European elections: The view from ECFR?s national offices

ECFR?s national offices give a run down of their countries? European election results

United Kingdom

The MP expenses scandal amid the economic crisis formed the UK backdrop to the 2009 European elections. Voters clearly took their frustrations out on an already ailing Labour government, bumping the now crippled party to third in the European elections vote, with a 15.7% share. The Conservatives won the election, but their share of the vote (27.7%) increased only slightly from 2004. They also gained an MEP, taking their tally to 25 – only double that of Labour, who now only holds 13 seats.

The big winner from these elections was Ukip – UK Independent – a party that strongly advocates for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. It gained 16.5% of the vote and increased its number of MEPs to 13, the same as Labour. This result illustrates the British public’s frustration with Westminster over the expenses scandal, as well as the nation wide euroscepticism – a danger to the Lisbon Treaty if the Tory party wins the next national election (the Tories have said that they will hold a referendum on Lisbon).

A lot of attention has focused on the British National Party’s ‘break-through’. The hard-right party, which advocates for a UK withdrawal from the EU, and end to immigration and a governmental focus on ‘indigenous’ Britons, won 2 seats, but their share of the vote (6.2%) only increased slightly. The BNP’s success at this election, in which they spent more campaign money on than ever before, illustrates more a collapse in support for Labour rather than a surge in BNP support.

The Liberal Democrats were hoping to gain from the public’s distrust and dissatisfaction with Labour. They did gain an MEP (they now have 11), but their percentage of the vote was slightly lower than in 2004 (13.7%). The Greens managed to beat Labour in the south of England and their percentage of the vote increased (8.6%), but their number of MEPs remained at 2.

This was a European election fought on national scandals, and thus shows the British public’s frustration with their politics and an overall euroskeptism. Labour’s share of the vote plummeted and no other party clearly got the windfall – the Conservatives, Ukip, the Greens and the BNP all took a slice out Labour’s vote spillage. It seems that everyone just did not want to vote for Labour.

Germany

The German European elections results are a bouquet of small surprises, but no significant bombshells. But the biggest relief was that participation remained stable – 42%, above the European average. It was important that in these times of economic turmoil that the 40% threshold was reached.

The Christian-Conservative Party (CDU) lost some 6%, but still came out on top with 37.8%, including the 6.2% of the Bavarian CSU. As the EP-elections took place only three month ahead of the German election, this result lead the Secretary General of the CDU, Ronald Pofalla, to aim for an historic 40% of the vote in the forthcoming national elections in September. Yes, the European elections certainly push Merkel’s party to prime position. This, and a strong 10% polling for the Liberals, illustrates that German politics will now have a ‘black-yellow’ perspective – a conservative-liberal coalition – as possible outcome of the national elections.

The conservative joy went hand-in-hand with the German Social Democrats’ frustration. They now need to get over the poorest result in their history: only 21% of vote. Given the financial crisis and its social ramifications, one could have expected a stronger rise of the ‘Left’. But this, perhaps surprisingly, did not happen. The SPD had already lost hugely at the last European elections in 2004, due to the sharp social cuts that former SPD-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had put into place. This time they had been heavily engaged in saving Opel and the warehouse chain Karstadt – they thought they had got their ‘social image’ back. But the results still show significant populist dissatisfaction with the party, and the German Left in general.  The (new) Left party (‘Die Linke’) – the former GDR-party PDS – who gained a stable 7% of the vote, is the structural problem for the Social Democrats. The German Left is now split into two – the SPD is unable to unite the 30% plus slice of voters it used to as it now has to deal with this clear socialist challenger.

Not really mentioned in analysis of the election results but nevertheless important – and a new trend – is the 10% that went to ‘divers’ (single-issue parties). These ‘divers’ cover anything from the ‘retirement party’ to the ‘animal protection party’ or the party ‘for esoteric policy’. The figure for single issue parties at the far fringe of politics was rarely higher than 3% in the time of the Federal Republic. The rising figure is another indication of increasing fragmentation and volatility in the German voting system, as much it is for voters’ frustration about Europe.

