EU Elections: Anything New?


My name is Daniel and I am 26-year old European Studies master student from Hanover, Germany. I consider myself as pro-European but EU-critical.

As the upcoming elections to the European Parliament are the focal point of current political discussions I’d like to share some of my thoughts about them with you. Nowadays it is hard to escape the slogan: “This time it’s different”, but are the upcoming elections really different or is it no more than an empty campaign slogan? Yes and no: the European Parliament (EP) elections are important and in some way new, yet at the same time the slogan looks like a cry for attention. Definitely new is that we have leading candidates for the Commission President’s job. Much is talked about the personification of the elections, but I’d like to take a step back and look at what the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) says about this procedure and the EP’s say in the appointment of the President of the Commission. From my point of view the main reason for the current personification of the elections is the low turnout in the EP elections. Since 1979 the election turnout descended from 62 to 43 percent. Usually this is associated with a growing legitimacy problem of the EP, while in reality the causes for the low turnout are more complex. One important factor has been the EU enlargement, as many of the new Member States have a low turnout. For instance Slovakia, which in 2009 had a turnout of only 19.6 percent and Poland, where the turnout was around 25 percent in the same election. In other words the EU after the ‘big bang’ enlargement is another EU as the one before and it is, therefore, difficult to compare the turnout in 1979 with the current situation.

But back to the personification of an election campaign, which some researchers and politicians believe to be attractive for voters and therefore beneficial for the turnout of the upcoming elections. This was the reason behind the changes made in the Treaty of Lisboan. I am not quite convinced of this as the candidates need to be charismatic to attract voters. Juncker and Schulz are both very experienced politicians, but are they charismatic enough to attract people beyond the narrow circle of the politically committed? I doubt that, even though I’d very much like to be mistaken on that point. As it is, the parliament’s power would be strengthened if the turnout were significantly higher than 43 percent.

Speculations like these may be interesting but are rather pointless as we have to wait for the results.  In the meantime we should have a closer look at the Treaty of Lisboan and what has changed. Article 14 (1) TEU says that the EP elects the President of the Commission. But this is not as easy as it seems: further on in article 17 (7) TEU it is said that the European Council will present their candidate to the European Parliament, taking into account the turnout of the elections. Afterwards the EP votes for or against the candidate, a simple majority would be sufficient. If the EP does not approve it has the chance to propose its own candidate with a qualified majority.

The phrase “taking into account the turnout of the elections” is crucial as it is a typical EU-style compromise: the election turnout has to be considered by the appointing committee but it is not clear how.

The recent polls by PollWatch show a narrow win by the EPP with 212 seats, whereas the S&D will gain 209 seats in the new parliament. On the first glance it seems obvious that Juncker will be the next President of the Commission as he is the EPP’s candidate. However, this alone is not sufficient as he would need the majority, i.e. 376 EP seats. So both, Juncker and Schulz will need to build alliances with other parties. If we run through the various scenarios, it means that the EPP would need ALDE (+68 seats), the right-wing ECR (+43 seats) and the Greens (+38) and even this heterogeneous group could not provide the necessary amount of seats as they together account for only 356 seats. It is similar for Schulz and the S&D as a coalition with ALDE, the Greens and the Left would deliver 367 seats. Last but not least it is very unlikely that all these different parties can be convinced to ally on the question of the next President of the Commission. So after all the “excitement” about the campaign, a new President can only be elected if the two large political groups agree. So the old grand coalition will most likely also be the new grand coalition after the elections, which is in the words of the well-known political scientist Jose Ignacio Torreblanca “the same coalition that has governed Europe for decades”. To cut a long story short, there are some new ingredients in the 2014 European elections, but in the end Europeans will have to spoon the same old soup.

Daniel Lüchow is a guest on this blog.

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