Europe has voted. More accurately, the people of Europe have voted. The results suggest that Czech President Vaclav Klaus was right when he argued earlier this year that “There is no European demos — and no European nation.”
Four days of voting for the European Parliament (EP) ended on Sunday. Largely disinterested publics across the continent used their votes to punish faltering governments and failing oppositions for their domestic sins. The result is a more right-leaning but fractured continental legislature.
Non-voters now make up a majority of Europe’s electorate. Overall turnout ran 43.1 percent, more than two points lower than in 2004 and the lowest since voting began for the EP three decades ago (when turnout ran nearly two-thirds).
The overall average disguises extraordinary voter lethargy in some countries. Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, and Malta all hit 60 percent or better (so did Belgium and Luxembourg, where voting is mandatory). But only 19.6 percent of Slovaks voted. Lithuania barely broke 20 percent. Turnout in the Czech Republic ran 25 percent and in Slovenia 27.4 percent.
Leading members of the EP expressed understandable concern over the continuing decline. Graham Watson, who heads the parliamentary Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe, said: “I don’t know why and we need to study why people don’t go out and vote.” He surmised that people saw little connection between their votes and the European Union’s decisions.
He’s almost certainly right, but the problem is going to get worse if the Lisbon Treaty passes. Twenty-six of 27 EU members have ratified the accord; only Ireland, whose voters said no a year ago, stands in the way. The complex and convoluted text would consolidate further power in Brussels. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is advocating that national politicians bring Europe more into their national policies, but Lisbon would strip more “competencies” — that is responsibilities, in Eurospeak — away from national governments.
Already President Klaus worries about the problem of “the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision-making of the unelected.” As more power shifts to a stronger but unelected executive in Brussels, voters will be even less likely to vote. Resulting in ever less democratic politics in practice.
The growing popular frustration with diminished popular control has turned EP elections into little more than a vehicle for expressing anger with national politicians. The EP’s socialist bloc leader, Martin Schulz, observed that “the vote doesn’t have much to do with European policy.” His opinion has an air of special pleading, given the public spanking received by the left. Nevertheless, he is right in observing “a trend towards the re-nationalization of Europe.”
National rather than continental politics determined most of the election results. Perhaps the clearest case was Great Britain, in which the Labour Party was pushed into third place, behind the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and barely ahead of the Liberal-Democrats. Europe was occasionally discussed: David Cameron, the Conservative leader in Britain’s House of Commons, promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. However, the Tories gained more votes from hostility towards the ruling Labour Party. Moreover, anger over expense abuse by members of the three major parties in the House of Commons increased support for UKIP and the xenophobic British National Party (BNP), which won two seats.
The ruling socialists in Spain and Austria also took a beating for domestic political reasons. (The Greens, in contrast, enjoyed small gains.) The right did much better, picking up EP seats in several countries where conservatives are in power. In France, Germany (with a “grand coalition” led by more conservative parties), Poland, and Italy, voters all moved rightward. Even when the conservatives did not do particularly well, falling behind their share of the vote five years ago, the parties of the left did even worse.
Again, national issues triumphed. In France and Germany the so-called right moved left in response to the economic crisis. Complained Jan-Marinus Weirsma, a Dutch member of the EP’s socialist bloc: “The conservatives won by stealing our free market-skeptic agenda.” Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi effectively focused on crime and immigration (as well as nominating several attractive women as EP candidates!). Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government is seen as a welcome tonic after his more contentious predecessor. Greece was the major center-right government to lose ground.
In Latvia pro-Russian parties won surprising support. The Harmony Party took 20 percent and another pro-Moscow grouping won almost ten percent. Harmony is headed by Alfred Rubiks, the last head of the Latvian Communist Party who spent six years in prison after attempting to overthrow the newly independent Latvian government. Less than one-fifth of Latvians are ethnic Russians; the vote likely reflected anger with the government and its tough economic austerity program.
Other important areas of protest were immigration and Islam. Britain’s UKIP has criticized both, as has the BNP, which would send home most immigrants. Austria’s Freedom Party, which gained notoriety under the late Jörg Haider, campaigned on an anti-Islam platform, as did the Dutch party headed by Geert Wilders, whose criticism of Islam got him banned from even visiting Great Britain. Both parties made notable gains. So did the Danish People’s Party, which also advocates limiting immigration. In Hungary the hard-right Jobbik party, which emphasizes immigration and crime, especially by gypsies, won nearly as many seats as the governing Socialists. Jobbik’s slogan of “Hungary belongs to Hungarians” was banned by the national election commission. A nationalist also picked up a seat in Slovakia.
In this case voters were decisively rejecting the values of the Eurocrats while protesting home policy. EU expansion has been based on open migration throughout the continent. Islam has been accepted as Christianity has been abandoned. The governing Eurocratic ethos emphasizes tolerance while disdaining values. If European voters sent one message in the election, it is that a substantial number dislike this vision of Europe.
The fact that the EP elections have become a routine target of protestors of all stripes has helped further fracture the continental body. Germany’s small Free Democrats, a frequent coalition partner in Berlin, nearly doubled its vote to 11 percent. Welsh and Scottish nationalist candidates won seats in the EP. Some protest votes went to extreme groups, such as Britain’s BNP, a whites-only party. In Sweden the Pirate Party — which supports stealing intellectual property, not merchant ships — won a seat.
Still, outgoing EP president Hans-Gert Pottering observed: “I am very pleased to see that the pro-European parties…have achieved a good, solid majority.” That’s true in a sense — Euroskeptics received only modest backing. The number of Euroskeptics in the 736-member body likely will not exceed 20.
The UKIP, which advocates a withdrawal from the EU, won 13 seats. The BNP takes the same position. But Declan Ganley of Libertas, which led the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland, narrowly failed to win a seat in Ireland. Continent-wide Libertas picked up only one seat, and that by a current member who merged his small party with Libertas — losing his party’s other two seats in the process.
However, Britain’s Conservative Party is leaving the EP conservative coalition and forming a group dedicated to federalism. Fear of losing votes to UKIP in the next general election may push the Conservatives in a more Euroskeptic direction.
Moreover, the electorate demonstrated little enthusiasm for the EP as an institution. Critics of the continuing consolidation of power in Brussels seem more inclined not to vote than to bother looking for like-minded candidates to support.
Even more important, the Irish message on Lisbon also was conflicted. Polls continue to show a majority in favor of the treaty, which is expected to go back to the voters this fall. But that largely reflects hope in Europe as an economic safety net. If the EU does not live up to that promise in coming months, popular attitudes might change. And Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Brian Cowen’s government was battered by voters. His support for Lisbon might not prove particularly helpful next time.
All told, Europeans have voted, but not for Europe. Rather than treating the European Parliament as a serious institution concerned with serious issues, angry and frustrated people have used it is as a target for protest. Eurocratic elites will continue to push their project to consolidate power in Brussels, but they will do so with little support from the people in whose name they are acting. Bruno Waterfield of the Daily Telegraph says simply: “This is an EU election result that Europe’s elites richly deserve.”
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