The Nationalization and Europeanization of European Elections
by Alexander H. Trechsel
Director European Union Democracy Observatory
30 June 2014
Elections to the European Parliament have traditionally been characterized as “second order events”, that is, elections where little was at stake, as the European Parliament had few powers and the outcome did not lead to government formation. As a consequence, European election campaigns received little attention, parties refrained from investing significant financial and political capital in the elections, small parties would tend to win and parties in government lose. This was true for more than thirty years. But with the combined effect of the Euro crisis, the Great Depression, the massive strengthening of the powers of the European Parliament and the realization, for many citizens, that Europe clearly mattered in their daily lives, this picture has changed. Established parties started to acknowledge that European issues had become salient in the public sphere. And instead of continuously chanting the merits of European integration, they had to face new, anti-European parties, as well as new populist groupings on both the left and right – but above all on the right. By 2014, European integration had become an issue of its own, a dimension of political conflict transcending the partisan landscape. The 2014 EP elections were no longer a second order event. They mattered.
The election outcome is difficult to interpret. True, turnout stopped falling. But then it did not go up either. True, anti-EU forces have gained massively. But their impact on future policy is going to remain limited. True, the EPP comes out as the largest political force in the new Parliament. But the institutional and political “rumble” over the Spitzenkandidaten issue is seen by many as rather unhelpful for the advancement of true European democracy. True, never before have so many parties – over 180 – populated the EP. But fragmentation in the Parliament remains limited thanks to the major parliamentary groups. What is clear, however, is that incumbent parties in national governments did not lose across the board. Of the 28 leading parties in government, only half lost their number one position [their pole position] in the national party landscape. At the same time, losers and winners are distributed differently across the political spectrum. Two-thirds of losing leading parties in government are from the center-left. At the same time, almost two-thirds of all winning parties are located on the center-right. It seems that traditional left-right and pro-anti-EU integration issues counterbalanced the traditional determination to punish national governments. Undeniably, therefore, a certain process of politicization took place, with, as a result, the Europeanization and nationalization of the 2014 European Parliamentary elections.
It is too early to say whether all this is good or bad for Europe. The potential deadlock between the European Council and the Parliament and the uncertainty over who will fill some of the key EU posts does, however, leave some room for pessimism. If until now the European elections were themselves the main crux for European democracy, it is now the management of the aftermath of the elections that becomes both the biggest institutional and political problem.