EU Citizens: This Europe Does Not Work Well and Needs Change

We know today which political families lost seats after the European elections, and the traditional groups overall. Losers and winners, as usual, we might say. The positive surprise of a higher turnout may well show a renewed interest for Europe, and possibly a greater awareness of the role the MEPs, as policy-makers, and their ability to make a genuine impact on the everyday life of each EU citizen.

In a way, the result denied a great deal of prognoses. The abstention rate was lower than expected. There were worries about the presumptive rise of extreme-wing nationalist and populist parties. But as emphasized in a previous piece of mine, they are still bound to win the next round, in 2024. Their 17-seat increase, compared to the outgoing Parliament, shows that, although Eurosceptics and far-right populists have fallen short of reaching the one-third of all MEPs’ target, they keep steady on course.

Victories in France (Marine Le Pen) and Italy (Matteo Salvini) prove they are here to stay, despite the fact that they are now scattered in different groups, such as the European Reformists and Conservatives (ECR), the ENF, and the EFDD. There is still a great deal of time to pull themselves together into a “coalition of will” on common issues of interest (such as migration policies), if not into a future group (if they would conclusively decide what decisions should be taken when it comes to Russia, China or the United States). With or without Nigel Farage’s party (if the UK leaves the EU, then 29 seats will be lost), the ability of these parties to hamper or block the decision-making process should not be underestimated. Their presence in the EU Parliament signals the symbolic power of a worrying trend: the constant progression of individualism, fears and xenophobia in Europe.

The Two Large Families Lost the Absolute Majority

One of the most important lessons of the EU elections is drawn from the very fact that, for the first time after the first direct European elections 40 years ago, the two large families, namely the EPP and the S&D, do not hold together the absolute majority anymore, although they remain the largest groups in the European Parliament. Against this background, a significant proportion of the electorate expressed clear support for more (economic) liberalism—the ALDE looks like the nominal winner of the elections—and the ever-growing concern about environmental issues, as the Greens/EFA upsurge in the number of seats, proves it. The Greens were by far the real surprise of the elections, as they triumphed at the ballot box in large cities like Brussels, Berlin and Dublin.

Voters’ choices are determined primarily by feelings about their current national governments, rather than by the performances of the EU herself or individual MEPs.

A senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels, has been quoted as calling them “the new kingmakers in the decision process”, which is quite likely to be true. Their cohesiveness, discipline, and significance in the European Parliament are amplified by their belonging to the same group. They are united around a unique agenda of change, which brought them to the point where they could express that they would support the future replacement of the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, only if the candidate, whoever will it be, would back their agenda completely.

Not only an Economic Union, but a Union of Values

Former “fringe idealists” joining local and national coalitions most prominently in Germany, the Greens of today have gathered around a manifesto that puts social justice and human rights at the heart of the fight for the planet, thus succeeding in attracting disillusioned voters from the centre-left and center-right slices of the political representation pie. Their success speaks about change, not referring to climate only, but to the very content of EU’s political managers, the more so that younger voters in Western Europe accounted for their comeback. Or, in the words of Terry Reintke, a German Green MEP: ”We see the European Union as not just an economic union, but a union of values. It has to be more equal and socially just.” We have been longing to hear such words… The “New Left” has staged a silent revolution in Europe.

The EU-widespread Romanian diaspora accounted for another consistent source of votes, as the result of negative criticism targeting home, the largest national parties and their leaders.

There have been a number of commentaries about the high turnout. In my country, Romania, it reached 49.02%—quite close to the European average, and far larger than in any of the previous European elections held in the ditto “new” EU member state. It works somehow against the presumption that, back home, EP elections are considered second-rate, and lost somewhere, in the Romanian newspapers, between articles about scandals involving local politicians, and tennis miracles performed by Simona Halep. Well, not too much has changed: for most of the EU national political elites, the question who will sit in the next national government will always come first. And indeed, voters’ choices are determined primarily by feelings about their current national governments, rather than by the performances of the EU herself or individual MEPs. But even in this situation, the present round of EP elections seemed to be giving the voters the capacity of “punishing” national governments, while being aware things should turn to the better in Brussels, if not at home.

A Slow Process of Erosion of Traditional Romanian Parties

And I come back to the case of Romania, where although the National-Liberal Party (EPP) came in first, followed at quite a large margin, by the Social-Democratic Party (S&D), the real winner was a newcomer, namely the “Save Romania” Party. Both liberals and social-democrats have gone through a thorough, although slow, process of erosion, for the latter being more accentuated because of faulty political and executive management while in power, not to mention the recent imprisonment of their former leader. Against this background, a populistic-cum-environmentalist-cum-left- ist/liberal party won almost all the larger cities in the country, and received substantial support from younger people between 18 and 35 years of age, mostly urban, private employees, interested in politics, and skilled in using social media platforms.

