When Voters Yawn in Anger

by Forrest Barnum // Published June 8, 2009
The results of the European Parliament (EP) elections are known; the projections I referenced previously have largely been born out. Although some far-right parties -- particularly the British National Party (BNP), the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), and the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ)-- obtained impressive results while other rightist parties including the Belgian Vlaams Belang (VB) and the French Front National (FN) lost a significant amount of support. Generally speaking, groups to the right-of-center did somewhat better than expected, while those to the left-of-center suffered disappointments. However, these broad trends hide some important information. While the Party of European Socialists (PES) -- which includes the Labour Party in the UK -- lost significant ground nearly everywhere across Europe, the European Green Party increased from 41 seats in a temporarily expanded 785-member parliament to 50 seats in the new 736-seat body.

There are three broad conclusions that I draw from these results, first, despite all the media attention on the victories by the right, the ideological composition of the EP has changed only modestly:

2004 Proportion of Seats by Group (732 Seats) 2009 Proportion of Seats by Group (736 Seats)
EPP-ED (Pro-European Center-Right): 277 Seats (38% share) EPP-ED: 267 Seats (36.2% share)
PES (Center-Left, Socialists): 198 Seats (27% share) PES: 184 Seats (25% share)
ALDE (Liberals): 66 Seats (9% share) ALDE: 85 Seats (11.5% share)
GUE/NGL (Far-Left): 41 Seats (6% share) New Conservative Group (Old UEN): 58 Seats (7.9% share)
Greens: 40 Seats (5.5% share) Greens: 50 Seats (6.8% share)
UEN (Euro-Skeptic, Center-Right and Right): 27 Seats (3.7% share) GUE/NGL: 34 Seats (4.6% share)
EDD (Euro-Skeptic, now defunct): 15 Seats (2% share) ID (Euro-Skeptic): 27 (3.7% share)
Non-Aligned: 68 Seats (9.3% share) Non-Aligned: 32 Seats (4.2% share)
These results show that victory and defeat are murkier concepts than many in the media suppose. The mainstream Conservative group 'won' and the Socialists 'lost' though both caucuses saw a roughly 2% share of total seats trickle elsewhere. Euro-skeptic gains occurred largely because the mainstream Czech Obcanská Demokratická Strana (ODS) Polish Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) and British Conservative Parties left the pro-Europe EPP-ED to form a centrist anti-EU grouping.

Second, the real winner in the election was diversity, while the main centrist groups lost modestly, the Greens, Liberals, and Euro-Skeptics all added seats. While prognosticators bemoan the extremist views of some MEPs, they overlook the potential benefits of including unorthodox views. If the elections were carried out under First-Past-the-Post with the intention of preventing parties like the BNP etc. from winning seats (a dubious prospect given that the BNP has won FPTP seats in local elections, would Euro-Skeptics be satisfied? Somewhat ironically, by campaigning for and holding office in the European Parliament, skeptics legitimize the institution they so despise. In principal, this view of Europe is not an illegitimate political discourse; problems arise when that discourse is a small part of a far-right nativist program, as often occurs in EU elections.

Thirdly, there is a real problem with EP elections, turnout continues to fall (going from 45.47% in 2004 to 42.94% today) and extremist voices have become more prominent, if not vastly more popular. I share the view that the opacity of European institutions is the single largest contributor to this problem. Several solutions have been mooted about, ranging from reform to the elimination of the EP and the transfer of its powers to national governments. This conversation needs to happen, or the very real problems facing the union will continue to hold it back.

A final issue concerns the sub-national nature of these elections. In Britain, the poll was largely seen a referendum on the unpopular governing Labour Party, in Germany as a foreshadowing of general elections to be held in the fall, and in Spain as a slap to a government presiding over the highest unemployment rate in Europe. There were no Europe-wide issues or campaigns, suggesting that the European Union has not yet (and may never) become a cohesive polity. While the results will scarcely change the dynamics in the European Parliament, the obvious discontent of the voters has expressed itself in a limited amount of extremism and a great deal of abstention. Europe's system of proportional voting has allowed dissafected voters a voice, leaders should listen to them or risk remaining becalmed in the face of their furious apathy.