To outsiders who don’t have a clue about what is going on inside the European Union, it has become clear as day that Europe is in the middle of a crisis. While in most corners of the world the European parliamentary elections whiz by without anyone blinking an eye, let alone acknowledging their outcome, this year’s results gained unprecedented media attention and were cause for concern far beyond the continent’s borders.
But what exactly happened during the European parliamentary elections just one month ago, and what will happen now that the hype and hysteria have died down?
A Festival of Unfounded Reproaches
The European Parliamentary elections took place from 22-25 May and were the 8th EU Parliamentary elections since 1979. This year’s electoral race was also the first in which pan-European parties presented candidates for President of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation and running the EU, among other tasks.
To the chagrin of the few pro-EU observers out there, Eurosceptic parties to the left and right of the political spectrum gained a significant number of seats at the expense of their integration-enthusiast counterparts. In fact, it would seem that the unpopular EU policy of curbing deficits at the expense of living standards has taken its toll.
There are 751 seats in the European Parliament, 376 of which are needed to gain a majority. Representation of citizens is digressively proportional, meaning that no member state can have less than 6 or more than 96 seats.
The Bizarre and Downright Potty
The results of this year’s elections were cause for concern for everyone who cares about the future of, well, human rights in Europe. Far right parties came in third in Austria, Greece and Hungary, and Greece sent three members of the neo-Nazi group the Golden Dawn to Brussels, marking the first time an openly neo-Nazi party will represent its country in Europe’s capital. With a third of its leadership in prison for murder, racial violence and extortion, the Golden Dawn is now, undoubtedly, one of the most popular political parties in Greece.
But if the gains of neo-Nazis sent a chill rippling through Europe, the victories of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) caused observers to let loose a collective gasp. This year, UKIP gained 11 percentage points with 27.5% of the vote and sent a whopping 24 MEPs packing in preparation for parliament.
UKIP, whose representatives are known for their disparaging remarks about immigrants –among an assortment of other addlepated and offensive comments– now has 24 of the UK’s 73 seats in the European Parliament. It is the first time since 1906 that a party other than Labour or the Conservatives led a national election.
Meanwhile, the election’s most resounding victor was France’s Marine Le Pen, whose Front National and its anti-immigration platform took home a quarter of the vote. France’s ruling Socialist party has now been relegated to third place with a dismal 14%. Capitalizing on the anger over unemployment, commentators have been quick to note that the FN made great strides forward by behaving very much like the old communist party, touting itself as a representative of the French working-class. Among its other aspirations, however, the National Front wishes to return the death penalty, re-criminalize abortion and ban same-sex marriages.
Similarly, the Danish People’s Party won almost 27% of the vote. Its leader Pia Kjærsgaard is almost as vehement an opponent of immigration as Le Pen. In Italy, the far-right Lega Nord also gained 6% of the vote; and in Austria, the fiercely anti-Muslim immigration party Austrian Freedom doubled its number of MEPs from 2 to 4, winning almost a fifth of the vote. Meanwhile, Hungary’s Jobbik, another radically nationalist party, maintained its three MEPs.
Meanwhile, some turn left
But not all is lost. Several parties did break with this disturbing trend and even veered their countries to the left.
In Spain, for example, the 4-month-old ‘Podemos’ party, which developed out of the left-wing protest movement los Indignados that occupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in 2011, won five seats and 1.2 million votes, despite its more than meagre budget. In Germany, another brand-new party, the Alternative for Germany (AFD), gained an unexpected 7%. AFD is Germany’s first Eurosceptic party and runs on an anti-euro platform.
In Greece, the left wing, anti-austerity party Syriza also made leaps and bounds, winning the ballot by almost four points over the conservative New Democratic Party led by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Meanwhile, in Ireland, an unprecedented three seats went to the leftist party Sinn Fein, which also campaigned against austerity measures.
In Italy, the anti-establishment Five Star movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, came in second place. Like Germany’s AFD, the party campaigned to take Italy out of the Euro.
Presidents are selected, not elected.
In theory, the European Commission Presidency should go to the candidate of the party with the most votes. And while the European People’s Party lost ground to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, it remained the largest faction in the new parliament. This means that Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg PM, will assume the presidency. Despite widespread opposition to his candidacy, Juncker was elected by a qualified majority of the European Council as well as a simple majority in the new parliament.
While Britain pulled out all the stops to ensure that Juncker, who many consider an old-school European federalist, didn’t make it to the top spot, David Cameron has since been spotted rubbing shoulders with the newly appointed.
Meanwhile, if the number of viewers tuned in to watch the EU Presidential debate – roughly 0.02% of the entire EU population – tells us anything, it’s that EU citizens aren’t even sure who the candidates for President are.
Fewer Rules and Less Fuss
So what is the unifying trend? In total, almost a quarter of all seats went to protest parties and euro sceptics.
The public’s distaste for austerity and its mistrust of what is perceived as foreign elements co-opting politicians into implementing policies that run counter to the interests of ordinary citizens, has translated into a victory for those London Mayor Boris Johnson characterized as “the bizarre and downright potty”. To the dismay of more mainstream politicians accustomed to success, in times of crisis, right and left wing populists are the winners of the day.
Many believe that the EU’s unnecessary complexity and opaqueness are also at the centre of citizens’ apathy and frustration. With austerity, unemployment, nationalism and euro-scepticism taking centre stage, the future of the Union is far from certain. Many fear that the recent upsurge in popularity among right-wing extremists could transfer to national elections. What is certain, however, is that something has got to give. The EU’s bureaucrats need to re-evaluate the system and aim to make EU policy more appealing. Or as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called for, “fewer rules and less fuss”.
Cover photo: © European Union 2013 – European Parliament
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