Tuesday

24th Jan 2017

Opinion

EP elections: A Union divided

  • EU citizens showed little interest for this vote (Photo: electoralcommission.org.uk)

What many observers believed to be the most important European elections since the introduction of direct universal suffrage in 1979 has ended up confirming what many have feared or known for quite some time: Europe is a divided continent.

More than the lacking support for unpopular austerity policies, this division running through the Union and now manifesting in the voting results might be the actual challenge for an organisation whose core task is in fact integration.

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When the current European Parliament took office in 2009, the European Union seemed on a straight, integrative path despite occasional setbacks. Two new member states had just joined the community adding up to 27 members while the Lisbon Treaty was about to modify and strengthen the European institutions. Dating back no more than five years, this however seems like a memory from a long-ago and forgotten era, an era when the European Union appeared as an ever-closer union.

Much has changed since. For the past five years, the European Union has experienced its most severe crisis with bank failures, sovereign debt crises and record levels of unemployment. This is why last week’s European elections were far more than just yet another election, but the first real chance for Europeans to judge their governments’ crisis management and express their view on what future role they conceive for the EU.

As with previous European elections, European citizens however showed little interest in voting, as turnout was more or less the same as in 2009.

What is especially alarming is that eligible voters from both founding EU member states as well as from relatively new members of the Union ignored the call for votes. After only 10 years of EU membership, the last remaining bit of enthusiasm for the Union seems to have vanished in numerous eastern European countries.

Eighty-seven percent of the eligible voters in Slovakia kept absent from polling stations while even in Italy as one of the founding countries turnout is expected to having been at an all-time low.

The EU’s overall campaign strategy to attract more voters through a personalized electoral campaign did not pay off. As numbers indicate, the two most prominent candidates running for the office of European Commission President, former President of the Eurogroup Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, could not prevent this year’s European elections from being the eighth in a row with a meagre turnout.

Although Juncker’s EPP party group and Schulz’ PES presented two clear alternatives, with the former arguing in favour of further austerity measures, while the latter opposing them, moderate political parties throughout Europe have been put under serious pressure by extreme and protest parties who celebrated triumphs through most of the continent.

With these elections, numerous fringe, eurosceptic and nationalist parties have (re-)entered the European Parliament.

Riding on the wave of popular dissatisfaction with the European project, parties such as the French Front National, the British UKIP or Greek Syriza have expectedly contributed to an unprecedented surge of eurosceptics in the future European Parliament. The are even believed to end up first in their respective countries.

The reasons for this are quite obvious. Unemployment, especially among the youth, has risen to record levels and austerity programmes are jeopardising the social peace.

Yet, this is not true for all of Europe. As the eurozone is slowly recovering from its financial crisis, electorates in Germany, Italy or Austria have been more supportive of their governing parties than in most other European countries. In the Netherlands, the right-wing populist Gert Wilders could also not do better than fourth place, although polls had predicted much better.

However, the crisis has left its mark.

The results of the vote illustrate the electorate’s anger and frustration but also its insecurity and division about how far one can go in showing ones disapproval with the current situation.

While large parts of the Union agree to disagree with the current crisis management, there seems to be another group of voters in Europe: those who take the slow but steady recovery from the crisis as a first signal that the Union is following the correct path. Whereas the northern countries thus rally against paying other countries' debts, the countries of the south oppose further austerity measures.

While some European leaders might hence believe to have gotten away with a black eye from the elections, they indeed have failed to achieve their core task, that is, the integration of Europe.

Instead, European citizens seem to be more divided than ever in the history of the Union which in the long run could cause the next severe crisis we might have to face.

The writer is a political science professor at the Hertie School of Governance, a Berlin university

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