Their result was secured by a majority of former national-liberal and social-democratic voters, who thus sanctioned the poor performance of the traditional parties throughout past decades. The EU-widespread Romanian diaspora accounted for another consistent source of votes, as the result of negative criticism targeting home, the largest national parties and their leaders. A succinct comparison between the three lists of MEPs would easily prove that the human and professional quality of the “Save Romania” Party overcame the party-backed individual choices of the liberal and the social-democratic lists, mostly composed of political survivors with no European competence whatsoever. In other words, the outcome of the elections speaks about a feeling of weariness generated by domestic politics and the winding course of traditional parties.

All in all, in the aftermath of the EU elections, Europe has not changed all that much—she lost some of her old appearance thus getting ready for the new season of parliamentary action, and allowing a new and bright politically colored skin to grow.

We Should not Expect Institutional Instability

All in all, in the aftermath of the EU elections, Europe has not changed all that much—she lost some of her old appearance and scales, thus getting ready for the new season of parliamentary action, and allowing a new and bright politically colored skin to grow. It is more politically fragmented indeed, since this is the direct result of a proportional vote. Would it increase the chances and opportunities to build coalitions among different groups, since the EPP and the S&D together would not have enough seats any longer to vote a legislative proposal through or appoint the powerful commissioners and other top positions?

Apparently, yes. And if I am right, then we should not expect any symptom of institutional instability in the months to come. Forming an absolute majority means building a coalition of at least three groups. Building coalitions would require a great deal of flexibility and strategic thinking on behalf of the leaders of EU political families, and this should be the litmus test of their negotiating qualities. But what kind of leaders should we hope for? They should be politically legitimate and determined, and able to work together in leading EU institutions in the next five years. “The new leaders must be strong enough to confront bullying international actors”, Stefan Lehne wrote some time ago, and they would “…need a reliable internal compass to steer through a turbulent and fragmented political scene”, while realizing “they have to be able to explain what the EU is about and rebuild public trust”. Let us hope we will find them, despite being dormant now.

Democratic Control is a Pillar for a Functional Democracy

The EU Parliament has become more politicized, but this is not necessarily bad news. The new composition of the European legislative paves the way to discuss and seriously analyze matters of highest importance to the future dynamics of the EU integration mechanisms, such as a common defense policy, policies addressing the causes and effects of migration, the strategic meaning of EU’s Eastern neighborhood (i.e. policies targeting Ukraine’s and Moldova’s bilateral relations with the EU), bilateral relations with Russia and the United States, environmental policies, policies addressing European youth, and their share in the EU labor-market, the demographic decline, etc. Look- ing back at the 1980s, when the European Parliament yielded little power, and now, when its activity has become paramount to the benefit of the entire Union, we realize we have come a long way: from almost no impact to general European policies, to MEPs staging mechanisms of accountability for the executive bodies of the EU, from an advisory role to the Council, to complementarity with the Executive.

It all comes from the provisions of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. Today, not only does the European Parliament have more legislative powers, but there is also much more awareness of the big issues. Oversight and democratic control are not just mere words from the dictionary of democracy, but pillars for a functional democracy extended to the continent. By the same token, the political influence and significance of the MEPs have grown to unprecedented levels. Their voters, on the other hand, have begun to realize that by acting together, they may lose power in national legislative bodies, but they gain power in the European legislative. This is a sign that many of them have understood that they can be both national and European citizens, and that both civic qualities coexist.

A Clear Message from the EU Citizens

To conclude, EU voters first sent a message to their national governments, to sanction or encourage national politics, as in most countries, elections turned around domestic struggles. Most of the ditto topics have been played as rhetorical party props in national elections, and have brought their own contribution in weakening public support for traditional parties. Such subjects have the capacity to attract general parliamentary attention and, as they challenge furthering EU integration, they cannot be overlooked. The message conveyed by EU citizens is quite clear: this Europe does not work well and needs change.

The message conveyed by EU citizens is quite clear: this Europe does not work well, and needs change.

As some scholars have put it, delivering on them would imply a steadier pace in building a more appropriate identity for Europe and her citizens, i.e. a less “abstract sense of EU purpose” and more down-to-earth strategic approaches. At least this should be the course of action, taking into account the roughly 51% turnout across the continent (out of 420 mil European voters), up at almost 10% from 2014, meaning every second EU citizen voted in the elections. And I would also add that the gender balance of the EP is 39% women, which has become the highest level of female representation yet. The positive surprise of a higher turnout may well show a renewed interest for Europe, and possibly a greater awareness of the role the MEPs, as policymakers, and their ability to make a genuine impact on the everyday life of each EU citizen. It may be time to argue the case that the European issues are much higher on the radar of European voters than ever before.

Mihai-Räzvan Ungureanu

is a historian, politician and former Prime Minister of Romania. He was also
the Foreign Minister of Romania and Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service

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