THE EU ELECTIONS: AN “EARTHQUAKE” TILTING BRUSSELS TO THE RIGHT

By Robin Kunst
Staff Writer

On May 25, the European Union parliamentary elections ended with a rather unpleasant, albeit unsurprising, outcome. Four hundred million voters in 28 countries voted and ultimately determined who would fill the 751 seats of the European Parliament in Brussels.

What many feared during the campaign before the elections turned out to be an uncomfortable truth: a shift to the right was noticeable in many countries from Finland and Denmark to Hungary and especially France. In France, the far-right National Front under Marine Le Pen came in first in the elections, winning the most seats by managing about 25 percent of the popular vote. The governing Socialist Party suffered a major setback by only receiving 14 percent of the vote. In the previous 2009 elections, the National Front received only about 6 percent. In the wake of the alarming results, France’s Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said what many were thinking: “The result was more than a warning. It is a shock, an earthquake.”

As the European Parliament’s official website shows, moderate left-wing and conservative parties still hold a majority of seats in the European Parliament which will affect the appointment of the European Commission’s next President. Nonetheless, right-wing parties and other groups opposing the EU are gaining ground as Simon Usherwood, an expert on European politics at the University of Surrey said in an interview with CNN. Usherwood points out that these parties will not have enough political power to influence legislation. However, they will get “the time for speaking in debates, the chairmanship of certain committees, which means that they’re going to have much more of a platform on which they can sell their message to voters,” Usherwood told CNN. Analysts and European politicians predicted an upsurge of support for the protest parties as a result of the continuing effects of the euro crisis. Parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) – a newcomer in the German and European political arena – utilize the growing frustration with the euro and economic situation and call for the dissolution of the monetary union. They also demand the return of border controls and decreasing the power of the European Parliament in favor of national decision-making processes, similar to the demands of the UK Independence Party.

Despite this trend that spread throughout many of the EU member states, there were some countries, like Italy, who fought off the skeptics and populists. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his governing left-wing Democratic Party (PD) came out of the polls ahead of Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star-Movement with 33 percent compared to 26.5 percent. Grillo has shown quite as much anti-European sentiment as Berlusconi, whose own party, Forza Italia, could only achieve meager 18 percent.

The strongest faction in the European Parliament is the European People’s Party (EPP) which gained 213 seats, followed by the progressive alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 190 seats. It is likely that both groups will join in a grand coalition, as was done in Germany following the outcome of the recent national elections last September.

It remains to be seen how the election results will affect politics in Brussels, as well as on the individual national levels. Last Thursday, about 4,000 students rallied in Paris against the National Front, and smaller rallies took place in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and outside of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Now, the moderate parties will have to join forces and listen more carefully to the public’s demands to avoid alienating their constituents and ultimately giving populist and right extremist movements a bigger platform and more influence. The far right parties are the strongest in countries such as England, France and Denmark. Aside from the alarming result indicating a growing support for so-called Euroskeptic parties, there is a silver lining. Those parties will have a hard time joining forces as the only issue uniting them is their dislike of the EU as an institution. Nonetheless, Brussels has shifted notably to the right and there are now higher expectations for reforms to stabilize the euro and solve the ongoing crisis to counteract this trend.

Image by European Parliament

A DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT? THE EU ELECTIONS AND THE DICTATE OF ECONOMIC STABILITY

By Robin Kunst
Staff Writer

With the EU parliamentary elections only weeks away, it is time for a critical analysis of the direction of the EU. The financial pressure in the aftermath of the fiscal crisis has challenged the process of European integration. Propelled by the media, protests can be heard, blaming the better off countries–especially Germany–for their current crises.

It is true that the economically more stable countries give recommendations to countries like Greece on how to balance their national budget, and the European Central Bank (ECB) demands austerity measures as conditions for loans. This and the common perception that most of the pressure to save crisis-ridden countries has fallen on the middle classes adds to the widespread frustration with the EU.

While the crisis led to more cooperation among foreign leaders, something has been ignored – the will of the people. EU critics have been arguing for years that the power distribution in favor of the European Council, comprised of heads of states, at the expense of the European Parliament, the only part of the EU that is directly elected, causes a democratic deficit. As a result of the crisis, this deficit reached a new level. Bailout measures and institutions initiated to save the value of the euro turned into permanent mechanisms that are under no democratic or public oversight whatsoever.

