Friday, May 29, 2009

Why the European elections matter

by Hugo Brady

Between June 4th and June 7th, Europeans will cast their votes to elect a new European Parliament (EP). Recent opinion polls indicate that they will do so without much enthusiasm. Indeed, there is every chance that the average turnout will be the lowest ever – it has fallen at every election since the first time that Europeans directly elected their MEPs in 1979, and sank to 45.6 per cent in 2004. But despite the prevailing apathy, this election matters. During its next five-year term, the EP will influence what the EU decides in areas as diverse as financial services, trade, climate change, energy security and immigration.

Why do European elections so often struggle to capture the public imagination? Evidently, voters think the stakes are lower than in national elections – or at any rate less clear. Unlike legislative elections in a member-state, European elections do not, strictly speaking, lead to the formation of a new government. Moreover, the EP can often seem distant because few voters know what it actually does. And even if they do, the areas where the EP exercises most influence seem technical and dull. Voters tend to be less interested in arguments such as home versus host regulation of service companies, or the pros and cons of ‘unbundling’ vertically-integrated energy companies, than in the subjects which dominate domestic elections – tax and spending, health and education policy, foreign and defence policy and so on. And on those issues the EP has no say.

MEPs are remote from most voters. The party list system used in most countries means that few electors know the names of their MEPs. European constituencies are huge, making it difficult for any voter to meet an MEP; in national politics members of parliament can more easily hold ‘surgeries’ to meet constituents. Furthermore, the process-heavy, non-adversarial way in which the Parliament operates attracts little media, and voter, attention. Political groups in the EP stand out less clearly than in most national assemblies. Although they are organised on a conventional left-right spectrum, they are composed of MEPs from very different national traditions, which makes them less monolithic. And there is not a great difference between the policies proposed by the three biggest groups, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Finally, the parliament lacks political theatre. Many of its proceedings revolve around consensus-building and horse-trading in specialist committees.

Eurosceptics sometimes argue that these flaws weaken the legitimacy of the EP as a representative institution. That argument is unfair for two reasons. The first is that the EP’s job is not to replace national assemblies but to complement them, by providing an additional layer of democratic representation in EU policy. The second is that the EP has become a serious actor. During its 2004-2009 term, it influenced EU policy in areas as diverse as climate change, energy, the cross-border provision of services, telecoms regulation and the authorisation of chemicals. This trend is set to continue, especially if – depending on Ireland’s autumn referendum – the Lisbon treaty enters into force. The EP would then have the power of ‘co-decision’ – an equal say to the Council of Ministers – over virtually all legislation, instead of around 70 per cent as is now the case. In particular, the Lisbon treaty would give the EP much more legislative power on justice and home affairs.

The future political balance of the EP will be largely determined by the outcome of voting in the big six member-states: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. The EPP seems likely to remain the largest political group in the Parliament, albeit with a reduced majority, despite the fact that Britain’s Conservatives are due to leave it. The Party of European Socialists (PES), for its part, should increase its representation, but only a little. When other groupings are taken into account – including the new group that the British Conservatives plan to lead – the centre-right is likely to dominate the EP.

If current opinion polls are to be believed, the mainstream centre-left will fail to draw much advantage from the current ‘crisis of capitalism’. In the largest member-states, centre-left parties are either unpopular incumbents (as in Britain, Germany and Spain), or in opposition and disarray (as in France, Italy and Poland). The great unknown is how well populist fringe groups of the left and right – those who are really opposed to the current political and economic system – will perform. It would still be a major surprise if fringe parties won much more than 50 seats in the 736-seat EP.

The balance of the parties matters for the leadership of the European Commission. In June the European Council is due to nominate the Commission’s next president. EU leaders are likely to offer José Manuel Barroso, who is affiliated with the EPP, a second five-year term. But if the PES becomes the largest group in the EP, they will try and insist on one of their own. The newly elected Parliament is due to approve the European Council’s nominee for Commission president in July. Assuming that the centre-right dominates the Parliament, Barroso will be voted in.

In the autumn the EP will hold hearings on the individual commissioners proposed by governments. These hearings matter. Five years ago, the EP did not like the look of Silvio Berlusconi’s nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, on account of his views on gays and women – and it forced Berlusconi to withdraw him. In January the Parliament will vote to invest the entire team of commissioners. If it is implemented, the Lisbon treaty will make more explicit the need for the appointment of the Commission president to ‘take into account’ the results of the European elections. In the long run, whatever happens to that treaty, the Commission is likely to become more directly accountable to the Parliament. But whether that makes Europeans any more willing to vote for MEPs is another matter.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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