FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Landmark elections for European Parliament
, April 26, 2014
Next month, people from 28 nations across Europe will vote in elections for the European Parliament, which will shape the future of the European Union.
A total of 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be elected, with representation based on the population in each of the member-states. Germany has the largest number of members, currently with 96 MEPs.
Currently, the largest groups are the Christian Democrats (European People’s Party) bloc with 274 votes, and the Socialists and Democrats (194 votes). Both are strong supporters of the EU.
The elections are held every five years. Because the European elections concern a parliament which sits in Brussels, many people feel disconnected from the process, and voting is expected to be lower than in national elections.
The 2009 election saw a surge in Eurosceptic and nationalist MEPs and a corresponding rise in Eurosceptic political groups such as the Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD) bloc, as well as nationalists, regionalists and unattached MPs.
The Europe for Freedom and Democracy group includes the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and Italy’s Northern League. Recent polling has given Ukip a higher vote in Britain than the ruling Conservative Party — a reflection of widespread disenchantment with Prime Minister David Cameron.
A rise in Euroscepticism following the financial crisis in 2008 was expected, particularly as it involved reckless financial expenditures in the EU. But if this trend continues in 2014, it will have an impact across Europe.
The signs are that across the continent, there will be an increase in the anti-EU vote, but whether it will be sufficient to change the direction of the EU remains unclear.
The latest reports indicate that the centre-right European Peoples Party will lose seats to parties on both ends of the political spectrum. The latest polling suggests that the EPP will have around 212 seats, and the Socialists and Democrats about 206.
The far left and the far right look set to increase their representation. The EU’s austerity program in southern Europe appears to be pushing many people to the left.
Greece’s Minister for European Affairs, Dimitris Kourkoulas, was quoted as saying: “We have lost 25 per cent of our GDP since 2008.... We have been in seven consecutive years of recession. This has never happened in modern history. Even in the Great Depression of 1929, the American economy was in recession for just three years.”
Four years ago, Greece became technically bankrupt and had to obtain an EU bailout, largely funded by Germany which has accumulated large trade surpluses from its buoyant export revenue over recent decades.
The bailout was accompanied by unprecedented cuts in public expenditure. Greece had to slash wages and pensions, prune the public sector and raise taxes in the hope of making its economy competitive inside the European Union.
Salaries were cut by around 30 per cent. For teachers the reduction has been closer to 40 per cent. As wages fell, the economy slumped. Unemployment rose and is still around 27 per cent. Over 50 per cent of young Greeks are unemployed.
Many Greeks resisted the austerity package, seeing it both as an assault on their way of life and as a policy made in Berlin and carried out by Brussels.
Polling in Greece puts the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) ahead of the centrist New Democracy party, a clear sign that the left’s vote will rise in next month’s EU elections.
In Italy, Fabio Amato, co-founder of the European Left in that country, is standing on a platform of cancelling the EU’s debt and deficit ceiling.
He said people have had enough of “neo-liberal” polices and austerity. “What we have seen in all southern Europe is a huge attack against social, civil and democratic rights of the people.”
At the same time, there has been a collapse in support for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, with much of it leaking to the Five-Star Movement (M5S) headed by satirist and political activist Beppe Grillo, who has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign.
Among Grillo’s more extraordinary claims is that Scampia, the most dangerous suburb of Naples and one of the areas with the highest crime rate in Europe, actually had a lower proportion of criminals than the Italian parliament. His party is expected to pick up seats in the European Parliament.
In northern Europe, the anti-Islam and anti-immigration parties headed by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are talking about joining forces in the European Parliament to form a new radical bloc, perhaps including Greece’s New Dawn Party which has much the same agenda.
While vocal, any such grouping will be a small minority.
Overall, the parties committed to the preservation and expansion of the European Union will continue to have a clear majority of seats in the European Parliament. But the dominant Christian Democrats’ vote seems certain to decline, while representation of critics of the European Union looks certain to increase.
This should cause the European Parliament to look again at some of the hard-edged policies which have caused so much hardship for some of its longest-standing members.