The second largest democratic election in the world is taking place in the European Union, as voters from across the EU’s 28 member states head to the polls between May 22 and 25 to cast their vote to elect EU parliamentary representatives.
European citizens will be electing representatives to fill the 766 seats of the European Parliament, one of the key legislative bodies of the EU. Pan-European political groupings – which must be composed of at least 25 representatives from seven countries – represent different interest groups. Currently, the two major political forces in the EU Parliament are the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists, who between themselves share 469 of the 766 seats, though neither has an outright majority.
While this vote, which takes place every five years since 1979, is typically predictable and not subject to much controversy, the 2014 election has been exceptionally contentious as a convergence between so-called “eurosceptics” and far-right, populist parties, are leading strong campaigns across the EU and exposing some of the deep rifts within the Union.
Over the course of the last few years, far-right parties have had a strong resurgence across the EU, playing off Europeans’ disillusionment in the wake of the economic crisis that swept the continent. Issues related to the specter of uncontrolled immigration, the loss of national identity and sovereign control over internal affairs are some of the key themes raised in the context of national-level elections across Europe, gaining popularity in the context of difficult economic times. These themes are being translated at the pan-European level, with far-right parties – such as the increasingly popular UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the French Front National (FN)– building their electoral platform on a profound distrust of EU institutions (which they claim have continually failed the people of the EU) and a desire to dismantle some of the existing powers.
Recent polls show that both UKIP and FN are slated to capture historically high voter support. In France, polls show that FN will likely win more votes than either of the two mainstream parties, with approximately 23% of the vote. This would represent the first ever national-level election in France where the FN surpasses 20% in the results, and would allocate 15-20 of the 74 French seats (up from three) in the European Parliament to the FN. A similar scenario is expected in the UK, where polling data suggests that UKIP will also win its first ever national-level election, garnering 27% of the vote. While these predictions have dominated a lot of the media coverage in the run-up to the election, the actual gains in influence of the far-right in the European Parliament will not bring about a sea change.
There is currently no pan-European far-right party, and far-right members fall into the “Other” category in the political groupings of the European Parliament. The two current leading parties – representing center-left and center-right sensibilities – are expected to hold on to their dominant positions. There is no realistic “doomsday scenario” as far as preserving the integrity of the EU’s institutions in light of the relatively modest gains in parliamentary seats on the far-right. The message for EU leaders, however, is clear: Europeans feel that the institutions and policies of the EU are out of touch, and do not have a strong sense of how the European Union can benefit and enrich their lives. Compounding this issue is the fact that the 766 members of the European Parliament fail to represent, at least at a very basic level, the broad diversity of the European Union: only 15 of the 766 members have ethnic minority backgrounds, and while the number of women has grown over the years, they still represent only approximately 30% of the membership.
The disconnect between the perspective of the citizens of the European Union and its leaders is a long-standing problem. Over the decades since its inception, the EU has always suffered from a political deficit – the economic construction of the Union has far outpaced the political project, leading to a certain degree of incoherence, such as the existence of a common currency and pan-European control of monetary policy via the European Central Bank with fiscal, industrial and most other economic policy tools remaining at the national level. At the same time, geopolitical forces are shaping the European Union in new ways, as an increasingly diverse membership and population, with a wide range of priorities, interests, and socio-political and economic situations, make consensus and agreement difficult.
The EU project is losing some of its luster, as citizens fail to see how the institutions based in Strasbourg and Brussels are positively impacting their lives. This, in large part, is a chronic communication failure on the part of the architects and leadership of the EU, who have historically had difficulty translating their vision into a unifying narrative for the citizens of the Union.