European Elections 2014: Same Old Story or Significant Novelty?

By Giorgio Buttironi

Electors from twenty-eight member states will be asked, between 22nd and 25th May 2014, to cast their ballots to elect their representative in the European Parliament.

There are several reasons why this electoral context is different from any of its preceding equivalents. Firstly, these will be the largest elections hitherto held; with the accession of Croatia in 2013, the EU currently counts 28 countries and a population of 508 million. Secondly, these are the first parliamentary elections following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty (2009), which has already altered both the EU’s institutional architecture and the significance of the parliamentary elections.

It’s important to draw focus on this landmark event for this year, by highlighting some of the basic facts and prominent novelties regarding the 2014 European Elections.

Prominent European Legislature

Before the Maastricht Treaty (1992) came into force, the principal EU legislative procedure was consultation, whereby the Council of the European Union (including national ministers from relevant policy areas) could enact a legislative proposal advanced by the Commission, after having received a report from the European Parliament. The parliamentary report was not legally binding and could easily be overlooked by the Council, thereby relegating the elected assembly to a rather marginal role in EU policy-making.

After the Isoglucose Ruling of 1980, determining that no proposal could be translated into law without the Council having received prior parliamentary response, the EP became aware of its ‘power to delay’; albeit weak, this ruling enhanced the EP’s consciousness within the legislative process. The introduction of the Codecision Procedure in 1992, which underwent significant modifications with the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), and its expansion to an overwhelming majority of policy areas gradually attributed to the European Parliament a prominent role as law-making organism within the EU. Within the Ordinary Legislative Procedure – codecision’s new appellative after the Lisbon Treaty – the European Parliament and the Council of the EU have equal decision-making powers in the legislative process. Considering that this procedure is applied to legislate on over 80% of policy sectors, this increase in parliamentary power bears a great significant.

Standard Facts about the European Elections

Since the former European Assembly became opened to elections for the first time in 1979, this event has always been the subject of discussions for scholars and policy experts. In particular, two main factors have always been highlighted with extreme insistence: low voter turnout and absence of a European dimension to this context.

European Elections initially attracted very little interest due to the relative inefficacy of the elected legislature in the policy-making process and – judging from statistical comparisons regarding the incumbent governments’ performance across member states – they often constituted a ‘mid-term referendum’ on their performance in office. In other words, European Elections struggled to reach that innovative and prominent dimension initially sought and, even when attracting voters, they did so for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Some of these assessments could still be regarded as valid; the average turnout in 1979 reached 61.9% and steadily diminished over the following years, with only 43.2% actually showing up to vote in 2009. In the United Kingdom, where turnout has never exceeded 40% and the governing party has always suffered in electoral terms, numbers do speak louder than words. A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, conducted on a sample of 1,916 people, showed the Labour Party in the lead (32%) followed by the Conservative Party (24%) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (23%), with the Liberal Democrats far behind at 11%. Although to be treated delicately, polls insofar confirm the electorate’s tendency to “punish” governing parties during European Elections with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats forecast down by 3%; at the same time, UKIP and Labour are expected to gain respectively 7% and 17% compared to 2009.

What’s New?

The 2014 European Elections present two determinant novelties compared to the previous contests.

Firstly, the make-up of the European Parliament in terms of political composition will constitute the base to elect the next President of the European Commission, whom could be regarded as the executive chief figurehead of the EU. The European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES) have respectively selected Jean-Claude Juncker (Former PM of Luxembourg) and Martin Schulz (President of the European Parliament) as their respective presidential candidates. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE) nominated Guy Verhofstadt (Former Belgian PM) and the European Green Party advanced the joint candidacy of Ska Keller and José Bové, while the Party of the European Left designated Alexis Tsipras (Greek Leader of the Opposition). Other political formations such as the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, which comprehends the British Conservative Party, have decided not to put forward a presidential candidate in an effort to renew their opposition to any form of EU federalism.

Depending on the election results, it is therefore likely that the candidate belonging to the largest European party group will be nominated as President of the European Commission. According to a recent forecast published by Pollwatch (2nd April 2014), out of total 751 seats in the EP, the EPP and PES are tied at the top with 212 seats each. ALDE remains the third largest group with 62 seats followed by the following formations: the European Left Group with 55 seats, the Conservatives and Reformists with 46 seats, the Greens with 38 seats, and Europe for Freedom and Democracy with 36 seats. The remaining 90 seats are given to non-attached MEPs. Considering these numbers and that an absolute majority is needed to elect the new President of the Commission (376 out of 751 MEPs), no party group is likely to secure an outright and a compromise may well be needed.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty shown in recent voting intention polls, the European electorate will have a more direct role in determining the make-up of the EU’s executive branch, something that has always been missing. This could be seen as an important, albeit tiny, step towards reducing the infamous democratic deficit.

Secondly, these are the first European Elections since the ordinary legislative procedure has assumed its prominent place in the policy-making process of the European Union. Therefore, it could be argued that electors will be voting for an elected assembly that – contrarily to previous similar instances – now plays a determinant role in shaping the output of European legislation. Once again, the presence of this link between the electorate and the EP’s legislative activity leads to believe in a substantial reduction of the democratic deficit, which has always affected the European Union.

Lisbon Treaty of 2009

Contrarily to other written pieces on this topic, this article seeks to provide a more detailed look at the differences between the previous and incoming elections for the European Parliament. In particular, it was highlighted how the modifications brought about by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 might be determinant in making this event more relevant to electors across the European Union. The bond between the political composition of the legislature and the nomination of Commission President symbolizes a relevant advance in connecting the electorate with the executive organ of the EU. At the same time, the increased importance of the European Parliament in the institutional landscape might be regarded as increasing the democratic legitimacy of this specific institution.

Although, a more complete and accurate comment may only be made observing what happens after 25th May 2014, these premises should make this year’s European Elections more interesting to follow.