Young people chose Europe!
The European Parliament elections are over, with the liberal wing sighing with relief, while the right wingers can smugly point to the increase to 25% of representation in the world’s second largest democratically-elected parliament. The good news is that the elections gained something of a new momentum. Since its first-ever direct elections in 1979, the voter turnout has continuously shrunk, while this year there was an increased participation – almost 9% more than the previous elections. This positive trend suggests that people are interested in Europe again. More good news is that the populists and nationalists are contained, and hysteria of a genuine cleavage among pro-EU and anti-EU populist forces is over.
Recent elections to the European Parliament produced better results than one could have expected, and for a simple reason: the silent pro-European majority has spoken. What they said is that they want to preserve the values on which the European Union was founded. EP elections used to be a boring affair, forsaken by voters and barely noticed by the media. But this election broke the mould, capturing attention as it confounded expectations.
Voter turnout, which had been declining since the first European Parliament election in 1979, increased sharply this time, reaching just over 50%. That is not only the highest turnout for a European Parliament election in 20 years, it is also higher than the 40-50% typical of a mid-term congressional election in the United States. Turnout excluding the United Kingdom – over 53% – was comparable to that of the 2016 US presidential election.
A key factor driving the increase in participation was probably the rise of populist parties, but not for the reason one might think. For some time, opinion polls have revealed rising support for European Union membership, with citizens reporting more confidence in EU institutions than in national institutions. So the specter of Brexit, and the fear that populist forces in other countries would jeopardize the benefits of European integration, may have fueled higher turnout. Yes, populist forces gained ground, but not nearly as much as some had feared. Moreover, none of the major populist parties proposed leaving the EU (or the euro), whereas 16 of them advocated such an outcome just a year ago.
Nonetheless, across countries, there is only a weak correlation between the EU’s popularity and participation in the European Parliament elections. In some countries – Slovakia, for example – people are happy to be in the EU, but still see no point in voting for its parliament, with only one-fifth of the population showing up at the polls.
A second surprise – again reflecting a widespread desire to remain in the EU – was that the pro-European center largely held its dominant position, with losses by the two major parties (Conservatives and Social Democrats) mostly offset by gains for the Liberals and especially the Greens. This new center is more fractured, and a coalition of at least three parties will be needed for a majority. But this reflects the political reality on the ground: in many EU member states, the two largest parties cannot count on winning a combined majority of the vote.
The recent election campaign also stood out for the way European issues were discussed. In line with the old adage that “all politics is local,” issues were still framed in terms of national circumstances and interests. But when Europe was invoked, there was an underlying sense of solidarity.
Those invocations mostly focused on security, especially immigration, which opinion polls indicate remains the challenge for Europe that people care about most. Many campaigns featured rhetoric about “taking back control.” But, unlike in the UK, where that phrase means controlling the national border, on the European continent, it generally meant strengthening the external EU border.
A similar shift can be seen on other issues, especially trade. Brexiteers have repeatedly argued that the UK needs to regain control over its own trade policy. But, in view of US President Donald Trump’s erratic moves, the EU’s other member states have reached the opposite conclusion: in a more uncertain world, only a strong Europe can prevent them from being at the mercy of the US and China.
The election’s outcome holds important implications not only for the future of the EU, but also – and more immediately – for the European Parliament itself. The fact that the EU’s legislature does not embody the “one person, one vote” principle has long impeded it from becoming a true parliament. Instead, seats are allocated to member states according to the principle of so-called degressive proportionality: the number of voters per MEP shrinks in the smaller member states and grows in the larger ones.
A large member state like Germany, Italy, or France has one MEP for every 800,000 citizens or so. Among the smallest member states, the ratio is closer to 1:100,000. In other words, a single vote in a small EU country can be “worth” nearly eight times more than a vote in a large country.
The German Constitutional Court has cited degressive proportionality in arguing that the European Parliament cannot be regarded as fully democratically legitimate. But this claim disregards the dual foundations of the EU, which is a union of both member states and their people.
In a sense, the European Parliament has much in common with the US system. On the one hand, the body can be viewed as a combination of the two chambers of the US Congress: the Senate (which has two representatives per state, regardless of size) and the House of Representatives (where members represent districts of near-equal size).
On the other hand, the European Parliament’s structure resembles that created by the US Electoral College, which gives greater weight in presidential elections to voters in less populous states. In the US, these differences can be decisive: in three of the last seven presidential elections, the victor either did not win a majority of the popular vote (Bill Clinton in 1992), or actually won fewer votes than the loser (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016).
Fortunately for Europe, the over-representation of MEPs from smaller member states has not become a major issue. This perhaps reflects the fact that there has been no clear, permanent schism between east and west, north and south, or small and large. In the US, by contrast, there is a longstanding and significant divide in political attitudes between the more populous coastal states and less densely populated inland states.
Overall, the European Parliament seems to have taken a small but important step toward becoming a true expression of Europeans’ popular will. Many issues are still decided by national leaders in the European Council, which derives its legitimacy from national-level elections. But the balance of authority between European and national leaders now seems to be less lopsided.
Why results are promising for the EU?
- Historic participation of European citizens
This election was marked by the participation of a record number of Europeans in these elections. Polling agencies had not anticipated this regain of citizens’ interest in the elections to the European Parliament. Europeans overall mobilised to make their voice heard, with participation rising to 50.8% in the EU as a whole. This trend displays the increasing interest of citizens in European issues. It manifests the big expectations and aspirations of voters who want the EU to find solutions to numerous big global challenges. Finally, the themes that marked the campaign, like Brexit, the migration question and the fight against global change, revealed an unprecedented emergence of a European public opinion.
- A Parliament that can change Europe
The nationalist wave, which was being expected in Europe, did not take place. The strengthening of the liberals and democrats on the centre and the breakthrough of the Greens illustrate a transformation of the European political landscape. Thanks to mobilisation of European voters, the new composition of the European Parliament paves the way for a change of course. Indeed, candidates who rejected the status quo and who want to give new breath to Europe are entering the European Parliament in large numbers. These results send a clear message: the EU needs to do more to respond to the main concerns of Europeans and to big global challenges. The need for Europe has rarely been as strong.
- Young people created a surprise
It was young people who created a double surprise at the European elections. Through their significant mobilisation to vote as well as actions for climate across the continent, they have brought environment to the heart of the debate, and that across the whole political spectrum. Youth made the choice to concretise their mobilisation for climate at the ballot boxes. Far from disinterest in politics that often marks this age group, young people demonstrated their interest in European and global topics. They voted to state loudly and clearly that the EU is the only actor that can respond to the great challenges of our era, including environmental protection, and that we need to give it the means to act in the next five years. They chose hope of a better Europe, rather than a nationalist international. Young people have chosen Europe. Europe must not let them down.