THE BLOG

Landmark European Elections Deliver Political Earthquake

02/06/2014 13:48 BST | Updated 29/07/2014 10:59 BST

Voters from the 28 member nations of the European Union delivered an election earthquake on May 25. Results show major gains in the European Parliament for anti-integration, Euroskeptic parties which span the ideological spectrum from the extreme-right National Front which won the ballot in France, to the far-left Syriza Party which came first in Greece.

The rise of these parties will complicate decision-making in Brussels for the next five years, including in the economic policy arena. This is because Euroskeptic parties are generally anti-free trade, and the European Parliament has veto power over many international treaties.

This matters for the rest of the world as the European Union remains an economic superpower (its collective GDP parallels that of the United States, and remains larger than that of China), and is the world's biggest exporter. The scores of nations for which Europe is leading trade partner range from China in Asia to Brazil in South America.

In this context, it is increasingly possible that that the proposed Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area will be delayed or even de-railed between the European Union and the United States, Canada and Mexico in coming months. The agreement, which would be the world's largest regional trade deal covering around 45% of global GDP, is strongly opposed by many in Europe, including almost all the anti-European integration parties.

While the rise of these Euroskeptic parties will also complicate proposals for 'ever closer union' in Europe, the balance of power in the 771 member Parliament will be held by a pro-integration majority, possibly a grand coalition of the centre-left and centre-right. While this will be reassuring to many in the continent and beyond, it nonetheless risks exacerbating the disenchantment of the millions of people who last week voted against the status quo in Brussels.

The increased popularity of Euroskeptic parties reflects a wide range of factors, not just popular discontent with growing European integration. Broader issues include deep disquiet with long-established national political parties and systems (reflected in falling party membership and low trust in politics and politicians), concern over immigration, and discontent over the post-2008 economic downturn and subsequent austerity measures.

Several of these factors have also driven wider political volatility in Europe in recent years. Across the European Union, millions have taken to the streets to protest, and national governments in more than half of the 28 member states fell or were voted out of office in the two years from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone.

While the worst of the economic downturn has now passed, growth generally remains weak, and the Italian and Dutch economies contracted in the first quarter of 2014.

Moreover, unemployment remains just below record highs of almost 12%, with youth unemployment (those under 25) over 24%. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel about a "lost generation", especially in countries like Greece and Spain where youth unemployment is almost a staggering 60%.

In this troubling context, voter discontent is not just manifested in the rise of Euroskeptic parties. In addition, there is growing voter apathy fuelled by the fact that the Parliament is generally not trusted by many in Europe for whom Brussels seems very remote to their day-to-day lives.

Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has declined, slipping from 62% in 1979 to around 43% this time around. In Slovakia, turnout may have been as low as 13%.

This apathy comes despite the steadily growing powers enjoyed by the Parliament. Originally created in the 1950s, it assumed enhanced political legitimacy in 1979 when it became a directly elected chamber.

Since then, the Parliament has assumed veto power over European Union budgets, and secured powers to amend or block a wide range of draft laws that are devised by the European Commission. The new members of the European Parliament may also have greater than ever opportunity to influence the choice of the next President of the European Commission, widely viewed as the key office holder in Brussels.

This is because key groups in the Parliament forged an agreement before the election, for the first time ever, that the choice of candidate for president to succeed Jose Manuel-Barroso should be nominated by the voter bloc that secures the most seats. While the 28 national governments have ultimate power over the appointment, the Parliament's voice could therefore be louder than ever on this important decision.

Taken overall, Euroskeptic parties now have an even stronger platform in Brussels, and may help derail the proposed Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area with North America. While balance of power in the Parliament will be held by a pro-integration majority, this is likely to fuel disenchantment of the millions of Europeans who last week voted against the European Union status quo.