This blog post is the fourth in a series of posts that come from students of our Politics of the European Union undergraduate course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to European integration. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of Europe, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience. The upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections of May 2014, the 8th direct elections for the institution, are, Francis (2014: 4) argues, the most important elections to date. The powers of the Parliament have increased since the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty in late 2009, and the Parliament now has the power to nominate candidates for President of the Commission. This means that for the first time citizens of the European Union (EU) will have an indirect say in who controls the executive (Francis: 2014: 4). However, trust of the EU has declined to 31% (Eurobarometer 80, p.6) (fig.1) and turnout has been in steady decline since the first direct election in 1979, reaching an all-time low of 43% in 2009 (Pirro, 2014: 15). Moreover, it is very likely that a large eurosceptic group will be elected, due to the on-going economic and euro-zone crisis, which could potentially affect the way the Parliament does business. Some argue that the elections could turn into a referendum on the EU (Piedrafta & Renman 2014, 29). The European Parliament website argues that ‘this time it’s different’ (http://www.elections2014.eu/en, accessed 1/03/2014, 19:01) and the context of the elections certainly indicates that there could be a deviation from what we have come to expect from EP elections.
Figure 1: Decline in trust of the EU (source: Eurobarometer).
The elections were originally introduced to narrow the democratic deficit and give legitimacy to the EU. However, they have been reduced to mid-term popularity tests for the national governments (Corbett, 1998: 50-6). EP elections have often been seen as second-order national contests because ‘the Nation state is still the most important arena of politics in Western Europe.’ (Reif, 1985: 2) This means that they are considered less salient than national elections and people tend to vote on national issues rather than European issues. This has several consequences, including low turnout, national governing parties losing out as a result of punishment and smaller parties tending to gain (Hix & Marsh, 2007: 496-501). Hix and Marsh’s (2007: 507, 495) results indicate that voters use the EP elections to punish their national government rather than protest against the EU, and that increases in anti-EU feeling ‘remain exceptional rather than systematic.’ They also found that a party’s position on Europe was largely irrelevant to their performance in the election. This second-order theory also suggests that voters will abandon strategic voting to vote more sincerely and the level of punishment that a government receives depends on when in the national electoral cycle the EP elections take place (Hobolt et al., 2009: 94). The elections are normally considered less important by many political actors and voters alike, which means many people will simply not bother to turn out, or take the opportunity to give the national government a warning, rather than vote on European issues (Reif, 1985: 9). They might also use the elections as an opportunity to register their dislike for the EU (Ford et al., 2012: 226).
Figure 2: Negative and Positive views of the EU (source: Eurobarometer).
What will this mean for the elections in May? Piedrafita and Renman (2014: 24) argue that it is likely that turnout will further decrease because of a lack of interest and information, and because support for the EU has declined. However, even if a substantial group of eurosceptics is elected, making it more difficult for mainstream parties to form a winning coalition, it is unlikely that the eurosceptics will be able to organize themselves into one group (Piedrafita & Renman, 2014: 29). For example, while the French eurosceptic party, Front National, polled first in an October 2013 opinion poll (Pertusot &Rittelmeyer, 2014: 4), they have already managed to alienate other populist parties because of their anti-Semitic reputation (Piedrafita & Renman, 2014: 29). Additionally, Eurobarometer figures (fig. 2) indicate that sceptics are still in the minority even in the most euroseceptic of countries (Pirro, 2014: 16). Although, what may be significant is that the eurosceptics could comprise a large number of MEPs who would be pre-disposed to reject many of the proposals made by the Commission which could hinder the ability of the Parliament to pass legislation. Stratulat & Emmanouilidis (2013: 9-10) argue that in order to change the narrative of the EP elections, the pro-EU parties must explain to the electorate why the EU matters and dismantle the myths which are put forward by the anti-EU parties. However, there is little indication that this will happen as it is just over 2 months until the election and as of yet very little is visible in mainstream media. Since the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty there has been considerable extension in powers of the Parliament, most notably the increased use of the ordinary legislative procedure, which increases the importance of the Parliament to almost level with the Council (Piedrafita, 2014). However, as Adshed and Hill note, many people do not know or care enough about the EU to engage (2005: 538). Eurobarometer data indicates that people would be more likely to vote if they were better informed about the functioning of the Parliament and the EU as a whole (Stratulat & Emmanouilidis, 2013: 3), which shows that the ‘knowledge gap’ is a barrier to breaking the trend of second-order elections. In conclusion, while the upcoming EP elections are novel, with the rise of the eurosceptic vote in the on-going financial crisis, it seems unlikely that they will stimulate the average voter to engage. Protest voters are much more likely to vote than those in the mainstream (Stratulat & Emmanouilidis, 2013: 7-8) and knowledge about the functioning of the EU is still very low. Therefore it appears likely that turnout will be at an all time low and the elections will continue to follow the second-order national election trend. While the European Parliament hopes that ‘this time will be different’, it seems unlikely that it will be, at least, not the way they might like.
Eleanor Hayden is a final year History and Politics student at University College Dublin. She grew up in Brussels where she attended a European School. Her area of interests include Conflict Resolution and Genocide in which she intends to pursue further studies.