Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Unusual European Election

This post was originally published on Diplomatist Online in May 2014.

by Neil Vander Most

The month of May will witness the first European parliamentary elections to follow new rules instated
by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. These new rules, in combination with a surging support for far right parties, could create an unusually competitive political environment, normally found only at the national level, and could have important repercussions for decision-making in the European Parliament, believes Neil Vander Most

This is an election year in Europe, with a new round of European Parliament (EP) elections taking place in late May. These elections will have special significance, as they are the first parliamentary elections to follow the new rules instated by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. These new rules, in combination with a surging support for far right parties, should create an unusually competitive political environment normally found only at the national level. Together, these two changes may carry important repercussions for decision-making in the European Parliament, including the disruption of a long-standing peace between its two largest parties.

The European Parliament has two broad, powerful coalition parties: the centre-right ‘European People’s Party’ (EPP) and centre-left ‘Party of European Socialists’ (PES). These two groups frequently compete in a close race to acquire the most votes in this proportionally representative legislature. While the EPP has retained its plurality in recent polling, support for the party is far below its 2009 levels, giving the socialists a good chance to gain control of the Parliament for the first time in two decades. The decline in the EPP’s fortunes can be attributed to many outcomes, the most important of which includes dissatisfaction with the current global economic crisis. Lisbon’s rule changes could give this dissatisfaction the ability to reverberate throughout the EU’s institutional structure.

Lisbon Brings New Challenges

Under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, the Council’s nomination of the President of the European Commission must “take into account” the results of the recent EP elections. While it remains unclear how this will translate into practice, the head of the party that successfully forms a majority is expected to be the nominee for President. This expectation is based upon uncodified interpretations of the Lisbon Treaty which have been challenged by national elites, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Until a precedent or operational norm is set, what “taking account” of the results from the EP elections means, will remain a source of uncertainty.

Beyond issues in implementation, the new rules of the Lisbon Treaty may also change the political atmosphere of the EU. Since its inception, the European Commission has been tasked with the wellbeing of the European Union as a whole. The election of the President of the Commission will decrease the Council’s input on the position and create new ties between the Commission and the EP.

These new ties could dramatically influence the character of the Commission. If the new president prioritises loyalty to the Commission and its ideals, there may be no observable change to the behaviour of this institution. However, if the new president prioritises the needs of his party in Parliament, this could politicise the Commission – historically a relatively neutral organisation with loyalties to Europe over party or nation. Any hints of the elected President favouring Parliament or his political party would dramatically increase the importance of future EP elections. The potential benefits of capturing the immense power of the European Commission would be too great for private interests and their lobbyists to neglect.

Complications from the Far Right 

This increase in stakes has not made it any simpler to pinpoint a winner in this upcoming election. This is largely due to smaller parties having unusually small shares of the vote, with the exceptions being the Socialists and their leftist allies, the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). Most of their votes have been going to an unusual group within the Parliament, the NI (Non-Inscrits, or in English, the Non-Attached Members). This group is primarily composed of representatives from Europe’s increasingly popular family of far right parties, which have seen a spike in popularity as dissatisfaction with the economic crisis and austerity measures led by the European Union has grown. While austerity’s effect was less pronounced during the 2009 EP election, its realities are much more apparent now. Europe’s far right parties seem to be the only viable alternatives to the European project. While many citizens vote for far right parties as an endorsement of their xenophobic ideologies, many more are using them as protest votes.

The NI will play an important role in establishing the majority needed to nominate the President of the European Commission. Normally, decisions are made using the “grand coalition” between the EPP on the right and PES on the left. However, the appointment of the President of the European Commission cannot easily be negotiated over, as it is but one position. The EPP and PES normally share the position of President of the European Parliament, dividing the term into halves. The increased competition over this appointment has pushed the parties to field prestigious candidates such as the former prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Paul Juncker for the EPP and prominent German politician Martin Schulz for the PES. If tension rises between the EPP and PES, the formation of future “grand coalitions” will become more difficult.

The possibility for constrained cooperation between the EPP and PES forces both competitors to look at smaller established parties for possible alliances. However, new coalitions among ideological lines may be insufficient, as many polls suggest neither party can create a necessary majority without including NI members. The likely outcome of this situation will be very fragile coalitions that more closely resemble national legislatures. Far right parties have tried to organise their representatives many times in the European Parliament, but these attempts have been frequently met with failure, including, most recently, the Identity Tradition Sovereignty (ITS) group in 2007.

