By Jean Pisani-Ferry
At the end of May, 400 million EU citizens will be called to participate in the second-largest direct election in the world (the first being held in India). Since they last went to the polls to elect their parliament, in 2009, Europe has gone through an acute crisis that precipitated several countries deeper into recession than any peacetime shock they had suffered for a century. In several of the continent’s regions, more than a fourth of the labour force is unemployed. Over the last five years, the crisis has exposed many weaknesses in the design of the euro area and there has been no shortage of heated policy debates about the nature of the systemic reforms that were required. In the same vein, both the European Central Bank’s response and the pace of fiscal consolidation have been matters for ongoing controversies.
Against this background, one could expect political parties to offer clearly defined alternative choices for the future of Europe and citizens to participate to the elections en masse – even more so because the next parliament will have a say in the selection of the coming European Commission, the EU’s executive body. Expectations, however, are uniformly grim. Last time the election was held, turnout was 43% only. It is anticipated that it will be low again and that fringe national parties will be significant winners in the election. Throughout Europe, mainstream politicians are preparing for a setback. Some foresee a disaster.
There are three reasons for this paradox. First, citizens do not grasp what the European parliament is about. It is, in fact, an active and thorough legislator. Over the last five years, it has for example been an energetic player in the elaboration of a regulatory response to the global financial crisis and a staunch protector of European consumer. Recently it has played a major role in the creation of a banking union in the EU. But it is rarely the place where the debates that define the political agenda and capture the citizens’ attention are held.
Second, dividing lines within parliament are often national rather than political. On industrial policy, trade and regulation, as well as far as relationships with neighbours are concerned, which country you belong to matters as much as which camp you are from. Consequently, issues are often settled with a compromise that blurs the separation between left and right. As in addition virtually all the media are national and generally pitch the debate as opposing the national capital and ‘Brussels’ or another capital, voters have no perception of the sometimes very real differences between left and right.
Third, the fundamental European debate is of a constitutional nature and for this reason it cannot be settled by the parliament. This is true of the key issues that arose during the euro crisis: whether to rescue countries in trouble, whether to mutualise public debt, whether to change the decision rule for sanctions against excessive budget deficits, whether to go for a banking union. Each time the big question was, what do Germany, France and other Eurozone countries think? It was not what does the European parliament think, because almost by definition the parliament has always been in favour of more Europe.
These three obstacles to a pan-European political debate explain why fringe anti-EU parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), or the French National Front generally do well in the European parliament elections. Their simple message is that European integration is the wrong way to go and that national governments should repatriate powers from Brussels. As the scope for disagreement between the two main centre-right and centre-left parties is much narrower than the range of views amongst voters, voters who have sympathy for the anti-EU know why and for whom they should vote while those who are in favour of European integration do not have many reasons to vote, because the mainstream parties’ platforms are largely interchangeable.
To overcome the obstacle, a recent reform has stipulated that when appointing the European Commission’s president, the heads of state and government should take into account the result of the elections to the European parliament. In principle therefore, the next European Commission president will belong to the party holding the (relative) majority in the European parliament. Furthermore, the main parties have already nominated their candidates to the European Commission. This politicisation is meant to flag to the citizens that their vote matters and will result in determining the roadmap for the next five years. Unfortunately however, it is not clear whether mainstream parties will be able to formulate policy platforms that are defined enough to attract voters.
Does it matter? After all Europe’s situation is not unique. In the US participation rates in the mid-term elections (when the presidency is not in the ballot) are generally well below 50%. They are also rather low in other federations like India or Switzerland. As Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the US House, used to say, “all politics is local” and this affects the voters’ behaviour. Europe, in a way, is awkward, but normal: the EU does the legislation, but politics is national.
This is however a too complacent reading of the reality. At a time when countries participating in the euro are confronted with major choices, the risk for Europe is to emerge from the elections with a weak legitimacy (because of the turnout) and a politically distorted parliament (because of the strong showing of the fringe parties). This would make governments wary of bold choices and could result in an unhealthy stalemate. It is not yet time for the EU to become boringly normal.
Jean Pisani-Ferry currently serves as the Commissioner-General for Policy Planning to the Prime Minister of France. He is also Professor of Economics and Public Management at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Until May 2013 he was the director of Bruegel, the Brussels-based economic think tank he contributed to founding in 2005. He is the author of The Euro Crisis and Its Aftermath.
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Image credit: The European Parliament, Brussels. Photo by Alina Zienowicz. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons