European elections: A coming of age?

France’s snap elections are the most spectacular sign that EU elections now matter. But whether the far right’s shift from fundamental opposition towards reform from within politicizes the EU in a positive way depends on the centre’s readiness to hold its ground.

June’s European elections produced a shock. But it was less the result that was surprising – the surge of the far right had been predicted for months – than the reaction of the French president. Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap election was astonishing not only because of the risk it entailed – there was a strong possibility that Marine le Pen’s hard-right National Rally would win a majority in the National Assembly – but also because it was prompted by the result of a European election.

This kind of impact is unprecedented for elections that are traditionally seen as ‘second-order’ with little political consequence. Rather than determining the direction of politics in Europe, commentators and analysts have generally interpreted EP elections as a referendum on the EU’s popularity, with (consistently low) voter turnout as the central result. Even the extent to which they can be called ‘European’ is up for debate. After all, the candidates, campaigns and media coverage remain predominantly national, just as the results are generally seen as sending a message to domestic parties rather than European ones.

The disruptive effect of the latest elections suggest that this phase might be over. While European elections are still far from being truly continental or perceived as having equal weight to national elections, 2024 clearly showed that after decades in which their relevance, legitimacy and meaning have been contested, they are coming of age politically.

Image: European Parliament / Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of Europe’s flawed elections

European elections were a fundamentally flawed project from the outset. Even the Members of the European Parliament who drafted the plans for the first European election in 1979 realised its shortcomings. Although many of them dreamt of truly European elections in which citizens could vote for European political parties and candidates from all nine member states, they also realized that this was legally and politically impossible.

Despite being called ‘European’, the elections they devised were therefore really about the selection of national candidates for the European Parliament. Although European themes are central, the most recent campaign was still a patchwork of different national campaigns, each with their own characteristics and figureheads.

The thoroughly national character of the European elections has allowed the governments of the union’s member states, gathered in the European Council, to downplay their significance in determining the course of the EU. An example of this is how national leaders have clung on to their prerogative to appoint the president of the European Commission, and to put forward candidates. In 2014, the European Parliament attempted to overturn this custom by claiming that the lead candidate of the party group that emerged from the elections victorious should be the Commission President. This was then Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People’s Party. But it was the first and last time that Europeans have had even an indirect say in who became the head of the European Commission.

With 27 different electoral systems and no recognisably democratic contest for the top positions, it is difficult for Europeans to know who they are voting for, especially given the scant media coverage given to the European Parliament. Equally obscure to voters is the question of what they are actually voting for.

This has to do in part with the powers of the European Parliament. Despite having grown considerably over the past decades, these powers remain underdeveloped in a number of crucial areas. Unlike all other national parliaments in the EU, the European Parliament has no right to propose legislation: that is the near-exclusive domain of the European Commission. This means that the political groups in the European Parliament – or candidates standing for election – cannot make campaign promises to deliver on certain policies. By the same token, the European elections are not the public evaluation of policies that national elections often are.

Of course, there are good reasons why the European elections work as they do. But these flaws undeniably affect the way in which voters perceive the elections, and go some way towards explaining why Europeans began losing interest in the EU elections soon after they were introduced. While the first elections brought 62 percent of eligible voters to the polls in 1979, turnout dropped for the seven elections that followed, reaching a record low in 2014 with 42 percent (EU data).

This downward trend is paradoxical. These 25 years marked the massive expansion of the European project, with the addition of new member states, the Schengen agreement, the creation of the European Union at Maastricht, and the introduction of the euro. And out of these reforms, the European Parliament emerged as a powerful co-legislator – a parliament with considerable influence, but without a people.

The lack of public interest in European politics and elections during this period is understandable. For decades, the EU revolved primarily around its internal market: price policy for agricultural produce, product labelling, international trade agreements and food safety standards. Not the kinds of subjects that are at the forefront of voters’ minds. This meant that there was hardly any incentive for national politicians and media to engage with European politics and policy. To the extent that such debate existed, it certainly did not travel across borders, since there were hardly any pan-European media outlets at the time (something that is still the case today). This absence of a European ‘public sphere’ is yet another structural deficiency of Europe’s elections, since a shared space for public debate is a prerequisite for the formation of a shared sense of political purpose and preference for a shared future.

The EU’s sphere of action began moving into areas like foreign affairs, security and monetary policy. But European elections remained as flawed as they had been from the start, including the low turnout figures. This made the EU vulnerable to attack. The waning public support for the EU in the early 2000s enabled its critics to portray it as a meddlesome bureaucratic monster that imposed all kinds of trivial and technical regulations upon its members. Across the now expanded EU, Euroscepticism became a viable political strategy.

In the absence of a contest for the EU leadership or a political contest for the future course of the EU, the European elections became a referendum on the EU’s popularity. Rather than which party group emerged from the elections victorious, turnout was seen as the most accurate expression of the public’s support for and interest in European integration. The further turnout dipped, the more damning the verdict was on the capacity of the European Parliament, and by extension the EU, to speak on behalf of citizens.

A coming of age?

For a long time, this dynamic determined the image of the European elections. But in 2019 something changed. For the first time since 1979, turnout increased (to 50.7%, a level not seen since 1994). Suddenly, it seemed that voters were starting to see the European elections as relevant. This figure was still far from the levels generally seen for national elections; but it marked a clear break with the trend. In the 2024 elections, this upward curve was consolidated, with turnout increasing further to 51.1%.

More than the internal functioning of the European Parliament itself, this appears to be the result of the changing environment the EU now finds itself in. In 2019, it was Brexit, as well as the increasing importance of climate change, that appeared to drive voters to the polls. In 2024, the COVID-19 crisis, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China and an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment further increased the feeling of a shared political purpose.

But whether the elections can be seen as fully-fledged political events depends on more than turnout levels. The primary definition of meaningful ‘first-order’ elections is the extent to which voters and political elites alike experience them as decisive: whether they have the potential to shape important policies and steer the EU’s political future in a particular direction.

June’s elections provided several grounds to argue that the European elections have ‘matured’. June’s elections were surprising in their impact on domestic politics, and not only in France: in Germany, the political landscape looks substantially different with the rise of Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) – prompting the AfD as well as the Christian Social Union to follow Macron’s example and to call for national elections. In Italy, the victory of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) consolidated her position in Italian politics and as a figurehead on the European political stage.

And while this argument still frames the relevance of EU elections in domestic rather than European terms, this time there were more actual European issues at stake. One could point at the geopolitical context, but also at the fierce agricultural protests that foreshadowed the elections. With farmers from several member states heading to Brussels to protest the EU’s green ambitions, the European Green Deal became the subject of heated debate across the continent. Likewise, the migration debate that dominated public discourse in many countries during the elections campaigns is increasingly being conducted in European terms.

Along the same lines, it is striking that the elections were not about how much integration is desired, but about what kind of EU people want. With the prospect of leaving the EU steadily losing its appeal, far-right parties are now claiming to be advocates for change from within. While questions about the desired shape of the EU continue to be strongly debated, the times when any discussion about the EU would automatically turn into a conflict between supporters and opponents of the union itself seem to be behind us.

This indicates that the 2024 elections were more about the EU’s actual political future than ever before. Besides being an indirect way for voters to exercise pressure on domestic politics, they were a platform where rival political movements articulated their visions for the future of Europe. More than in any previous European election, they gave a sense of the direction of the political wind currently blowing through Europe, even if it flies in the face of the ideals originally embraced by the pioneers of European elections.

Are we therefore at a stage where we can speak of truly European elections? It is too early to jump to that conclusion. After all, these elections were rarely about the content of European policies. While worries about policy issues like migration or climate may have driven voters to the polls, the debates were not generally linked to how the European Parliament might act on them. Indeed, to the extent that they took place at all, policy debates were still decidedly national, and public attention was minimal compared to national elections.

But the transformation is more meaningful than it may appear The relevance of the European elections can no longer be played down as ‘second-order’. They matter. They have an impact on both domestic and European politics, and have sparked simultaneous debates about European themes across the continent – more  than ever before.

The road ahead

That is not to say that they increasingly resemble national elections. There are simply too many structural obstacles preventing European elections attaining that kind of significance. First and foremost, the EU remains too far removed from citizens, both physically and mentally. In the absence of a truly European media landscape, political debates on Europe will remain thoroughly entrenched in national contexts, with their own language, political figureheads and concerns.

And while some hope that a more powerful European Parliament might further the political integration of Europe and capture the attention of European voters, the institutional reforms necessary to get there look increasingly improbable. Opposing any extension of supranational power, the far right will likely block proposals for greater competences, or innovations like transnational lists for European parties.

But should the aim be to model the European Parliament and its elections on the national parliamentary model? Perhaps what we are witnessing is the growth of the European elections into a unique kind of democratic institution: not of second-order, but of an order of their own. Flawed as European elections may be in institutional terms, the socio-political circumstances in which they take place have changed drastically, giving them an unexpected relevance and centrality.

The ascendancy of the far right paradoxically presents an opportunity for EU democracy. For too long, EU policy suffered from a lack of politicization, of political parties presenting diverging and clashing visions of how to build the Europe they envisage. These elections were different. If at least some of the far-right parties live up to their promise to engage with European debates in a serious and constructive manner, as Meloni and her Brothers of Italy have done, then they will present a serious challenge to the status quo in Brussels. This could infuse the European political arena with some much-needed drama and encourage the media to pay greater attention to the EU, while fostering the idea that Europe faces a number of common challenges, even if proposals to address them differ fundamentally.

All this hinges on how the far right manifests itself in the new EU Parliament. If far right parties revert to their old game – remaining passive at the European level while playing the blame game at the national level – the European Parliament will remain stuck in its current in-between state. But a healthy form of politicisation also requires a political centre that holds true to its principles and values in the face of right-wing opposition, rather than appeasing and pampering it for the sake of power.

This might seem like a rather optimistic reading, and concerns about other possible consequences of the far-right surge are well founded. However, the EU now has a clear path to becoming more politically mature and democratic, without the need for any fundamental reforms to its – still flawed – electoral system.

The true test of this development might come quicker than we think. When the new European Parliament and Commission start their mandates, there will be no getting around the fundamental challenges facing the EU today: Russian aggression, China, the climate crisis, AI, and the potential election of Donald Trump to the White House.

It is deeply ironic that the coming of age of the EU elections coincides with a victory for the far right. Ironic, but also telling. It means that even Europe’s fiercest antagonists are starting to acknowledge the EU as a place where  crucial decisions are made.

Published 10 July 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Joris Melman / Koen Van Zon / Eurozine



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