The electorate send out a confusing message.
With the dust now settled on the 2009 elections to the European Parliament – the would be second largest exercise of democracy in the world – it is clear what the electorate want out of their leaders in response to the economic crisis, but less clear what they want out of Europe.
The centre-right EPP grouping in the Parliament made significant gains at the expense of the Socialist (PSE) group, who lost a quarter of their MEPs. Indeed it appears voters rewarded centre-right governments across the EU for their governance at a time when many had expected socialists – who promised retribution for greedy bankers and statist protection from the ravages of the recession – to benefit from the crisis in capitalism.
In Germany Angela Merkel’s CDU, as well as Nicholas Sarkozy’s Gaullists in Frnace (both centre-right), performed well against their socialist/social-democrat counterparts, with the French Parti Socialiste (PS) loosing a staggering 13 MEPs.
The governing centre-left Labour party in Britain suffered the loss of 5 seats, 2 of which at the expense of the racist British National Party. British Conservatives (centre-right) returned 26 MEPs, one up on last time. And this is where one can begin to unpick the analysis of the media’s various talking heads. For the Conservatives effectively maintained status quo and did not benefit greatly against Labour. This suggests that voters did not want to invest their trust in a centre-right party to take them through the recession (as many commentators suggested of the election results), but still wanted to punish the government, who they blame for it. Indeed, the expenses scandal currently plaguing British deputies of all parties was a distorting factor, but if one looks at results in France and the Czech republic, a similar picture emerges.
In the Czech republic, the opposition Social Democrats made enormous gains, increasing their delegation from 2 seats to 7. The national ODS government has recently collapsed and as a centre-right party did not make any gains in the European elections. Having had to be recently replaced by a technocratic government led by the country’s leading statistician, ODS could by no means be judged to have effectively managed the recession. Again the voters punished whom they viewed responsible for these harsh times and did not make ideological choices on which party would be best to take the country through the recession.
The Social Democrats in Sweden faired well also, having recovered their popularity from the 2004 European elections. They are currently in opposition to a coalition government of four centre-right parties (which won power in 2006).
Conversely, in France Sarkozy spent the campaign blaming the “Anglo-Saxon model of business” for creating the financial collapse, rather than domestic factors. Neither he, nor his right wing party, were generally perceived to be at fault for the recession, therefore the electorate rewarded him, feeling his government could manage the downturn.
This shows that voters are not conciously choosing the centre-right to guide them through the recession (indeed the EPP has far from a working majority and will still need to co-operate with both the PSE and the Liberals to pass legislation), but rather voting for whoever they feel has managed the recession well and punishing those who haven’t.
Unfortunately, this does not account for the turnout, – at around 43% – the lowest ever for a European election. Indeed it has been a successively lower figure at every election since direct sufferage in 1979, but again, this blanket figure does not take account of all the facts.
Turnout was higher in Western member states. Indeed in the UK, turnout – at 34% – was higher than three previous election years, including in 1999. It was low (but only lower in some cases) in Eastern Europe, such as Latvia – with 21%. The general trend in the UK of low and lower turnout correlates with trends in local and UK elections, as indeed it does in many other EU memeber states. So what does this voter apathy mean? The Economist’s Charlemagne feels this means a fundamental change is needed in how the EU’s 500 million citizens are democratically represented at a European level. But this conclusion is based on the premis of chronically falling voter turnout and, as shown above, this is simply not true.
The answer from Brussels is often more money, more news coverage and more powers for the Parliament. But, the sad truth is that European issues are never going to be as interesting to voters as their national issues, as a Parliament which does not form a government will never be as exciting. This failure to create a European demos is bemoaned by Graham Watson, a Lib Dem MEP and leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, who again calls for the creation of pan-European parties. But again the evidence is against him, as the PSE, whose constituent national parties made much of running on the same manifesto and platform across Europe were rejected by voters as opposed to the centre-right parties who were far better at exploiting national issues in this election.
Therefore we are at a conumdrum. And one which will need a pretty original idea to solve.