The weakness of far right parties in the EP is linked to limited leadership personality, internal distrust, ideological incompatibility, and national pressures. The ITS, for example, collapsed due to an intra-leadership personality clash, when a perceived insult caused a crucial Romanian party to withdraw their support. Some might point to the attempts at an alliance between the Dutch “Party for Freedom” and the French “National Front”, especially after their recent successes in the 2014 municipal elections. It could be further argued that the foundations for such an alliance already exist in the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), an organisation of mostly Western-European NI members founded in 2010. The EAF, however, has yet to take part in an election, and it remains uncertain if they can meet the requirements to be officially recognised. If Europe’s far right arranges a unified platform before the elections, this organisation could persuade hesitant voters that their votes are not being wasted or going to overly extreme candidates.

A Minority-Majority? 

It is likely that the EPP will have a dominant role in post-election politics. While its projected margin of victory over the PES is small and easily reversible, even if the PES does manage to attain a plurality, they will have a much harder time than the EPP in securing their majority for the vote for Commission President. The European Parliament only has two other official left-of-centre parties, the GUE/NGL and the Greens-European Free alliance (Greens/EFA). Thus, it is much less likely that these parties will summon the necessary number of votes required for a majority. Assuming that well-established national parliamentary norms apply to the EP, if the PES cannot form a working majority coalition, the EPP will be given a chance to try and form their own majority. The EPP has a more promising range of ideologically compatible options, including the third-largest party and past coalition member, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), two smaller Euro sceptic parties, and the aforementioned non-attached members (NI).

If no coalition can be made without the participation of NI members, observing national cases where the centre and far right were forced to cooperate is helpful. For example, in the aftermath of the Dutch 2010 elections, their centre-right plurality party and its traditional Christian Democratic ally did not have enough votes between them to form a right leaning coalition without some cooperation with Geert Wilder’s aforementioned Party for Freedom (PVV). After a lengthy cabinet formation process, the two centre right parties created a minority cabinet whose stability rested on the tenuous approval of the not officially included, Party for Freedom. The two parties adjusted their positions to satisfy some of the policy demands from PVV, but refused to grant their party members ministerial positions. This arrangement was ultimately unstable and collapsed in 2012.

The European Parliament may follow the Dutch example. The EPP and their traditional ally, ALDE, could negotiate with individual NI members to form the majority required to approve Juncker as their candidate for the President of the European Commission. If the EPP is able to include smaller, established, conservative EU parties, the required number of NI members could be fairly small. Negotiations between the established EU conservative parties, as well as any efforts to reach out to NI members, may signal that the European Parliament is moving towards a “minority cabinet”. Such negotiations could involve trading limited progress on regional ambitions for cooperation during critical votes at the European level, which might be particularly attractive to Western European far right parties like Italy’s Lega Nord, Belgium’s Flemish Interest, or the United Kingdom’s UKIP. Far right parties from Eastern Europe like Greece’s Golden Dawn or Bulgaria’s Attack! Party are likely to be barred from these negotiations, as their very extreme political positions (such as the promotion of violence) make association with them politically dangerous for the centrist EPP and ALDE. It should be well noted that this kind of negotiation with the NI would only occur when cooperation between the EPP and PES is impossible, such as in the election of the Commission President. Cooperation with Western European NI members would likely be viewed as a necessary evil, which would incentivise the EPP to continue their long-standing “grand coalition” arrangement with the socialists whenever possible.

While the far right will do far better than they normally do at the EU level, their lack of organisation and persistent in-fighting would cripple their ambitions and overall role in the EP. The only area of potential influence involves new regulations from the Lisbon Treaty on the nomination of the next Commission President. If the Council allows the Parliament to elect their party leaders as presidential candidates, this would create a situation where the EPP and PES would not cooperate easily. If the EPP wins (or is given the chance to form a majority), they may need to forge agreements with far right party members to elect Juncker to Commission Presidency. In creating this new zero-sum contest over the election of the President of the Commission, the Lisbon Treaty could create incentives for politics in the EP to resemble those typically found at the national level.

Neil Vander Most is Ph D candidate in Political Science at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign. Neil has received multiple competitive Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships from the European Union Center, for the study of Dutch language and European area studies. More information about Neil can be found on his website:


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