What Do the European Union Election Results Mean?

We learned five important things from the elections to the European Parliament whose votes are still being counted this morning:

1. Protest parties critical of the status quo in Brussels did very well, as expected…  but not well enough to upset the fundamental balance of power in Brussels
2. The elections may slow the movement of power to the Parliament
3. The Italian government was substantially bolstered by the results
4. The French and UK governments were weakened a bit
5. Most other governments avoided serious new problems

Protest Parties Won About a Quarter of the Seats

Protest parties critical of European institutions did very well, as everyone knew they would. This is mostly bad news, as these parties often espouse radical views that smack of fascism, old-style communism, or racism and should not have a place at the center of a modern Europe.

But it Could Have Been A Lot Worse

This could have been a lot worse and I do not agree with some of the analysis that uses terms such as “earthquake” to describe the result. I do not see the outcome as fundamentally reshaping the political situation in Europe and it seems very likely that this is the high water mark for the protests parties. The next such election in five years should be in a considerably more favorable environment for Europe, cutting down the protest votes sharply. In the meantime, European Parliament votes generally do not carry over to national elections where voters are much more careful about who they hand power to. Further, two of the countries where the protest votes were largest, the UK and France, have different rules for national elections that make it much harder for protest parties to win seats than in the European Parliament elections.

Voters are understandably unhappy across Europe and particularly dismayed by European-level decisions. It was painful to watch European leaders tackle the Euro Crisis and the ill effects of the economic problems are still very much present. Euro Parliament elections are tailor made for protest voters anyway, since it is a chance to send a strong message without the risk of putting an ideologue into a position of power. Where voters might hesitate to go with a radical option for their national government, since it could very directly affect them, the European Parliament is often seen as remote and of limited power. In the past, this has frequently produced a vote of rebuke for the parties in control of the national government, especially since unhappy voters are considerably more likely to turn out for a European election than relatively satisfied voters are. None of this has been helped by the tendency of national politicians to claim all the glory for successful European policies and to blame Brussels for the unpopular policies that they themselves helped put in place. If you tell voters often enough that Brussels is at fault, they will have a tendency to vote the scoundrels in Brussels out.

Luckily, it appears that the protest votes were held down to a level that will allow the Parliament to function in a reasonable manner. The four main party groups that are most solidly supportive of the existing institutions and the further integration of the European Union (often known as the “European Project”) appear to have 69% of the seats in the new parliament, down from 80% in the last. (The European Parliament recognizes groups of national parties that have at least 25 members in total and represent at least 7 member states. Committee seats and chairmanships and other valuable rights are apportioned among these groups.) In addition, some other party groups, such as the one to which the British Conservatives belong, ally themselves on many issues with these establishment groups.

The two largest party groups in the new Parliament will be the European People’s Party (essentially Christian Democrats) with 28% of the vote, down over 7 percentage points from last election, and the Socialists and Democrats with 26% of the vote, very slightly down in percentage terms from the outgoing parliament. Together they form a small but solid majority of the seats.

Despite the protest votes, the EU parliament is likely to remain strongly supportive of the European Project and more power for the Brussels-based institutions, including the Parliament. Not surprisingly, most politicians who end up in Brussels tend to believe in the need for those institutions to accrue greater power. The members of protest parties will not have enough seats to change the behavior of the rest, especially as the anti-status quo forces disagree on many issues among themselves.

Indeed, there may be a paradoxical coming together of the establishment parties as they circle the wagons to protect against the protest parties. The European Parliament already has a tradition of sharing out the power among the major party groups, including the positions as chairs of the major parliamentary committees where much of the legislative work is done. There will be an even greater need for cooperation in the face of the difficulty of gaining majorities from within the roughly three-quarters of the members who are supportive of the European Project. In the outgoing parliament, it was potentially possible to put together a winning coalition on a given piece of legislation without the inclusion of both major party groups, but that will be nearly impossible in the new parliament. The result may be much like the Grand Coalition in Germany between the right-wing Christian Democrats and the left-wing Social Democrats, but without a leader of the stature of Angela Merkel to push things through.

The Trend of Increasing Parliamentary Power May Slow

The presence of so many protest party members may slow the steady move towards greater power for the European Parliament within the system of EU institutions. The Parliament is the legislative branch, but it has considerably less power than the American Congress has or national parliaments in general have. Critically, it does not have the constitutional authority to propose legislation; only the European Commission can do that.

The Commission is a kind of combination of Civil Service and Executive Branch, although with lesser powers than the US Executive Branch has. It has the right to propose detailed legislation and has a large staff to give it the expertise to do so and to handle much of the administration to carry out laws. However, once it has proposed legislation, it loses all further legal power to decide what the legislation will actually look like. It plays an advisory role throughout the legislative process, but the Parliament and the Council of Ministers have the ultimate legislative powers and can override the Commission as they please.

The Council of Ministers, for its part, is composed of representatives of the national governments. In the most recent Commission, the national governments have tended to dominate the decision-making on critical issues, often through an agreement between Germany and France, with a consensus built around that core. A related body, the European Council, comprising the Presidents or Prime Ministers of the member states, also has the power to appoint the President of the Commission, although the Parliament has veto power over the appointment of all Commissioners and the President.

