The Guardian – Extremists stand to gain seats in the Brussels parliament as a result of voter apathy and anger over the economic crisis
May 29, 2009
European election: Brussels braces for big protest vote
But the ballot looks more likely to turn into an unruly protest engulfing Europe’s elites, producing an angrier parliament more hostile to Brussels. From the UK to Portugal, from Romania to Denmark, fringe parties and extremists are likely to gain seats at the expense of mainstream parties as voters vent their anger over financial meltdown, rising unemployment and perceived corruption among the governing classes.
“You’ll see a lot of protest voters in Europe and a lot of apathy towards political elites,” said Sara Hagemann, a Danish analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “The low turnout means that those who do vote have very strong opinions. That will bring in more extremist politicians.”
The main protest seems likely to be one of apathy, as voters shun ballot booths and the election attracts the lowest turnout in the 30 years since voting was launched for the European parliament. “The risk of abstention is that it allows eurosceptics and extremists to take over our debate and our future,” José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, warned last week. A Eurobarometer poll predicts a turnout of 34%, 10 points down on the participation rate in 2004.
A poll-tracking study run by the London School of Economics and Trinity College Dublin notes that the turnout is likely to be even lower, since Eurobarometer polls have consistently overestimated voting numbers. The study reckoned turnout would be around the 30% mark.
The parliament itself – as opposed to political parties spending on their campaigns – has invested $27m of taxpayers’ money in what looks like a doomed attempt to raise awareness of the election, hiring a German PR company to plaster Europe’s cities in “It’s Your Choice” posters, and engaging in stunts with MTV to get the message across. “Come on! It’s just a few minutes, maybe you can combine it with a walk in the park or a drink in a cafe. Not much effort to tell Europe what you want,” pleads the parliament propaganda. “Get the Europe you want! If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”
But the people are complaining, and not voting. Turnout has diminished at every ballot since the first one in 1979, suggesting that voters, probably correctly, see the chamber, alternately sited in Brussels and Strasbourg, as remote, and, mistakenly, as irrelevant.
Those elected are increasingly powerful. In every major reform of the way the EU works since the 1980s, the parliament’s authority has been increased. It now has a say in shaping around 75% of EU laws, and this will grow to co-decision taking over virtually all European legislation if the blueprint for streamlining the way the EU is run, the Lisbon treaty, comes into effect, as planned, from next January.
But if the parliament wields real clout, its identity is diffuse, fuelling the public indifference. And while the parliament shapes European law, it is a legislature that does not initiate legislation. That comes from the European Commission.
For the minority of voters who cast their ballots over the four days, the variations will be immense, choices determined by 27 very different sets of national circumstances. Common trends, however, can be discerned. As a result of the financial meltdown and its impact on the real economies of Europe, there is a strong anti-incumbency mood, with votes to be cast against those in power. Big exceptions will be in France, Italy and Poland.
What used to be known as the “English disease” – euroscepticism – is now more widespread, infecting the Netherlands, Austria, parts of Scandinavia, parts of Germany and new EU member states in central and eastern Europe.
The extreme right and hard left could do well in varying degrees in different countries. In the Netherlands, the Islam-baiting populist, Geert Wilders, is soaring in opinion polls. His PVV party could take at least three seats. It wants to abolish the parliament. Austria’s extreme-right Freedom party is playing to antisemitism and could also do well. The British National party and Jobbik in Hungary, both often described as neo-fascist, could gain their first seats.
In both France and Germany the big peripheral vote should be on the hard left: Die Linke in Germany and the anti-capitalist movement of Olivier Besancenot in France. Both hard-left parties are tipped to muster 10%. But while the populists and extremists should gain some seats, they are unlikely to affect the overall balance of the parliament, which will continue to be dominated by the three main transnational alliances of Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals.
The biggest shift in the complexion of the new parliament will come courtesy of David Cameron, the British Conservative leader who owes his position to his pledge to ditch two decades of alliance with Christian democrats or the European People’s party.
If they can muster the numbers (easy) and the spread of at least seven countries (more difficult), the Conservatives will lead a new caucus of eurosceptics, the European Conservatives. The three big elements will be from Britain, Poland’s rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS), and the liberal conservative ODS or Civic Democrats of the Czech Republic. “We want our own group with the British Conservatives where we will be free to speak in the European parliament and break the cartel of the two big groups,” said Konrad Szymanski, a Polish PiS candidate. The Conservatives need to pick up seats from another four countries – Latvia, Belgium, Bulgaria, and Denmark perhaps – to qualify for official caucus status in the parliament.
Then there is the Irish maverick, Declan Ganley, who brought down the Lisbon treaty in Ireland last year and is seeking to form and fund a pan-European Libertas movement of MEPs deeply hostile to the current EU. What seems certain is that the new parliament will be a rowdier place.