European Parliamentary Elections: Making Votes Count

This is a momentous year for the European Union. May Day marks its expansion from fifteen to twenty-five members. Its leaders hope to agree a constitutional treaty by the end of June; some countries including Britain will put it to referendums. From June 10 to 13, citizens in all states will go to the polls to elect 732 Members of the European Parliament. These will be the sixth such direct elections and the first to include voters from the ten newly joined central and southern European nations.

The World Today Updated 22 June 2020 Published 1 May 2004 4 minute READ

Symbolically the elections are important, a visible sign of a united Europe. They are also a key element of the European Union (EU)’s multinational democracy, bringing together peoples with very different histories and experiences, speaking twenty official languages. But what do they mean in practical terms?

Put simply, the elections are about filling the seats in a multinational parliament; they will not directly affect the government of the EU nor set its legislative agenda. Yet voting is important, since Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) wield considerable power, including the right to amend or block much legislation, the power to reject the budget, the right to agree to international treaties and enlargement, the right to confirm the European Commission in office, and the power to remove it.

Unware

Over the past quarter of a century, however, European parliament elections have seemingly meant little to Europe’s citizens, who are typically unaware of the extent of its powers. While there are European-level political parties, such as the Party of European Socialists, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Liberal Democrat and Reform (ELDR) party, which have produced cross-national manifestos, few voters are likely ever to have heard of them, still less to have studied their policies, since parliament elections have typically been fought by national parties.

Politicians have done little to generate a sense of the European-ness of such elections either, usually campaigning along national lines, promoting national political figures and stressing national issues. None of this is surprising, perhaps, when one considers that MEPs are elected within each member state according to national rather than EU-wide rules.

Euro-constituencies are so large – most countries have a single national constituency, though Britain has eleven – that even the most enthusiastic voters are hard-pressed to know who their Euro-representative is, which reduces interest in the parliament. This is not helped by the fact that the fragmented nature of party politics at the European level means that MEPs from across the party spectrum have to work together to influence EU legislation. Thus it is difficult for parties to fight Euro-elections on the basis of their record in the previous parliament.

It is not surprising, then, that Euro-elections have been characterised by low turnout among voters, who have often used them to express their opinion of incumbent national governments.

So if all this was true in a Europe of fifteen, will it also be the case with twenty-five? What are the prospects for the June elections?

More interest

There are reasons to think that there might be greater interest this time. The debate on the future of Europe encouraged by the draft constitutional treaty, and the intergovernmental conference have heightened interest in European affairs. There is scope for these elections to be fought along genuinely European lines and this could translate into greater participation. In Sweden, a new, Eurosceptic ‘June List’ will be fighting for the right to a referendum, and the British Conservatives may well focus on the draft constitution as well.

Yet if the European agenda has become more interesting to voters, the transnational parties have not managed to produce compelling manifestos. The European Socialists have decided not to publish one at all this time, ostensibly on the grounds that no one would read it anyway. The EPP, using the slogan ‘The EPP: your majority in Europe’, has adopted a document that is high on vision and rhetoric but lacking in substantive policies.

Although their MEPs sit with the EPP in the European parliament, as the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED), the British Conservatives will fight the election on the basis of their own national manifesto, so neither of the two main British parties will use an EU-wide manifesto.

The manifesto of the Greens, whose slogan exhorts or tells – it is not clear which – ‘You decide’, is essentially a statement of common principles. The ELDR party, campaigning under the banner ‘Freeing Europe’s potential’, has produced a manifesto outlining a range of policies, but even here it is not clear what the party could achieve without the support of other groups within the parliament, a clear example of the difficulty of coalition politics.

Thus, the problem remains for would-be Members of the European Parliament - how to demonstrate to the electorate that their votes matter. All this could change if MEPs such as Hans-Gert Pöttering have their way. Although the draft constitutional treaty has yet to be agreed by member states, Pöttering and the People’s Party, whose MEPs he leads, are seeking to introduce one proposed change now: that the European Council should take the results of the parliament elections into consideration when it proposes its candidate to succeed Romano Prodi as Commission president.

The party, clearly expecting its members to form the largest group after June 13, has suggested that its MEPs would reject a nominee who did not come from the centre right. Such a rejection would enable Europe’s citizens to see very clearly that their votes had an impact, allowing them to ‘throw the scoundrels out’ in analogous fashion to parliamentary elections in nation states, thereby potentially giving them greater interest in the European version.

However, it seems unlikely that such ambitions will be met this time around. The centre right dominates the European Council as well, so it is likely that it would also favour a centre-right candidate for Commission president.

Of course, if the EPP were really ambitious and committed to the idea that the parliament should elect the Commission president, rather than simply confirm or reject the European Council’s nominee, it could have put forward its own nominee ahead of the elections. This would almost certainly have forced the other main parties to indicate their preferred candidates as well, which would have given voters a clear sense that, at least on this issue, their vote mattered.

Although the European Council would not have been obliged to accept the candidate proposed by the largest parliamentary grouping, it is hard to imagine that it would have rejected someone who apparently enjoyed recent popular support. There are certainly candidates aplenty for the parties to promote: Paavo Lipponen and Antonio Vitorino for the Socialists, Guy Verhofstadt and Pat Cox for the ELDR and Wolfgang Schüssel for the Christian Democrats. Yet only the Greens have mentioned a particular person, Danni Cohn-Bendit, and even they are not pushing him as a serious contender.

Fragmentation

It is perhaps not surprising that the major parties, particularly the EPP, have proved unwilling or unable to promote a candidate for Commission president.

There are significant divisions within the wider EPP-ED group, which includes Christian Democrats, British Conservatives, French Gaullists and members of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia movement.

It is hard to imagine that members of Michael Howard’s Conservative party would endorse a federalist Christian Democrat, while few Christian Democrats would favour a Conservative as Commission president. These intra-group divisions are likely to increase rather than decrease with enlargement, as several of the new member parties are rather more Eurosceptic than the traditional EPP members.

Such fragmentation may well make the enlarged parliament more unwieldy than recently, unless groups have strong whips – not usually very evident in Brussels and Strasbourg – or there is a convergence of interests among parties. This fragmentation does mean that any progress on cross-party cohesion regarding the nomination of the Commission president will only become clear after the elections, so any impact on voters is only likely to be seen when the next parliament is chosen in 2009.

More of the same

Despite the interest that enlargement has produced in candidate countries and the debate in some states over the draft constitution, the limited nature of the European manifestos and the reluctance of parties to name candidates for Commission president mean that the elections may look rather similar to previous ones, with results determined primarily by the domestic context in each member state, where incumbent governments do badly.

The French right, Polish Socialists and British Labour party are likely to perform badly, while the Socialists in Spain and Conservatives in Greece, still enjoying a honeymoon period, should do well. Since all of the new member states bar Poland are small, modest changes in their electoral landscapes are unlikely to have a major impact on the political constellations within the parliament.

However, the weakness of the Greens in central and eastern Europe, with only Slovenia and Latvia likely to return Green MEPs, means their numbers may be diminished. Conversely, the ELDR grouping could be strengthened.

It seems likely that the smaller groups of anti-Europeans/Eurosceptics and representatives of the far left and far right will remain, perhaps in slightly different formations. The upshot will be a multi-lingual parliament with several political groups uniting myriad parties from the twenty-five states on the basis of more or less common interests.