Spain

Elections were fought on a national basis – not surprising given the economic crisis and the significant amount of job losses the country has suffered. The main question was whether the government, having won the elections in February 2008 when the economy was booming, would now be able to withstand the shock of 4 million job losses and a deep economic recession.

The results are now in: 44.3% of the public voted – a slight dip compared to 2004’s 45.1%. The Conservatives won the elections in Spain with 42.3% of the vote (winning 23 of the 50 seats). The Socialists, who have been government since 2004, made 38.51% (21 seats). The results are significant because the Conservatives have won their first national elections since 2000, but the Socialist’s defeat is not as devastating as one would have expected given the economic crisis.

The main lines of the Spanish party system have not been altered: the two big parties have rather stable floors in terms of the number of votes. Victories or defeats are never dramatic.

France

The European elections in France have been a resounding success for Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP (28%), a rout for Martine Aubry’s Socialists (16.8%), a major triumph for Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Greens (16.2%) and a severe setback for the centrist candidate François Bayrou (8.5%). As in other European countries, the centre-right did extremely well, with a campaign largely focused on Sarkozy’s achievements during the French EU presidency (negotiating an end to the war in Georgia and pushing for European action against the financial crisis).

The Socialists, as the centrist leader Bayrou, chose to focus their campaign largely on the opposition to Sarkozy at national level and their push to unseat him in the 2012 presidential elections. In this, the Socialists maintained no more than a semblance of unity behind their new leader Martine Aubry, while former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal offered reluctant support to the party leadership. The dramatically poor Socialist score was a personal defeat for Aubry, who failed to meet her fist electoral test, and a collective defeat for a party leadership which has been struggling to come up with a strong message on Europe since it split over the vote on the constitutional treaty five years ago.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Greens were the only mainstream political force to run a campaign based on European issues; his success can be seen as proof that a significant portion of the French electorate is eager to move beyond the practice of hijacking European elections for purely national political debates. A fierce clash during a television debate between Bayrou and Cohn-Bendit three days before the elections, during which Bayrou accused Cohn-Bendit of implicitly endorsing paedophilia in a book written in 1975, and openly charged him with weakness in resisting the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, was widely seen as damaging to Bayrou’s prestige and his party’s electoral result. As is customary in France’s European elections, mostly euro-sceptic fringe parties of the far right and the far left collectively found the support of a nearly a third of the electorate, but none of them achieved a significant electoral success.

It is by no means clear that the Ecologists’ success can be replicated in future national elections. The main message arising from Sunday’s vote is the electoral success of Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative leadership so far and the inability of the Socialist Party to come up with a political strategy to counter it.

Bulgaria and the new member states

The first Bulgarian European elections held simultaneously with rest of the EU confirmed the low popularity of the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Against the background of a 10% growth in the voters’ turnout (38% participated in Sunday’s vote) the Socialists succeeded to mobilise only 18 % support (4 seats). GERB, the centre-right party of Sofia’s mayor Boyko Borissov scored the highest result of 24.5% (5 seats).

In terms of fringe parties, two formations will contribute to the European Parliament group of ALDE: the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) – the party led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish descent, won 3 seats, and National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) 2 seats. The ultra-nationalist Ataka party won 2 seats and the traditional centre-right Blue Coalition 1 seat. Current Commissioner for Consumer Affairs Meglena Kuneva, who headed NDSV’s list, is said to be the main reason for her party’s presence in the future European Parliament (NDSV has been constantly registering very low results in the opinion polls for the last year).

The vote, however, was characterised by the scattered political landscape it created ahead of the national election, scheduled for July 5. Bulgarian politicians and their supporters clearly took the European elections as the acid test ahead of elections for Bulgarian Parliament in July. Almost all the debates were on issues that rest in the hands of the next Bulgarian government, such as restoring the EU’s trust in Bulgaria’s ability to absorb EU funds, fighting corruption and crime and maintaining the country’s economic stability amid the ongoing economic crisis.

The economic downturn marked the electoral campaigns all over the new member states, where majority of the voters casted their ballots against the ruling parties and coalitions, with the exception of Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania. The European trend of strengthening of the centre-right parties and simultaneously of rise of nationalists and right-wing populists apply also to the 10 new member states from Central and Eastern Europe.

 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.