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The Center Holds: Who Governs after the European Parliamentary Elections?



The European Parliament elections scheduled for May 22–25, will set up the first pan-European popular referendum on how European leadership has handled its crisis. Despite the leaders' success in stabilizing the European and euro area economies, European voters' views about the institutional and economic solutions, often crafted in the middle of the night in Brussels, remain untested. These are also the first elections under the EU Lisbon Treaty, which in 2009 granted the European Parliament greater political power in Europe. Two aspects of the elections stand out.

I. The Campaign—Trying to Force the Hands of Leaders

The European Parliament has more power under the Lisbon Treaty but not necessarily more voter legitimacy. Voter interest has been declining since the first elections in 1979, when 62 percent of the electorates in the 9 member countries participated. In the most recent elections in 2009 only 43 percent of the electorates in 27 member states bothered to participate. This decline mirrors the generally lower participation in newer EU member states, but participation rates among the core founding EU members of Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands have also dropped more than 20 percent from 1979–2009. These declines must be reversed if the European Parliament is to align its new political powers with commensurate political legitimacy.

To increase voter interest, the main parties in the Parliament election have selected lead candidates for the next European Commission president. Turning the vote into an easily understandable and personal horse race is intended to boost media and voter interest. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will bring out the vote, however.

In addition, the winning candidate—either the center-right former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker or the center-left current European Parliament president Martin Schulz from Germany—must be appointed president by EU leaders, a doubtful proposition. It is questionable whether a parliamentary majority could usurp the right to select the next president of the Commission. The Lisbon Treaty's Article 9A states that the European Parliament shall "elect" the president of the Commission. But Article 9D makes it clear that the European Council takes the parliamentary elections into account but that the Council, "acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission" and that the candidate "shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members." EU heads of state must factor in the outcome of the European elections and the need for their candidate to command a double majority (qualified majority in the EU Council and simple majority in the European Parliament). They are not likely to surrender their power to make the decision.

Fortunately a relatively straightforward solution to this potential clash is likely. The EU Council merely has to select a candidate of sufficient quality from the winning party to conform with the Treaty and then dare the new European Parliament to cause an institutional gridlock by rejecting him or her. The European Parliament front-runner candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) have stated that it is inconceivable that the next president won't be found among them. They are saying this to remain relevant and boost voter interest. Once the election itself is over, however, the imperative of enabling the EU machinery to function likely takes precedent.

EU leaders after the elections will coalesce on their own candidate, who—if of sufficient quality—will be hard for the European Parliament to reject. Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders might also happily block Juncker and Schultz for their own political reasons. Selecting a woman, a younger candidate, or one from a new member state would also make it harder for the European Parliament to say no. Perhaps at the next EU elections in 2019, and after selecting more compelling Spitzenkandidaten though a lengthy, multicountry and truly competitive primary election process, the European Parliament will force the hands of the EU Council and impose their candidate for Commission President upon them.

II. The Election Outcome—Another Grand Coalition in Europe

Much has been made of the likely increase in the representation in the European Parliament of populist, nationalist, and EU-skeptic parties. Here too, however, winning parliamentary representation is not the same as gaining actual political influence. Increased representation for such a diverse group hardly produces a greater ability to formulate or push for political demands. The incompatible policy demands of far-right, far-left, and nationalist groups, for example, will limit their ability to collaborate ideologically and across borders. The main political change in the European Parliament will be the shift from a dominant center-right grouping to one in which the center-right and center-left are more evenly represented.

The center-left and center-right parties should receive about 75 percent of the seats, enabling them to keep the EU machinery on track. Such a de facto grand coalition is a sensible and responsible political move, even if it might not help the European Parliament broaden its legitimacy as a forum for competitive political debate in Europe. A European Parliament grand coalition basically reflects an increasing trend visible in many national EU parliaments, too.

Germany, for example, has had a center-right and center-left grand coalition since late 2013 (for the second time since 2005) and the Netherlands has had one since late 2012. Similar coalitions have ruled in Austria since late 2013 and in Ireland since 2011, while Italy and Greece have had similar coalitions supporting both technocrats and elected leaders. Belgium and Finland have also had multiparty center-right and center-left coalition governments. In other European countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, most large political agreements by tradition involve the main center-right and center-left parties, so these can be declared grand coalitions in all but name. Another "centrist convergence" in the European Parliament would hardly be surprising.

Many of these grand coalitions have been forged in response to crisis and demands from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. Germany and the Netherlands prove that the trend is more than crisis-driven, however. The broad consensus in Europe on fiscal, social welfare, and economic openness, and the need for enhanced EU/euro area policy coordination, act as a moderating influence on both the center-left and center-right. All European countries face long-term fiscal and economic sustainability challenges, limiting their governing options and strengthening convergence toward the center.

This centrist consensus does create political space for fringe parties to perform well. The most successful populist movements in Europe—the Front Nationale in France, the Swiss People's Party, the Dutch Freedom Party, or the Danish People's Party—combine right-wing anti-immigration sentiment with left-wing economic policies to protect the national welfare state and low-skilled and low-income workers from the effects of globalization. As center-left parties shift to the center, these parties become the biggest blue-collar vote-getters.

Hence the recurring discussion about so-called "welfare tourism" in the European Union has become part of the election campaign. The issue is the extent to which EU citizens move to another member state to claim welfare benefits rather than jobs. Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other countries with migrant populations have voiced concerns about this alleged phenomenon.

According to the intra-EU migration data, most EU citizens move to work or seek employment. They are also younger than the overall EU populations and more likely to be employed. Welfare tourism is trivial in scope and essentially a political myth. But the issue is tailor-made for Europe's new populists, who adopt right-wing anti-immigration policies to (allegedly) protect left-wing welfare benefits for native voters.

This political strategy of nativist welfare chauvinism is designed to drive a wedge between principally the center-left social-democratic parties and their traditional blue-collar supporters. The most successful populist movements in Europe are predominantly a long-term electoral threat to the center-left, though with the white-collar and service sectors increasing, it is ultimately highly unlikely that catering to the dwindling blue-collar vote in this way will , secure any populist movement support from the majority of voters. The best these new populists can hope for is to continue influencing rather than supplanting established parties and governing coalitions.

With more populist members, the next European Parliament will likely be governed by an establishment grand coalition designed to thwart them. In this, the European Parliament resembles most of its national counterparts in Europe.

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