One of the key criticisms of European Parliament elections is that they suffer from low turnout and therefore lack the capacity to genuinely confer democratic legitimacy on the EU’s legislative process. Duncan McDonnell writes that while a concerted effort was made to present the 2014 European elections as ‘different’ in the run up to the vote, the minimal rise in turnout experienced illustrates that the real threat to European democracy is not Eurosceptic parties, but voter apathy.
“This time it’s different,” promised the European Parliament in an awareness campaign ahead of the May 2014 elections. And, judging by the headlines, it certainly has been different. Many in the media have termed the results a right-wing Eurosceptic “earthquake”, copying the metaphor used by the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, to describe the performance of the Front National (FN).
In some countries, the populist and Eurosceptic radical right have indeed managed to make the ground shake beneath mainstream politicians’ feet. Although the circa 25 per cent gained by the FN wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has read an opinion poll from France recently, it is still striking to see this (former?) pariah party in first place for the first time. Its result represented not only a huge improvement on the 6.3 per cent it received at the 2009 European Parliament (EP) elections, but was also well beyond Marine Le Pen’s very impressive 17.9 per cent in the 2012 presidential election.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, UKIP’s result of around 27.5 per cent – again, not a surprise to those following the polls – makes it the first party other than Labour and the Conservatives to come out on top in a national election in over a century. Of course, the acid test of its capacity to change the shape of the British party system will be next year at the general election (having received 16.1 per cent in 2009, it crashed with just 3.1 per cent and still no MPs at the 2010 general election). Nonetheless, as the recent book by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin shows, it is time to accept UKIP as much more than the “flash-in-the-pan” single-issue party we used to think it was.
Other standout results for similar parties were in Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party led the way with 26.6 per cent of the vote – more than 10 points higher than its result in 2009 and double its 2011 general election performance – and in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats (SD) saw its share of the vote rise from 3.3 per cent in 2009 and 5.7 per cent at the 2010 general election to 9.7% this time around.
Elsewhere, however, tales of a radical right “earthquake” are exaggerated. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), took roughly 13.4 per cent – an increase on its 10.1 per cent at the 2012 general election, but less than the 17 per cent it received at the 2009 EP election. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) appears to have scored just under 20 per cent – a lot more than its 12.7 per cent in 2009, but slightly below the 20.5 per cent it received at the 2013 general election. Similarly, in Finland, the Finns Party with 12.9 per cent improved on its 9.8 per cent in 2009, but slipped a fair distance back from its 2011 general election result of 19.1 per cent. In all three cases, these parties are in opposition and, given that mainstream governing parties have struggled more than usual in second-order elections during the post-2008 crisis, one might have expected radical right Eurosceptics to do better in these countries.
In fact, despite the talk of a far-right surge, it’s worth bearing in mind that – of the six parties that were considered guaranteed members of the much talked-about Alliance for Freedom (EAF) created by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders last year – only two (the FN and FPÖ) saw their vote rise compared to 2009, while the other four (the PVV, the Slovak National party, Italy’s Northern League, and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang) all lost votes.
And given that the Slovak party has failed to secure any MEPs, this means the EAF will be looking for two other like-minded European parties to enable it to form an official group in the European Parliament (the regulations stipulate you must have at least 25 MEPs from at least 7 member states to do so). Sweden’s SD may be one of these, but other parties such as UKIP, the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party have ruled out any formal alliance with the EAF. So, the EAF will probably have to go fishing for partners among some of the smaller right-wing Eurosceptic parties from Central and Eastern Europe.
The results by Eurosceptic parties further to the right (with whom the EAF won’t do business) are also a mixed bag. For example, while some newspapers are claiming that Jobbik did well in Hungary, in reality its 14.7 per cent share is well below the 20.8 per cent they received in the recent general election and also slightly less than the 14.8 per cent they scored in 2009. In Greece, it was a different story, with Golden Dawn improving on its 2012 general election result of 7 per cent with 9.4 per cent in their debut EP election. If this incident is anything to go by, how its three new MEPs seek to capture the limelight in the parliament should be one of the more unsavoury sideshows of the next few years.
As I explained in a recent column, Euroscepticism does not denote a homogenous ideological category or a single party family. Despite the tendency to associate it with the right, it also includes parties of the Left and several of these did well in the elections. In Greece, Syriza topped the poll with 26.6 per cent, while in Ireland Sinn Féin scored 17 per cent – placing it firmly in third place, more than 10 points ahead of the Irish Labour Party which continues to pay a high price for its participation in an austerity-promoting coalition government led by the centre-right Fine Gael.
Moving onto a more ideologically fluid Eurosceptic party which was expected to do well, Italy’s M5S got 21.1 per cent of the vote. This has been cast by the Italian media (which has a strong anti-M5S bias) as a failure for the party. However, while its result is less than its stunning 2013 debut general election total of 25.6 per cent, it is still a good performance from a party that has struggled with growing pains due to its sudden success and whose demise was being (gleefully) predicted by many Italian commentators this time last year. That said, a star of these elections has to be Matteo Renzi, who led the governing pro-EU Democratic Party to more than 40 per cent – the best ever performance in a national election by a centre-left Italian party.
While Renzi may be the star in Italy, however, the real winner (or, perhaps, loser, depending on your viewpoint) of these elections across the continent is not the Eurosceptic or the Europhile, but – once again – the Euro-abstainer. The “this time it’s different” slogan had been devised to encourage people to vote, with the promise that the candidate of the winning coalition of parties in the EP would be the next President of the European Commission.
However, in terms of participation, this time hasn’t really been very different at all. Sure, for the first time since EP elections began in 1979, turnout did not decline. But its increase by around 0.1 per cent to 43.1 per cent is hardly – to use the term in vogue – “an earthquake”. And the real problem for the legitimacy of the European Parliament is that while journalists and people like me might be getting very excited about the changes in vote shares for parties, the majority of our fellow Europeans simply don’t care.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Feature image credit: © European Union 2014 – European Parliament (CC-BY-SA-NC-ND-3.0)
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About the author
Duncan McDonnell – European University Institute, Florence
Duncan McDonnell is Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute. From September 2014, he will be Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy and the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane. He is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Populism and has recently published articles on technocratic governments, the Lega Nord, Outsider Parties, Silvio Berlusconi’s personal parties and the relationships between mayors and parties. He is currently working with Daniele Albertazzi on a book entitled ‘Populists in Power’ which will be published by Routledge. He tweets @duncanmcdonnell