EU: The European Union Elections
EU: The European Union Elections

Amelia Mathias, Pitt Law '11, writes from Brussels about the European Union elections…

It would have been easy to forget entirely about June's elections for the European Parliament if one ignored the election posters plastering European cities, portraying diverse faces of every color, creed, and gender beaming out of every convenience store window. Indeed, it seemed many Europeans themselves forgot about the elections – or, rather, chose to stay home and sit out the election entirely. Turnout across the European Union member states was just over 50 percent, even including countries like Belgium and Luxembourg where voting is compulsory. Slovakia's turnout was the lowest at less than 20 percent. Although Europeans have sometimes shown discontent with the European Union by staying home for elections, this turnout set a new low.

Even more interesting to politicos, academics and election-watchers was not how few people voted but who they elected. Those elected were mostly moderate parties with a definite leaning to the right. There were also isolated incidents of extreme right parties being elected to seats in the European Parliament, such as the British National Party gaining two seats in the United Kingdom. Voters may be reacting against the European "Blue Card," which would allow more immigrants into their countries to replace an aging work force. While it is true that most governments in the European Union are currently led by more leftist parties, and that the poor economic climate could lead voters to vote against the party in control, there are two other trends in Europe that would seem to draw voters towards leftist parties: the Obama effect, and the political climate.

US President Barack Obama is quite popular in Europe, with pictures of him and Michelle Obama smiling out from every cover of the Paris Match tabloid and crowds gathering for his frequent trips across the pond. But with Obama's government taking over major industries in the United States and expanding government oversight in the private sector, it is surprising to see that European voters who adore him are voting for his ideological opposites. It is even more surprising given that in the depths of a recession, voters could be expected to vote for more leftist, socialist candidates who provide a government safety net to fall back on in times of trouble.

The picture is not so black and white, however, particularly when it comes to the European Union, which many still perceive as disconnected from their daily lives, unlike their local or national governments. The leftist, socialist parties tend to be the more pro-Europe groups, while the more rightist parties advocate a more "Euro-sceptic" approach. Many labor laws in Europe make it difficult for people to lose their jobs, so the recession has hit more slowly, but those same laws make it more difficult for economies to recover. That said, the fear of a longer depression has Europeans frightened of further firing waves, and has made them more aware of the dangers of competing with a less expensive, immigrant work force. Sending a politician to the European Union who is not the organization's biggest fan will hamper activity in the European Parliament, but will also send a message to domestic leaders that the people want their attention at home right now, not in Brussels listening to new countries lobby for entry into the exclusive European clubhouse. These European elections are always a good prediction for what will happen the next time a domestic vote is held.

The migration issue is another hot topic in European elections, as internal borders mean less and less. There has never been such a massive influx of immigrants into modern Europe as there is now. Many countries are finding their social services burdened as they have never been before, with a new influx of immigrants from Turkey and North Africa, and workers from newly-welcomed nations in the European Union such as Poland and Romania. With few mechanisms for integrating these new populations, it is easy to blame them for the current troubles by voting for a party or a candidate with a strict view on immigration, or even with racist tendencies. Despite this, the European populations, particularly in the northern countries, need their new countrymen. With expensive social programs and safety nets, they need to keep generating money through taxation, particularly as their populations age. With their native birth rates barely keeping up with the aging population or even declining outright, it is in the best interest of native it is in the best interest of native Europeans that their Turkish and Moroccan neighbors succeed in their new homes and pay into the expensive social welfare system that will support them in their old age.

In Belgium, province politics are usually at the center of every vote, with vastly different voting records in Flanders versus in Wallonia. This election was no exception. Wallonia's voting record remained mainly stable, with the Socialist party that has dominated politics for years losing only one seat — and Wallonia as an entirety lost a seat with the expansion of the entire European Union. A greater change was seen in Flanders, the more prosperous half of Belgium, the Socialist party lost a seat. Vlaams-Belaang, the notoriously rightist party opposing immigration except on strict complete assimilation terms, lost a seat but still held steady in third place. While many in Brussels breathed a sigh of relief at their loss, Vlaams-Belaang has a strong presence in Flanders and could come back in the next election.

Personally, observing this European election reminded me of the old American adage: vote Democratic at home, Republican nationally. While domestic governments suffered losses in these European elections, it is unlikely that this spells any significant doom for their parties (with the possible exception of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom). The biggest loser in these elections was the European Union. With many newly elected parliament members from parties that are skeptical of the EU, it will likely find that its continued quest to pass a constitution will be stymied again this fall. The Swedish leadership that just took over will have its hands full getting everyone to cooperate in order to achieve its goals.


Photo credits: Amelia Mathias

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