Socialists and other left-wing political parties in Europe suffered humiliating defeats in continent-wide voting for the European Union’s parliament. After four days of polling that ended on June 7, voters in almost all of the EU’s 27 member states supported conservative parties, a clear sign that center-left parties have been unable to offer politically plausible solutions to Europe’s worst economic crisis since World War II. Indeed, conservative parties across Europe said the results vindicated their unwillingness to spend more money on company bailouts and fiscal incentives to stimulate faltering economies.
Voters were selecting 736 deputies for the European Parliament, an institution with ever-growing powers. According to provisional figures, the center-right emerged as the clear winner, taking 265 seats, compared with 184 for socialists, 83 for centrist liberals, 50 for the Greens and 36 for the radical left. Overall, some 380 million people were eligible to vote, but the turnout was a record low 43 percent. Although some politicians correctly attributed the low voter turnout to growing ambivalence about the European Parliament, these elections were all about what voters think about their own leaders and politicians at the national level.
In all six of Europe’s largest countries — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain — voters rejected socialist claims that the global financial crisis represented a “crisis of capitalism” that justified a turn to the left. In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s center-left Labour Party registered its worst showing in any British election since World War I. Labour came in third place with just 16 percent of the vote, behind the right-wing eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in second place, and the opposition Conservatives in first place. The disastrous results are likely to increase calls from within the Labour Party for Brown either to resign or to call early elections.
In France, the governing center-right party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, increased its share of the vote by 12 percent over 2004, with the socialist opposition, which dominated the vote in 2004, just barely maintaining second place.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s alliance of center-right parties suffered some losses (it won 37.8 percent, down from 44.5 percent five years ago), but still maintained a clear lead over her left-wing rivals. Indeed, the Social Democrats (SPD) suffered a historic defeat by getting only 20.8 percent of the vote, the party’s worst showing since World War II in any nationwide election. The outcome may boost Merkel’s hopes of replacing the current left-right “grand coalition” with a center-right government in general elections set for September 2009.
In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (PDL) held a two-digit lead over the center-left opposition Democratic Party (PD) despite a deep recession and a scandal over allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with a young model. Berlusconi’s coalition ally, the anti-immigrant Northern League, enjoyed a boost in support with 10.9 percent of the votes.
In Spain, the center-right conservative Popular Party (PP) drew its highest ever support in a European parliamentary election. With 42.2 percent of votes, it won two more seats than the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), a clear sign that Spanish voters are worried about Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s inability to stem rising unemployment, which is forecast to reach 20 percent in 2010.
And in Poland, the ruling Civic Platform party won 45.2 per cent of the vote, and 24 of the country’s 50 seats, a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s pro-business policies. Far-right and nationalist parties also made important gains in some countries. In the Netherlands, the eurosceptic, anti-Islam Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders won 17 percent of the vote to gain four seats at its first European election. It came in second after Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrats, which won five seats and 20 percent of the vote. The Labor Party, a coalition partner, was the biggest loser, falling to three seats from seven. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party, which campaigned on an anti-Islam platform, won 13 percent of the vote, doubling its showing in 2004. In Denmark, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party also doubled its 2004 tally. In Hungary, the eurosceptic, anti-immigration Jobbik party won three of 22 seats; the governing Socialists won only four.
Although the election results represent a voter backlash against left-wing politics at the national level, the outcome of the vote will also provide a huge boost to European federalism. Indeed, European elites, who famously refuse to take “no” for an answer from ordinary voters opposed to the creation of a federal European superstate, say the results show that European integration must continue apace. Commenting on the election results, the outgoing president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, said: “I am very pleased that pro-European parties … achieved a very solid majority.” And European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, whose chances of securing a second five-year term were boosted by the poll results, said the elections mean that voters favored a more federal Europe. “Overall, the results are an undeniable victory for those parties and candidates that support the European project and want to see the European Union delivering policy responses to their everyday concerns. From today onwards, Europe owes it to the voters to show once again that it can deliver,” he said.
In fact, the election results are a mixed bag for eurosceptics. Although they fared very well in Britain and the Netherlands, they did badly in Ireland, where Declan Ganley, the wealthy businessman who financed the successful campaign against the Lisbon Treaty (aka the European Constitution, which seeks to turn the EU into a bureaucratic superstate), failed to win a seat. His Libertas Party also failed to make an impression in other EU countries. Up until a few weeks before the elections, Libertas claimed it could elect up to 100 MEPs and radically reshape European politics. However, the party picked up only one seat in the 14 EU members states where it fielded more than 500 candidates.
This implies that Irish voters will probably say “yes” to the Lisbon Treaty in a second referendum that is now set for later this year. Ireland was the only EU member state to hold a public referendum on the treaty, and Irish voters rejected it in June 2008. But facing pressure from outraged European elites, Irish vassals will now have another opportunity to give the “right” answer. If they vote yes, then the treaty will probably enter into force, unless a change of government in Britain is able to derail the treaty first.
If the Lisbon Treaty is finally passed, the European Parliament, which has evolved over five decades from a consultative legislature to one with the power to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws, will gain even more power. In many policy areas, the European Parliament already has equal power with national governments, but polls across Europe consistently show that voters consider their MEPs to be overpaid, remote, and irrelevant in their daily lives.
Once again, the European elections underscore the paradox of European “democracy.” For just as the European Parliament is about to gain unprecedented power and influence, European voters seem less and less interested. According to the London-based Financial Times: “The EU will in all likelihood face an enormous and embarrassing paradox. At the heart of its operations will be a multinational parliament with more powers to affect people’s lives than at any stage in the continent’s post-1945 story of integration. But if elected by only a shrunken minority of citizens, it would represent a sorry state of affairs for those who care about the EU and democracy.”