United Europe as elusive as ever
  • The Statesman
  • 09 Jun 2014
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Arunabha Bagchi

n the shadow of the historic election in India, an uneventful election took place for the European Parliament. The result was dramatic, although far less so than in India. Unlike India, the short-term impact of this result is going to be negligible. The reason is that the European Parliament still enjoys only limited power in the European Union (EU). The long-term effect of this election result is, however, hotly debated in Europe today.
European parliamentary elections are conducted at the level of countries, just as Indian parliamentary elections are conducted at the level of states. The main difference, though, is that the EU elections are based on proportional representation, as opposed to the first-past-the-post system used by us. Even the United Kingdom has to use proportional representation in the EU elections. The latest election was held from 22 to 24 May, with final results announced on 25 May. The real shock of the election results was the dramatic gain in the percentage of votes for the Eurosceptic and far-right parties. These parties are not very cohesive, but they all share in common their hostility to European integration and immigration to Europe of foreigners. They are also rabidly anti-Muslim.
These Eurosceptic and far-right parties are active in all European countries, but they did not do equally well everywhere. There was no marked increase in their influence in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, where they enjoyed considerable strength from time to time in the past. The real surprises this time were in France and England. In both countries, the dominant Eurosceptic and far-right party came out on top in the percentage of votes; and, therefore in the number of seats in the European Parliament. They also did well in Denmark, Austria and Italy.
In France, the extreme-right Front National of Marine Le Pen, daughter of its firebrand founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, came first with 25% of popular votes, capturing 21 of 74 seats allotted to France in the European parliament. The ruling Socialist party got a dismal 14% of votes. Front National is already a force to reckon with in France. They often did spectacularly well in municipal elections. They even caused a sensation in 2002 when they came second in the first round of the Presidential election, although the Socialists then supported the sitting President Jacque Chirac in the final round to ensure the defeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen. But this is the first time that the party actually came out first in a national election in a three-way contest with the two other established parties in France. 
In England, the result was even more startling. The ultra right-wing United Kingdom Independent party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage had never won a single seat in the British Parliament. This time, however, UKIP confounded all pundits by easily winning the European parliamentary election in Great Britain, capturing 27.5% of votes. The Labour Party was in the second place with 25% votes, followed by the Conservatives with a little less than 24%. The only really pro-European Liberal Party came a distant fifth after the Green Party! UKIP even won one seat in the pro-European Scotland, which is holding a referendum this September to become an independent nation. In total, these fringe right-wing parties now have doubled their seats in the European Parliament, and cannot be neglected in the decision making process there any longer.
There was another significant development in this election. It was the first time that three major parties (groups), under whose banner mainstream national parties contested the elections, declared their "spitzenkandidaten' (leading candidates) for the first time. This was important, as it was the first time the European parliamentary election was fought after the Lisbon Treaty came into effect. The Lisbon Treaty makes it mandatory for the European heads of government to "take into account the elections to the European Parliament" before choosing the President of the European Commission. EPP (European People's Party) won the largest number of seats in the European Parliament. They have now 211 sets out of a total of 751 seats, followed by S&D (European Socialists and Democrats) with 193 sears and then by ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) with 74 seats. EPP is definitely going to lay claim to the Presidency of the European Commission for Mr Juncker, their "spitzenkandidaat" in the election. S&D and AlDE, both solidly pro-European, would certainly support that move out of solidarity and with the intention to strengthen the bargaining power of the European Parliament.
This is already ruffling feathers of some European leaders; most notably those of the United Kingdom, Sweden and Hungary. Of these countries, the Conservative Party government of David Cameron of Great Britain is in the most precarious situation after the latest poll results. It is true that fringe parties get protest votes in the European parliamentary elections. If, however, UKIP retains some of its current popularity in the UK general election, it will have disastrous consequence for the Conservative Party. In fact, in the first (informal) gathering of government heads of the EU countries in Brussels after the election, David Cameron is reported to have bluntly told Angela Merkel that any attempt to make Mr Juncker the President of the European Commission would force Britain to hold the promised referendum there on EU membership much earlier than originally planned after the next general election of 2017. He is even reported to have hinted that the UK would then most likely be forced to leave the European Union. The reason is that Mr Juncker, just as the "spitzenkandidaten" of S&D and ALDE, are die-hard pro-Europeans. Angela Merkel, on the other hand, has belatedly decided to throw her weight behind Mr Juncker who belongs to her own party in the European Parliament. The chaos in Europe is now complete.
The main reason of Europe's dilemma is that the European Union project had no democratic support at the popular level from the very beginning. It was conceived by the political elites of some core countries to recover economically from the ravages of wars that plagued Europe for centuries, culminating in catastrophic loss of human lives during the two World Wars of the last century. They thought of devising a mechanism to rid Europe of perennial warfare. Ordinary people could not get over their centuries old reflexes of petty nationalism and emotionally accept themselves as Europeans. The elite politicians went ahead anyway, using the argument that all sophisticated decisions of people's representatives in a democracy should not be made by referenda. The disconnect between the people and the politicians is borne out by the incredibly low turnout for the European parliamentary elections. In national elections, the turnout in European countries is nearly 80%, while in the European parliamentary elections it remains stuck at about 43%. The expectation that the announcement of "spitzenkandidaten" would arouse enthusiasm among ordinary Europeans for the election has been, alas, sadly belied. United Europe continues to remain a distant dream!

The writer is former dean and emeritus professor of applied mathematics at the University of Twente,  The Netherlands.

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