The presence, for the first time, of a strong minority of members of Parliament who do not buy into the Brussels consensus may reduce the ability of Parliament to enforce its will on the Commission and the Council of Ministers. Besides its constitutional rights, which are relatively weak compared to national parliaments, it has relied on its greater democratic legitimacy as the only directly elected representatives at the European level. This is easier when Parliament can present a united front.

Of course, predicting politics is always dangerous and unexpected outcomes can occur. There is a chance that the very weakness of the established parties in Parliament may increase their leverage by allowing them to insist on legislative accommodations in order to work around the protest parties. This seems unlikely, though.

The results also may negate, for the moment, what would otherwise be a big step forward in Parliament’s power. This election marks the first time that the European Council is required, under the Treaty of Lisbon, to give consideration to the results of the Parliamentary election in choosing who to nominate as the President of the Commission. In anticipation of this, each of the major groups of parties nominated a candidate for President of the Commission as part of their campaigning. Had one of these groups obtained a majority in Parliament, or a substantially stronger showing than the other groups, then it would have been difficult for the Council not to nominate their standard-bearer for President. However, the European People’s Party came in first with only 28% of the seats, just a couple points more than achieved by the Socialists and Democrats. Further, the EPP dropped more than 7 percentage points from the previous election. These results do not make a compelling case that the voters have spoken clearly, although the EPP is already pushing hard for their choice to become President, since they have the most seats.

My guess is that the European Council will feel they have a relatively free hand to pick the next President of the European Commission. It should be possible for the Council to propose a compromise candidate who is not the standard bearer of either major party grouping, without seeming to thwart the will of the electorate. Jean-Claude Juncker, the choice of the European Peoples’ Parties, might still have a chance, as he is the type of compromise candidate that the Council might have turned to if he were not already one group’s standard-bearer. He has the qualifications, does not have many strong enemies, and is from a smaller nation and therefore less threatening. Nonetheless, my money would be on a different compromise candidate whose nomination would avoid appearing to be an endorsement of one of the two major party groups. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be the kind of strong leader that the EU deserves, as the national governments really prefer not to have a Commission President with too strong an independent power base.

A wild card is how strongly the two main groups come together to insist on Parliament’s prerogatives. It is conceivable that the two groups could agree on Juncker, or a compromise candidate of their own, and insist that the Council nominate that candidate. Parliament must approve the Council’s nominee and could, in the extreme case, simply refuse to accept anyone besides their chosen candidate. This seems unlikely to me, as it would require both that the two groups find a common candidate they can support strongly and that they muster the political power, with only a slim majority, to force Europe’s national leaders to accept their choice. This is particularly tricky as the European Parliament members often have political ambitions back home and are therefore disinclined to seriously annoy their national political leaders.

National Implications

There will also be a host of implications in the 28 nations comprising the EU. At a minimum, the European Parliament vote will be seen as an indicator of how the voters feel about the national parties and often will be perceived by the voters and the media and political community as a referendum on the national government. This will put more pressure on the weaker governments, although it is likely not enough in its own right to cause any of them to collapse. The Greek government is the most vulnerable, with a mere 2 seat majority in a 300 seat parliament, and the responsibility for governing a country that is only just coming out of a true economic Depression. Syriza, the main challenger to the government parties, did well, but not well enough to transform the Greek political landscape.

The Italian government led by Matteo Renzi, who recently took over as Prime Minister and has not been through a national election as his party’s standard-bearer, was substantially strengthened by the European Parliament results. His party appears to have won a surprisingly high 41% of the vote and the main protest party dropped about 4 percentage points from the previous national election, to roughly 21%. Sylvio Berlusconi’s fortunes continue to ebb as his party came in with roughly 16% of the vote.

The National Front in France led all parties with about a quarter of the vote, and the ruling Socialist party came in with about 15%, sending a clear rebuke to the government. Given the extreme Right views of the National Party, it is clearly bad news that they did so well, and it will put pressure on the establishment parties to adopt more positions that address the concerns of the National Party voters. However, there may be less change in Paris than one might expect, since votes in the European elections do not always translate to the eventual national elections, which are not imminent anyway. Further, it was already clear that the Hollande government is not popular, so this was hardly a surprise outcome. Nonetheless, the government is clearly weaker today than before the elections, since a nationwide vote cannot be ignored.

Another protest party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) gained about 27% of the vote, to take first place in that nation. Given the strong streak of Euroskepticism in the UK and the campaign skills of Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, this is not a big surprise. The real question will be how much of that support carries over to the national election next year. Most UKIP voters appear to be natural Conservative voters and that party is clearly very concerned about movement of its voters to UKIP. What to do about it has been the biggest political issue they have faced for the last year or two and will be an even bigger concern now.

Most of the other national results went at least mildly against the government parties, as is usually true in European elections, but generally did not send a strong enough rebuke to change the overall landscape. Spain is a good example of this, where the ruling party won the most votes in this election, but well short of a majority in a fractured political scene that includes many regional parties.

Overall, the rise of extremist parties is clearly bad news, but my overall feeling is one of relief. This is likely to be the high water mark for these protest parties as anger will ebb as Europe moves on from the Euro Crisis. Further, it is dangerous to extrapolate too much from European Parliament elections to national ones, where voters are considerably more careful in who they vote for and less inclined to go with radical options.