
The European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR), the conservative anti-federalist and Eurosceptic group spearheaded by the British Conservatives, lost 11 seats – largely due to the major loses suffered by the UK Tories and the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS), which did not cancel out gains made by the ECR’s other main component, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party. The group appears bullish about its future, however, with the prospect of attracting the 7 new MEPs from the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the new anti-Euro party in Germany. However, there have been constant rumours that the AfD’s inclusion in the ECR may strain relations between David Cameron and Angela Merkel, with the latter pressuring the former to keep AfD away from the ECR. The potential inclusion of the nationalist N-VA might be at odds with the Tories’ opposition to Scottish independence in Scotland’s referendum this fall.
On the far-left, the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) has gained significant ground. Those who like imagining broad pan-national political trends which don’t exist will think that this is due to a generalized swing to anti-austerity and Eurosceptic parties in Europe. The reality is that such swings have taken place, but they’ve been far from pan-European. The GUE-NGL’s gains are due to major gains by member parties in Greece and Spain and smaller gains in Italy in Ireland. In countries such as Germany and France, there has been no such ‘swing to the hard left’.
The Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, the most hardline Eurosceptic/anti-EU group (and furthest to the right of all groups), also gained ground. Its main gains all came from the UK, where EFD’s main component, UKIP, gained 12 seats. The right-wing populist/far-right Danish People’s Party (DF/O) also gained 2 seats in Denmark. In Italy and Greece, EFD parties suffered loses.
The campaign and now the post-election horsetrading has been marked by talk of the creation of a far-right group in the EP. During the campaign, some far-right parties, spearheaded by Marine Le Pen’s successful National Front (FN) in France, joined forces in the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF). The EAF was joined by the FN, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), the Lega Nord from Italy and the far-right Flemish separatist Vlaams Belang (VB); the youth wing of the far-right Swedish Democrats (SD) also collaborated with the EAF, but it now appears that the SD wants to keep out of the EAF. The EAF has over 25 seats now, after the FN’s huge success in France, but its MEPs only come from five countries. It would need to find MEPs from at least two more countries. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (XA, Greece), Jobbik (Hungary) and NPD (Germany) can’t and won’t be touched with a ten foot pole by any politician, including Le Pen, who is concerned about keeping up appearances. The AfD, UKIP, DF and True Finns (PS) do not want, in turn, to ally with the EAF, judging the FN to be too extremist and uneasy about the racist and xenophobic tendencies of these parties. The EAF will likely seek to seek out the support of the hard-right libertarian Polish Congress of the New Right (KNP – but the FPÖ finds them crazy) and two right-wing populist parties from Lithuania (TT, in the EFD group) and Latvia (NA, in the ECR group) to put a EAF group together.
In the past, the far-right had been unable to put coherent groups together due to the lack of numbers (in 2009), clashing nationalisms between the European far-right parties (especially in Eastern Europe, a lot of nationalist parties concentrate their fire on rival neighbors, such as the fight between the Hungarian and Slovakian far-right) or some rogue Western European MEP who makes some racist comment about Romanians or something. The future EAF group appears more coherent, given that all five current members meet up on anti-EU and anti-immigration/Islam views.
If any broad pan-European trends can be discerned, it is a fairly widespread swing against governing parties (either compared to the last EP election or national election) – certainly nothing unusual in a EP election. There were substantial swings against the governing part(y/ies) in France, the UK, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovakia, Croatia, Ireland and Slovenia. Only in Italy, Romania, Hungary and Latvia did the senior governing party win a clear victory at the polls. There was a secondary swing to anti-establishment, often Eurosceptic, movements in some EU countries – France, the UK, Spain, Austria and Denmark clearly stick out here; in Germany, the new Eurosceptic AfD performed well while in Italy the radical anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) won 17 seats in an underwhelming performance for the Beppe Grillo’s movement. But while there was a clear swing towards Eurosceptic and/or anti-establishment parties – some of them new (M5S, Spain’s Podemos) or old (FN, UKIP, FPÖ) – it is quite tough to notice a universal swing towards such parties. In the Netherlands or Bulgaria, for example, such parties actually lost ground. This further underlines the very national nature of EP elections – we definitely need to treat this election as 28 separate national elections largely driven and explainable by national political developments. Unfortunately, a lot of the media reporting on the elections have focused on the major countries, especially the more ‘sensational’ results in France or the UK, as to create some kind of narrative of universal anti-EU wave.
The EPP’s plurality likely means that a member of the EPP will be the next President of the Commission; if the EU’s act about ‘presidential candidates’ over the last few months had any truth in it, Juncker would be the natural and legitimate candidate for the job. He argues, backed by the PES, that he should get first job at cobbling together a majority to become President of the Commission. However, as per the EU treaties, the actual power of selecting the next President of the Commission effectively remains with the member-states meeting in the European Council. Therefore, it is far from certain that Juncker will be selected. British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Eurosceptic, has been trying to rally anti-Juncker colleagues – so far he’s been joined by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (whose nationalist and often autocratic EPP member-party is often at odds with the EPP’s mainstream moderate and pro-EU views). There is a widespread cynical view that the next President will be whoever Angela Merkel wants it to be. Merkel has been noncommittal on the question or tried to avoid it. There has been a lot of speculation about the EPP and PES coming together to form a Grand Coalition, with the agreement of dividing up the main EU jobs: President of the Commission, the presidency of the European Council (Herman Van Rompuy is retiring in December) and EU high representative on foreign policy.
In the coming posts, we will look at the detailed results in every one of the EU’s 28 member-states. These posts should generally come in alphabetical order, but there might be exceptions.