June’s Elections and Future of the EU
ATHENS, Greece - The world’s only transnational elections, due to be held in early June for the 736 seats of the European Parliament, should normally be seen as a cause for celebration across Europe. Directly elected by the people of the Continent since 1979, the EU Parliament is a unique democratic assembly. Despite the fact that it lacks legislative initiative for the moment, it has the unprecedented power to block major policy initiatives of 27 - otherwise sovereign- governments. Moreover, its role within the E.U will be significantly enhanced once the Reform Treaty of the European Union (Lisbon Treaty) is finally ratified, possibly by the end of this year.
The system of proportional representation ensures that most of its decisions are based on consensus between Liberals and Conservatives. The Parliament is one of the pillars of an ongoing process of political and economic unification, which has ensured that, for the first time in history, war is inconceivable in Europe. Furthermore, the Parliament (together with E.U Council) represents the collective will of 500,000,000 people, the largest economic unit in the world, with a combined GDP of over 13 trillion dollars, and a currency (the euro) that is widely considered as a rock of stability in times of financial turmoil.
However, for most of the member-states of the Union, the first week of June is a cause of concern, rather than jubilation.
In Britain, the future of Prime Minister (PM) Gordon Brown largely depends on the outcome of the European elections. Undoubtedly, his prospects look bleak. After 12 consecutive years in power, the Labour Party trails the Conservatives by a margin of up to 20 percentage points in most polls. With the economy shrinking, and unemployment on the rise, the euro-sceptic UK Independence Party and the far right British National Party are hoping for significant gains.
As if things were not already bad enough for the government, the recent scandal regarding the excessive personal expenses of British Members of Parliament (MPs) has caused further damage to both Mr. Brown’s credibility and the reputation of mainstream politicians. If Labour suffers a devastating defeat, as it is predicted, and British anti-European parties get more seats in the European Parliament than in 2004, then Mr. Brown will probably not remain in his Downing Street residence for much longer.
His most likely successor, the current leader of the opposition, David Cameron, has repeatedly voiced his doubts about the so-called “European Constitution” (Lisbon Treaty) and the process of transforming the E.U. from an economic community into a political and military superpower. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, appears quite “disturbed” with Mr. Cameron’s euro-skepticism. In other words, a victory for the Tories in Britain will certainly complicate the European unification process.
In neighboring Ireland, PM Brian Cowen will also pay the price for his government’s failure to avert the credit crisis that hit the banking sector of the country. The once celebrated hi-tech “tiger” of European Economy is crouching. Irish GDP will shrink by at least 7% this year and budget deficit will most likely hit double digit numbers. More importantly, Ireland is the only European country that rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum last year, and patience is running out in Brussels (the E.U headquarters).
The results of the forthcoming European elections will most probably be indicative of the Irish attitude towards the new referendum for the Lisbon Treaty, which is scheduled for autumn this year. Nonetheless, Mr. Cowen has said he will not resign regardless of the outcome of the European elections. But his words will soon be put to the test.
In Spain, the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is trailing the Conservative opposition in opinion polls for the first time since its election in office in 2004. Some pundits in Madrid argue that even the chair of Mr. Zapatero is no longer safe, especially if he suffers a defeat in the European elections and the current downturn in the economy continues. Suffice to say that unemployment in Spain may rise to 20% according to the last European Commission estimates. The Socialist government in Hungary is also expected to lose half of its seats in the European Parliament, while the centre-right New Democracy party in Greece is heading towards its first electoral defeat since 2000.
In Germany, the European elections are seen as a rehearsal for the general elections due in September and most commentators expect a strong showing by the left. The only leaders of major European countries, whose posts appear secure for the moment, are French president, Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi. Despite the fact that Italy and France are also hit by the financial crisis, the leftist opposition in both countries is in disarray and does not pose a significant threat to the governments. That said, opinion polls across the rest of Europe predict that voters will seize the opportunity of the European elections to punish their leaders for the worst recession the continent has gone through, since World War II.
The extent to which today’s European governments are indeed responsible for the present crisis is debatable. It is certain, however, that these governments had at least achieved a broad consensus regarding the future of Europe (with the notable exceptions of the Czech and Polish presidencies). Their weakening may therefore slow down the process of institutional consolidation of the E.U., especially after the stalemate caused by the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. What is even more worrying is the prospect of a strengthening of extreme political parties, at both ends of the ideological spectrum, to the point that they will become an obstacle to European unification.
The apathy and indifference of median mainstream voters towards the E.U, and the amplification of anti-immigration public rhetoric, due to the financial crisis, are a further cause for concern. Besides, if abstention levels from the polls exceed 50%, as they did last time, then the big loser of the forthcoming European Elections will most certainly be Europe itself.