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May 26, 2014 | 15:42 GMT

EU Parliamentary Vote Shows Doubts About Integration

EU Parliamentary Vote Shows Doubts About Integration
SISKA GREMMELPREZ/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Elections for the EU Parliament, held May 22-25, were defined by the strong performance of anti-establishment and nationalist parties that reject deeper EU integration. While voter turnout was almost the same as in 2009, once again only four in 10 EU voters cast ballots. Both phenomena highlight the degree to which the economic crisis in Europe is impacting popular support for the European Union. A significant number of European citizens are not interested in the EU Parliament, and many of those who are voted for Euroskeptical parties.

These elections will have repercussions at the national and European levels. Moderate parties will adopt issues from the nationalists' agenda and push to slow or even reverse the process of continental integration, with immigration and the welfare state at the core of the debate. The new European Parliament will deal with a complex political environment as member states become more reluctant to cede power to the European Union. With the elections over, EU members will begin their next battle: appointing officials for key positions in continental institutions.

Anti-establishment parties had very good performances in France, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Greece, and modest but somewhat disappointing results in Italy and the Netherlands. Mainstream parties held their supremacy in Germany and Spain but lost ground to smaller parties.

EU Parliamentary Vote Shows Doubts About Integration

Euroskeptic Parties: Performance in EU Parliamentary Elections

In France, the right-wing National Front won the election with roughly 25 percent of the vote, defeating the center-right Union for a Popular Movement and the ruling Socialist Party. In the United Kingdom, the U.K. Independence Party defeated the mainstream Labor and Conservative parties. In both countries, the nationalist parties had their best performances ever. In Denmark, the anti-immigration Danish People's Party won the election with 26.7 percent of the votes.

In Germany, Italy and Spain, the ruling parties secured wins. Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union won the election with 35.3 percent of the votes but lost some votes to their coalition partners in the center-left Social Democratic Party and, most notably, to the Euroskeptical party Alternative for Germany, which got 7 percent of the vote. While Alternative for Germany's result is quite modest  — especially compared to similar parties elsewhere in Europe — it was the best result for this party since its creation just more than a year ago. In Spain, the mainstream parties got the most votes but lost support to smaller parties, mostly in the left.

The election was bittersweet for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in Italy; it consolidated its place as the country's main opposition party with around 21 percent of the vote, but lost ground compared to the general elections of 2013, when it received 25.5 percent. Moreover, the election saw a very strong performance by the ruling Democratic Party, which got almost 41 percent of the vote. Something similar happened in the Netherlands, where the anti-establishment Party of Freedom ended up in the third position and got fewer votes than expected (roughly 13 percent).

Nationalist parties had good performances in Austria, where the Freedom Party ended in the third position with 20.5 percent of the vote, up from 7.8 percent in 2009. Greece is one of the few cases where the protest vote actually went to the left, with the Coalition of the Radical Left, commonly known as Syriza, winning the election with 26.7 percent. Greece's far-right Golden Dawn will enter the EU Parliament for the first time after receiving more than 9 percent of the vote.

The Elections' Impact at the National Level

While nationalist parties are very different, they share a similar characteristic: They have a very strong protest profile. Voters see support for them as a way to express their anger at the ruling elites, and EU parliamentary elections are a low-cost opportunity to punish the mainstream political parties. However, these elections will have concrete consequences at the national level. First, entering the EU Parliament means that Euroskeptical and nationalist parties will receive more funding and resources, which will strengthen their ability to campaign and field candidates in their countries.

Second, the performance of these parties will affect the agenda of the moderate parties. Before the elections, parties — mostly from the center-right — adopted elements from the nationalists' agendas. In the weeks before the elections, France's center-right Union for a Popular Movement strongly criticized the Schengen Agreement, with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy openly demanding the end of the treaty that eliminates border controls in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron announced a series of administrative changes to make it harder for immigrants to access unemployment benefits. Even in Germany, where Euroskepticism is relatively weak, the government announced plans to limit access to welfare benefits for immigrants from elsewhere in the European Union.

Finally, these elections bring these parties another step forward in being seen as acceptable electoral alternatives for voters. Before the European economic crisis, many were seen as fringe groups acting on the sidelines of the political spectrum. However, the crisis — and in many cases, a significant improvement in the parties' public relations strategies — improved the image of these parties, making them more acceptable to more voters.

The Elections' Impact at the EU Level

Despite their electoral performance over the weekend, the Euroskeptic parties will not form a coherent alliance in the EU Parliament. While they share a critical view of the European Union, personal and ideological differences will prevent them from forming a strong, unified group in the continental legislature. Moderate parties will remain in control of the EU Parliament, and a "grand coalition" between the center-right European People's Party and the center-left Socialists and Democrats seems very likely.

The conservatives and the socialists will see the nationalists' strong performance as a warning sign, but their reactions will be very different. The conservatives probably will push for a slightly Euroskeptical agenda, trying to slow the process of continental integration. The socialists, however, will maintain that strengthening and further integrating the European Union is the best way to fight Euroskepticsm. This will complicate their cooperation in the "grand coalition" and make decision-making slow and complex.

After the elections for the EU Parliament, the European Union's member states will prepare to tackle a bigger, more sensitive issue: the appointment of a new EU Commission. The Commission is the executive arm of the European Union and a key player in shaping the continental agenda. Thus, this will be the most important political process in the bloc during the second half of the year.

The appointment of a Commission president, chosen by the member states, is particularly sensitive because the largest countries will push to appoint a person who is close to their strategic interests and ideological preferences. Moreover, the current EU treaty establishes that member states have to take into consideration the results of the EU Parliament elections when appointing a new Commission president. Additionally, the EU Parliament is in charge of giving final approval to the composition of the EU Commission. With Germany supporting a conservative candidate and France and Italy supporting a socialist candidate, the debate to find a successor for current President Jose Manuel Barroso will be long, and the issue probably will be settled late in the final quarter of the year.

Once the new EU president is appointed, two other key positions will need to be filled: the president of the EU Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs. As with the Commission, these appointments will lead to intense negotiations among member states. This means that decision making at the EU level will be virtually paralyzed because most players will wait for the new authorities to be appointed before moving on with the continental agenda. No substantial reforms in the European Union are to be expected at least until the end of the year. Significant issues such as the negotiations over a free trade deal with the United States will be delayed because of this institutional uncertainty.

Beyond the Elections

The EU parliamentary elections showed that a growing number of voters in Europe feel either disappointed or uninterested in the continental bloc. These elections have weakened the European Union. Issues such as immigration and the role of the welfare state will be at the heart of the political debate in most European nations, particularly in northern Europe. Many moderates will join the far right in resisting the pro-European elites' attempts to deepen continental integration.

The French and the Germans will move further away from each other. They will agree on the need to redesign the European Union's institutional framework, but will disagree on how and when to do it. The debate over the value of the euro and the role of the European Central Bank in fighting unemployment will intensify. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe, seeing a fragmenting European Union to the west and a more assertive Russia to the east, will intensify their regional collaboration, even if it leads to further fragmentation in Europe as a whole.

The next European Parliament will have to deal with a particularly hostile political environment, since some member states will resist its push to give EU institutions more power. It will also face a European Union in which some of the most crucial decisions are made through intergovernmental treaties instead of EU procedures. In other words, the next European Parliament will fight to defend its role amid political fragmentation, which is leading to stronger nationalist tendencies across Europe.

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