Tue, May 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Election sees established powers fall away

By Andrew Hammond

Sunday night’s results from the high-turnout European Parliament elections, the biggest multinational election in the world, saw gains for anti-integration parties, but also centrist liberals and greens, too.

In what will be widely perceived as a referendum on the six-decade integration project of the Brussels-based club, there was a mixed message from voters resulting in a more fragmented political landscape that will help set the EU political agenda into the 2020s.

Yet, the ballot is not just important for the future of the continent, but also the rest of the world, too, given that the 28-member EU remains an economic superpower with its collective GDP paralleling that of the US, and remaining larger than that of China.

It is also the world’s biggest exporter with the scores of nations for which Europe is their leading trade partner, ranging from China in Asia to Brazil in South America.

Building on the results of the 2014 parliamentary elections, and national elections across the continent, euroskeptic parties made clear gains in some nations, including the extreme right: the League in Italy, Fidesz in Hungary and the UK’s Brexit Party.

Yet at the same time, the centrist, pro-EU Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe also won many seats too, buoyed by the addition of French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche to its group.

Clear losers were the two largest “status quo” parties — the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Indeed, these groups have lost their, collective, previous majority of seats, which could have a significant impact on parliamentary proceedings given that the two have previously helped push most legislation through.

Take the example of Germany, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats got 28 percent of the vote — its worst-ever performance in European elections. The center-left Social Democrats also did poorly, coming third with 16 percent.

The weak results for EPP and S&D reflects the very clear disenchantment of millions of people against the “status quo” in Brussels. This has been driven by a wide range of factors, not just popular discontent with growing European integration.

Broader issues include deep disquiet with long-established national political parties and systems, concern over immigration, and discontent over the post-2008 economic downturn and subsequent austerity measures.

Yet, despite this context, and the high profile that euroskeptics enjoyed in this year’s elections, there will be disappointment that more gains have not been secured by anti-integrationists. Part of the reason for this was the marshaling of centrist, liberal forces, including by the strongly pro-EU Macron, who depicted the contest as a choice for or against Europe.

Macron also successfully sought to capitalize on the fact that Eurobarometer surveys last year found more people than ever consider their nation’s membership of the EU to be a good thing (62 percent).

This was the highest figure in a quarter of a decade, with 68 percent of people believing that their nation has benefited from EU membership.

Another striking element of the elections was the relatively high average turnout of 50.5 percent of the 350 million electorate. This 20-year high figure comes in the context of previous major voter discontent and apathy in European Parliament ballots that has been fueled by the fact that the parliament, specifically, is generally not trusted by many in the continent for whom Brussels seems very remote to their day-to-day lives.

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