The ECB already influences national economies by dictating conditions of austerity and a balanced budget. The creation of the permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which was created in May 2010 and was just extended last year, reinforces this new framework of economic governance. The ESM is the permanent crisis solution for members of the Eurozone; it is a financial institution in Luxembourg over which neither the European Parliament nor national parliaments have any control. The same is true for the Troika – the body comprised of the ECB, IMF and EU Commission. These bodies do not have to justify their policy recommendations and conditions in front of any democratically elected institution. Their bureaucracy oversees and determines austerity and reform measures in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal – the three EU countries suffering the most economically. The decisions made by Troika and the ESM have far reaching consequences for the individual countries, as well as for the EU as a whole and all its citizens. It remains questionable as to why they are not held accountable for their actions as national leaders and parliaments would be.

Recent court decisions have dealt with this question. In Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court doubted the admissibility of the ECB’s unlimited ability to purchase government bonds of illiquid countries. The German court came to the conclusion that the decision should be made by European Court of Justice. The European Court of Justice now has to determine if ECB’s actions are legal in the European context. This referral of the decision to the European Court of Justice is a step forward, as it makes the EU more democratic by giving the European Court the ability to check its financial institution. However, this decision has been met with skepticism by European advocates.

The court’s ruling has been criticized by many German and EU politicians, who claim that it hinders European stability and integration efforts. These politicians intentionally ignore the fact that national courts are not bound by any obligation to obey a certain party’s idea of what is best for their nation regarding this European issue. Moreover, the courts simply decide according to their conscience to decide what is legal, as national constitutions intend. Critics conveniently oversee the fact that the EU Commission and Council intentionally break the rules of the Maastricht Treaty, which actually prohibits countries from providing guarantees on behalf of other defaulting countries by making themselves liable. By doing so, the EU politicians just add to the growing public frustration with its representatives and encourage the Euro-skeptic perception of the technocratic, contradicting nature of EU bureaucracy. These claims are usually brushed aside with the argument that the Eurozone crisis demanded exceptional measures.

It is clear that at the beginning of the crisis, when their monetary union began to crumble, urgent measures had to be undertaken in order to restore economic stability within the European Union. Nevertheless, these decisions and institutions, born out of the need for immediate action, must adopt democratic forms to be legitimate instruments for continued European integration and expansion. Unfortunately, national leaders in the EU take the lead in the decision making process and thus undermine the European Parliament’s authority.

Hope lies in the upcoming elections where, for the first time, the newly directly elected European Parliament will determine the President of the Commission, the EU’s executive leader who is in charge of initiating legislation and overseeing its implementation. Before, the office simply rotated among the various countries. Now, all major European parties will promote top candidates, and the party with the most votes will provide the President of the Commission. This gives more legitimacy to the office of the President and also allows for a different perception of the election. The role of the Commission and Parliament will now be given more meaning and legitimacy, and the Parliament’s say in decisions will not be so easily ignored. For the first time, decisions can be made together in a cooperative European context. National leaders will be forced to find ways to promote their domestic political interest against the backdrop of a European framework. They will have to justify their decisions not only in front of their national constituency, but also on a European platform.

Even if the upcoming elections are a step towards overcoming growing public frustration with the EU, the Eurozone crisis still aggravated the gap between rich and poor. It has led to the rise of nationalistic groups, especially in richer countries, who demand the return to their former national currencies. These voices take advantage of a growing anti-European sentiment, which is tied to the economic downturn. Populists continuously argue for dissociation from European unity, which encompasses fiscal and economic interrelationships. Right-wing parties are experiencing a remarkable upswing, as demonstrated in the latest municipal elections in France. The ruling Socialist Party under President Hollande suffered a stinging defeat against the conservative opposition, and the right-wing extremist Front National performed surprisingly well. However, a break with existing interrelationships and European treaties would only exacerbate further economic downturns and cause defaults of entire national economies. It remains to be seen how growing frustration with the system will play out in the future, especially in regards to further national elections that might indicate satisfaction or discontent with the current policies of the EU. It is clear though, that with growing anti-European sentiment, Brussels has to face yet another challenge in the upcoming elections.

Image by TPCOM