Sunday

22nd Sep 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU turnout nearly unchanged from 2009

A 0.09 percent increase in the turnout compared to the last EU elections has been celebrated as 'historic', but some experts see a link to the strong anti-establishment vote in many countries.

Dismiss Italy's Salvini at your peril

Matteo Salvini's recent gambit may have failed, but, in his own words: "From today you will find me even more pissed off and determined. I will go from town to town and we will take this country back."

Brexit raises questions for EU defence integration

Brussels' current vision for cooperation on defence, where third countries can contribute but have no say in decision-making and in the guidance of operations, is unlikely to be attractive to the UK.

Europe's refugee policy is test of its true 'way of life'

As ex-national leaders, we know it's not easy to withstand public pressures and put collective interests ahead of domestic concerns. But without strong institutional leadership, EU values themselves risk ringing hollow, not least to those seeking protection on Europe's shores.

A new Commission for the one percent

We are only baffled by how nakedly Ursula von der Leyen's commission represents the very crisis affecting the EU. These commission nominees can expect their toughest questioning yet, they must be held accountable to those they should be representing.

News in Brief

  1. Ireland: right Brexit deal is 'not yet close'
  2. UK secrecy on Brexit holds back wider EU talks
  3. Feminist mass protest in Spain after 19 murders this summer
  4. Global climate strike starts ahead of UN summit
  5. UK Brexit minister to meet Barnier on Friday
  6. Russia-Ukraine gas deal talks show 'progress'
  7. Nobel economist: Ireland 'not good EU citizen' on taxes
  8. Germany takes carbon border tax on board

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  2. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  6. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  8. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  9. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  10. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  11. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat

Latest News

  1. Europe goes to New York This WEEK
  2. Nine EU 'commissioners' asked to clarify declarations
  3. Dismiss Italy's Salvini at your peril
  4. Malta PM accused of 'blackmail' over slain reporter
  5. Diplomats back Romania's Kovesi for EU top prosecutor
  6. Brexit raises questions for EU defence integration
  7. Low-carbon cities can unlock €21tn by 2050, report finds
  8. France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us