2014 European elections: Uncharted territory?

Predicting the type of message that political parties in the EU Member States will put to the citizenry in the upcoming-european elections is not a scientifically consistent exercise. We will attempt such an assessment compared with the campaign manifestos of the 2009 elections, based on three scenarios of how the ongoing crisis in the eurozone may evolve. Our sole aim is to understand the likely trends that will prevail, rather than making any kind of quantitative prognosis.

Brief history of EU elections

A new wave of Euro-enthusiasm flourished in the expectation of the first European elections under universal suffrage, during the 1970s. This enthusiasm was triggered by the decision to implement direct elections which, had not progressed, primarily as a result of the resistance of President De Gaulle. His successor in 1969, Georges Pompidou, relaxed the French position, allowing the European Communities to open a new chapter on integration. The Hague European Council of December 1969 agreed on the enlargement of the Communities and opened discussions on direct elections, integration and new areas of policy coordination. This momentum in the run-up to the first European elections, triggered the creation of the European party federations (main ones were: the European People’s Party, the European Liberals and the European Socialists) envisaged as additional bodies that would coordinate with the national parties to help their campaigns prior to the first elections of 1978/9. The elections were finally held on 7–10 June 1979, electing 410 members.

The disenchantment

Against expectations, people voted predominantly with national criteria rather than having in mind the future of the European Communities. They rewarded or punished incumbent national government parties rather than expressing their views on the future of the continent. The theory that best captured the outcome of the first European elections was the ‘second-order national election’ model developed by two German political scientists, Reif and Schmitt. It contends that smaller parties do better in European elections and government parties experience losses, marking a difference between sincere and protest voting. No change in government occurs regardless of the result, thus people exercise different and looser voting criteria than at national elections, something that also explains the lower turn-out.

Between 1979 and 2009, EU underwent an unprecedented political and economic transformation. The enlargement of EU to Eastern Europe, the launch of the Treaty of Maastricht and the introduction of the single currency, brought changes to our daily lives. Yet, the 2009 European elections still followed the same voting pattern with the 1979 elections; The electorate voted with the national context in mind.

The core arguments of the second-order model have been confirmed in repeated elections. Are there any significant changes in the EU as we head towards the 2014 european elections? Yes there are, at least three:

a) Greater Euroscepticism

The ongoing financial crisis has dominated the political agenda in most, if not all, Member States of the EU. This will influence the electoral behaviour at the upcoming European election in various ways. The impact of the crisis is Union wide, but more severe in the eurozone club. The economic crisis brought substantial consequences in European integration. The Member States acquired new roles: from being partners in the EU, some of them became lenders of billions of euros to other Member States. The influence this crisis will have on voting behaviour of EU citizens as a whole is dubious, because of divergent trends in different countries and deficiencies of historical precedents.

Member states that affected the most from the economic crisis, such as Greece, recorded a steep rise of Euroscepticism. According to various surveys, the overall approval rates of the EU dropped dramatically in the post-crisis period.

In creditor Member States, domestic opposition to the ‘bail-outs’ constituted a factor of the ascent of Euroscepticism and affected votes in the national parliaments, which have been conducted under intense media scrutiny. In debtor Member States, Euroscepticism has risen as a result of the pressure exercised by lending institutions (troika) over fiscal adjustment programmes, which include severe austerity measures implemented through the conditionality principle.

b) Greater politicisation

A parallel trend is the substantial increase in the politicisation of the EU, thus increasing the levels of public attention paid to its decisions and its crisis management. It has been argued (Follesdal & Hix) that European politicians will work towards predefined policy goals and, at the end of their mandate, citizens will either re-elect them or replace them. It has also been argued (Bartolini) that politicisation ‘may increase the imbalance between prospects and achievements, generate disillusionment, discontent and frustration at a level higher than those existing now’. Current developments seem to reinforce the main thesis of both arguments. Politicisation has grown dramatically, but at the same time uncertainty, tension and Euroscepticism have emerged. The two phenomena are obviously related, but not in a “cause and effect” relation. This implies that we cannot predict the impact on Euroscepticism in case the crisis is averted or exacerbated in the next 6 to 18 months.The opinion polls on the upcoming German federal elections and the standpoint of European public opinion over the two main contenders for the chancellery demonstrate the increased politicisation. The management of the euro crisis has become a competitive advantage for the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel over her adversary Peer Steinbrück, giving her the lead in the approval ratings. However, this example does not imply that the same effect can be observed throughout the eurozone, much less throughout the EU.

c) The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty

The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, and particularly Article 17(7) concerning the appointment of the president of the European Commission in accordance with the outcome of the European election, is expected to affect the electoral behaviour of voters and parties alike. On all previous electoral procedures, the link between people’s vote and an actual political change in Europe was not visible, so only national criteria prevailed. The 2014 elections will be the first to test the effectiveness of this institutional reform. It is therefore impossible to estimate the effectiveness of the reform in raising European awareness of both parties and voters.

