Electoral turnout has been declining in all European parliamentary elections since 1979. This is part of a general decline in voter turnout across the western world. Political science research suggests that young people and those on low-incomes are less inclined to vote. This is the opposite for middle aged, middle-income earners. Middle-income voters are the core electoral constituent for most parties across member-states of the EU. This is an important observation. Until now, the young and precarious have been most affected by declining economic and employment performance in Europe. But at the same time they are also less inclined to vote.
Will this change in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis?
The 2014 European parliamentary elections are likely to be the most important in the history of the EU. It is the first time the parliament will nominate the President of the Commission. This is the chief executive of the supranational ‘government’ of the EU, with a lot of influence over the policy agenda of European politics and policy. 751 MEPs will be elected by a population of 505 million people. A lot of polling evidence suggests that Eurosceptic parties, of both the populist left and right, will make significant gains. This is probably true. But it is not likely to impact on the emergence and dominance of the two main competing party groups in the parliament: the center-right (European Peoples Party, EPP) and the center-left (the Socialists and Social Democrats, S&D). Currently the EPP look set to win the majority.
In Ireland, the party and political grouping of individual candidates in Europe has not become politicized. The electorate will continue to vote for their MEP on the basis of national party affiliation. Fine Gael (FG), are active members of the center-right conservative grouping (EPP). This means that they will support Jean Claude Junker as President, which is a vote for maintaining the status quo – austerity. Hence even if voters choose FG on the basis of national policies and personalities, these generally fit the policy preference of the EPP. Labour are members of the S&D, and will support Martin Schulz. This means Labour will be supporting a policy platform that differs from what they have been implementing as a junior coalition partner.
The big winner in Ireland, if recent polls are correct, will be Sinn Fein (SF). They are part of the United Left-Nordic Green Alliance (ULG). The Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance, and Socialist Workers Party/People Before Profit Alliance are also part of this network. SF and the ULG will support Alexis Tspiras for the Presidency of the EU Commission. Tsipras is pro-EU but opposed to the ‘neoliberal-monetarist’ structures of the European response to the crisis, and is calling for a radical overhaul of austerity driven policies within member-states. Their target constituent is not stable middle-income earners but the unemployed and those in precarious work.
This is not that different from the policy platform of SF at home. Again, even though the Irish electorate will vote SF for domestic reasons, it won’t be that far away from what Alexis Tsipras or the ULG are articulating at the European level. This is certainly an anti-austerity vote but that’s hardly an indicator for anti-EU populism? In local politics, where SF is most active, their representatives are generally perceived and rewarded for being active problem-solvers not personality driven populists. This is often overlooked by conventional media analysis.
Fianna Fail are members of the liberal and democratic alliance (ALDE). This is a socially liberal group with a strong preference for open markets and de-regulation. FF will support the ALDE leader, Guy Verhofstadt, for the presidency. He gives ultimate priority to the single-market. There is not much policy cohesion between FF and the ALDE. FF are an anti-choice party on issues such as abortion, but have internalized the liberal polices of their previous coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats (PD’s), on the economy. Hence, a domestic vote for FF probably doesn’t reflect what FF voters would want articulated at the international level in Europe.
However, these European parliamentary elections are not just about electing the President of the Commission. The European parliament has its own internal dynamic, particularly in relation to its complex policy committees. The new co-decision making procedure instituted after Lisbon gives the parliament co-legislative rights with the EU Council. It is in the committee structure and informal networks that will matter most in day-to-day European public policy. Quite unlike what occurs at the local level in personality driven Irish politics, problem-solving effectiveness becomes a virtue. MEPs with expertise in environmental planning to financial regulation will have plenty of opportunities to assert their authority.
In this regard, if Ireland sends back more SF MEPs, which will increase Irish support for the United Left Group in the European parliament, it will mark quite a significant change from the past. European policymakers are generally used to dealing with center-right politicians that are reluctant to challenge the ideological consensus, not least in relation to monetary and fiscal affairs, employment and social rights, and narratives surrounding the origins and policy response to the crisis . This would no longer be the case. SF would be opposing the Irish government and EU Council via the EU, local and national Parliament.
SF look increasingly set to occupy the oppositional space in Irish politics not so much because they are populist but because they represent (and supply) some sense of alternative to an increasingly volatile electorate. Isolating everything outside the political centre as populist is a mistake. There is simply no comparison between Izquierda Unida in Spain, Gilders in the Netherlands, SF in Ireland or UKIP in Britain. It is too early to tell but what might shape the outcome of these elections is the young rejecting the politics of the old. This will be a rejection of the policy narrative that ‘there is no alternative’.