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Europe’s elections: why they matter

Hugo Brady
2 June 2009

European Union citizens will cast their votes to elect a new European parliament on 4-7 June 2009. The current 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% in 2004. But despite the prevailing apathy, this election matters. During its next five-year term, the European parliament will influence what the EU decides in areas as diverse as financial services, trade, climate change, energy security and immigration.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER)

This article is also published on the website of the CER

Also by Hugo Brady in openDemocracy:

"Europe's ‘reform treaty': ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007) - with Katinka Barysch

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 European parliament can often seem distant because few voters know what it - alongside the other two main EU institutions, the commission and the council of ministers - actually does.

Even if they do, the areas where the parliament 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. These are among the issues on which the European parliament has no say.

Politics and institution

The members of the European parliament (MEPs) - who will number 736 after the current election round - 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 attention from media and voters. Political groups in the parliament 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. There is also no 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).

In addition, 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 European parliament as a representative institution. That argument is unfair, for two reasons.

The first is that the parliament's job is not to replace national assemblies but to complement them, by providing an additional layer of democratic representation in European Union policy.

The second is that the parliament has become a serious actor. During its 2004-09 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 the result of Ireland's referendum, likely to be held in October 2009) the Lisbon treaty enters into force. The parliament would then have the power of "co-decision" - an equal say to the council of ministers - over virtually all legislation, instead of around 70% as is now the case. In particular, the Lisbon treaty would give the European parliament much more legislative power on justice and home affairs.

Process and people

The future political balance of the parliament 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 (in part because Britain's Conservatives have pledged 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 an accurate guide, the centre-left will fail to draw much advantage from the economic crisis. 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 fifty seats.

The balance of the parties matters for the leadership of the European commission. In June 2009, the European council is due to nominate the commission's next president. European Union 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 parliament, 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. If the centre-right does end up dominating the parliament, Barroso will be voted in.

In autumn 2009 the parliament will hold hearings on the individual commissioners proposed by governments. These hearings matter. In 2004, the parliament 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 2010 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.


openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe between past and future" (9 March 2009)

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