Possible scenarios

Since the elections will take place in about nine months from now, the evolution of the crisis in the eurozone is a key factor in assessing parties’ and voters’ strategies for their campaign. We put forward three scenarios showing divergent trends and we prepared the following three figures in order to visualise the answer to the main question of this article.

Figure 1: Scenarios based on the pro-european or anti-european agenda of the political parties

Source: Graph by author.

Figure 2; Scenarios based on European or nationally oriented campaign manifestos of the political parties

Source: Graph by author.

Figure 3: Scenarios based on electoral gains or losses for political parties

Source: Graph by author.

1) Scenario A

The situation in a year from now will be much worse, with the eurozone and the EU falling deeper into a new cycle of recession and a downward economic spiral. Uncertainty about the future will prevail among the electorate. On average we would expect voters to blame pro-European parties for the problem and express this disappointment at the ballot box. In this scenario mainstream opposition parties are expected to put their electoral manifestos away from pro-European views and place more emphasis on minimising the negative consequences of the crisis for their respective country (Figures 1–2). Mainstream opposition parties, are expected to diverge more from government parties and adopt more neutral views on Europe, in order to minimise their electoral losses. On the other hand anti-systemic, populist and anti-European parties, from both the left and the right, are expected to sharpen their anti-European positioning, but talk more on European issues, as this will be the Achilles heel of the parties in office and mainstream parties in general (Figure 1-2). Finally, in this scenario we anticipate that systemic pro-European parties will suffer bigger electoral losses to the benefit of the anti-systemic and populist parties. Mainstream opposition parties’ results will depend on their stance against the escalation of the crisis and will vary from country to country (Figure 3).

2) Scenario B

As the European election approaches, the crisis will neither deteriorate nor subside and things will be about the same. In this case, mainstream parties, both in office and in opposition, are expected to talk less about Europe and more along national lines, emphasising protection from the negative consequences of the crisis (Figure 1-2). Mainstream opposition parties will not be as pro-European as the parties in office when in outlining the risks associated with severe economic imbalances. Radical parties will strengthen their anti-European stand. Ultimately, losses are anticipated for mainstream parties and gains anticipated for anti-systemic parties (Figure 3).

3) Scenario C

Lastly, this scenario describes a positive outcome: Member States in adjustment programmes will return to positive growth rates, and the respective societies will feel that the worst has been left behind. This will dramatically affect the position of national parties regarding the main question of this article. In this scenario national parties in office are expected to be more pro-European, underlining that ‘more Europe’ is the best solution to the crisis. Their implemented political platform will be promoted in the campaigns as ‘success stories’ (Figures 1-2). Mainstream opposition parties will probably copy government parties in their pro-European electoral tone, but they will try to move the agenda towards national issues, as they have done in past European elections. Anti-European parties will moderate their anti-European positioning, by emphasising persistent national problems and putting forward a more nationally oriented campaign (Figures 1-2). Electoral gains for systemic parties will be dependent on other nationally driven criteria, and it will be hard to assess the voting behaviour of citizens towards the anti-European parties (Figure 3). In scenario C, the analysis of the electoral results of the 2014 European elections is more difficult.

Further to the above, the persisting declining trend in voter turn-out, may be reversed for the first time, as public interest has increased as a result of the politicisation and the Euroscepticism that have been intensified by the crisis. This is estimated to be the case regardless of which scenario materialises.

To conclude, from the above analysis we predict an emerging new divergence in the EU. The crisis is driven by increasing levels of interdependence among EU Member States, both institutional and economic, while national electorates are demanding more national solutions from their governments. The growing Europeanisation of problems co-exists with the growing nationalisation of voters’ preferences. This phenomenon describes a possible new institutional crisis in the EU. So, the emergence of this crisis has put the EU on a new, uncharted path that requires research in new directions, and the upcoming elections will most likely provide a departure point from previous analyses on the subject.

* Michalis Peglis is a Public Policy Advisor, Research Associate at the Centre for European Studies in Brussels and Visiting Researcher at the Centre for National Strategic Studies in Shanghai ([email protected]).