Opinion

Europe’s citizens say they want a more political EU

The recent European Parliament election suggests that a growing share of European voters sees things differently from national governments. Whereas citizens clearly used their votes to express policy preferences, very few governments are ready for a more political EU leadership.

By: and Date: June 4, 2019 Topic: Macroeconomic policy

This article was published by Project Syndicate.

Project Syndicate logo

The most significant result of the recent European Parliament election is neither that conservatives and social democrats lost seats to Liberals and Greens, nor that far-right nationalists gained less than anticipated. It is that citizens voted in much larger numbers than anyone expected.

From the first popular election of the European Parliament, in 1979, to the last one, in 2014, turnout inexorably declined, gradually falling from 63% to 43%. Five years ago, less than half of the eligible electorate turned out to vote in 20 out of the European Union’s 28 member states, thereby denting the parliament’s democratic legitimacy. Observers openly questioned the value of elections that did not elicit voters’ interest. The EU, it was said, belongs to diplomats and technocrats, not to citizens.

The 2019 election was a spectacular reversal of this trend. Turnout increased in 20 countries, reaching 51% on average, or eight percentage points higher than last time. True, in some countries, the election was held simultaneously with national polls, or it was used as a vehicle for domestic political messaging. But the break with the past was too sharp and too broad for such coincidences to add up to a convincing explanation.

Granular analysis of the election results will tell us which categories of voters turned up in larger numbers, and why. In the meantime, the best explanation is that many citizens decided that enough was at stake this time to cast their ballots. As Emmanuel Rivière of Kantar, a research consultancy, has shown, motivations certainly varied: for some, it was climate change; for others, it was migration, terrorism, or Europe’s ability to remain relevant in a world of great-power rivalry. Because they regarded the EU as a real player in these matters, voters chose to express their preferences and send to parliament representatives who could defend their views and interests.

Something important was also at stake when the previous elections were held, in 2014. The euro zone had hardly exited its longest recession in decades, and it was still mired in austerity. But policy choices back then were largely in the hands of national governments. Whether reforms were needed, and whether bailouts were appropriate, largely split the electorate along national lines. It was a matter for negotiation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her counterparts, not a transnational matter that citizens would want to decide upon according to political preferences.

Climate change is different. Young people’s Fridays for Future movement has spread across borders, demanding radical change in policy and lifestyle. The same holds for migration. Those who oppose it may want to retreat behind national borders, but they know perfectly well that as far as immigration is concerned, the members of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area are in fact deeply interdependent.

If turnout followed interest in the election, the question now is what the new European Parliament can deliver. In a standard democracy, an election typically leads to the formation of a new majority – and to corresponding policy changes. In the EU, however, parliament is only one player in the determination of policy, alongside the European Commission (appointed by member states) and the European Council (composed of national heads of state or government). This setup implies that there is only a weak link between election results and policy priorities.

Furthermore, parliamentary coalitions are also characterised by inertia. By usual standards, the shift away from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the two hitherto dominant parties, would be significant enough to trigger a change of majority: they lost 11 percentage points and 80 seats combined, to the benefit of the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE, which is in the process of merging with the Renaissance list sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron), the Greens, and the right-wing nationalists (whose affiliation is still undecided). As no feasible alternative coalition commands a majority, however, it will merely imply a broadening of the current alliance, to include ALDE or both it and the Greens. The EPP and the S&D will remain the dominant players, ensuring political continuity.

Because it is not a federation, the EU cannot be run by a purely political government. But the rise of pan-European debates and the emergence of pan-European preferences that cut across national lines imply that it cannot be run by a politically deaf institution, either. Shortly after his appointment as president of the Commission in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker famously claimed that he wanted it to be a “strong and political team” that would work on the basis of a “political contract” with the parliament. Juncker was much criticised for what was regarded as a departure from neutrality vis-à-vis national governments of various colours, but he had a point: if voters regard European policy issues as a matter for political choice, the Commission cannot be a purely technocratic body.

What this election suggests is that a growing share of European voters sees things differently from national governments. Whereas citizens clearly used their votes to express policy preferences, very few governments are ready for a more political EU leadership. Divided as they are on the end goal of European integration, and confronted with nationalist pressures at home, they remain hostile to giving the EU more authority or permitting the Commission to exercise its prerogatives in a more political way. In essence, most governments nowadays stand for the status quo.

In five years however, either the EU will have delivered on what citizens rightly regard as European common goods, or it will have lost relevance and legitimacy. How to respond to this demand while satisfying governments’ preference for stability and compromises among sovereign states is the contradiction confronting the EU. Whether this contradiction can be resolved will, in turn, determine whether citizens remain interested in European elections, or eventually give up and stay home.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to [email protected].

Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

What is in store for Euro area economies?

ECB Executive Board Member Philip Lane discusses the outlook for Euro area economies.

Speakers: Maria Demertzis and Philip Lane Topic: European governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: May 5, 2022
Read article
 

Opinion

European governance

How to reconcile increased green public investment needs with fiscal consolidation

The EU’s ambitious emissions reduction targets will require a major increase in green investments. This column considers options for increasing public green investment when major consolidations are needed after the fiscal support provided during the pandemic. The authors make the case for a green golden rule allowing green investment to be funded by deficits that would not count in the fiscal rules. Concerns about ‘greenwashing’ could be addressed through a narrow definition of green investments and strong institutional scrutiny, while countries with debt sustainability concerns could initially rely only on NGEU for their green investment.

By: Zsolt Darvas and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European governance, Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Date: March 8, 2022
Read article More on this topic
 

External Publication

The Euro in 2022

An annual review of the euro published jointly by Fundación ICO and Fundación de Estudios Financieros to expand knowledge, raise awareness of the single currency, and suggest ideas and proposals for strengthening its acceptance and sustainability.

By: Grégory Claeys, Maria Demertzis and Fernando Fernández Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: February 17, 2022
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

A debate on fiscal rules and the new monetary strategy

Presentation of the Yearbook of the Euro 2022.

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Fernando Fernández, Gonzalo García Andrés, José Carlos García de Quevedo, Pablo Hernández de Cos and Jorge Yzaguirre Topic: European governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: February 17, 2022
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Who is suffering most from rising inflation?

The lowest income households are suffering disproportionally from the current inflation increase, with rising energy prices the main culprit.

By: Grégory Claeys and Lionel Guetta-Jeanrenaud Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: February 1, 2022
Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

The euro comes of age

A well-functioning euro reflects a degree of unity that allows the EU to credibly claim a position at the global table and therefore help shape the policies that will deal with global problems. That is a decisive success.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: January 13, 2022
Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

The Euro at 20

The euro’s advocates hoped that the single currency would deliver economic and financial integration, policy convergence, political amalgamation, and global influence. While these predictions were often wide of the mark, the euro has arguably proven to be a wise investment.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: January 3, 2022
Read article
 

Blog Post

European governance

Policy coordination failures in the euro area: not just an outcome, but by design

Discussions on the fiscal framework should aim to correct its procyclical nature with a view to promoting more cooperative outcomes.

By: Maria Demertzis and Nicola Viegi Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: December 20, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

Inflation ideology: camp permanent or camp temporary?

Policy focus should be on tackling uncertainties by being able to tackle as many scenarios as possible.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: December 9, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Blog Post

Fiscal arithmetic and risk of sovereign insolvency

The record-high debt levels in advanced economies increase the risk of sovereign insolvency. Governments should start fiscal consolidation soon in an environment of low nominal and real interest rates and post-COVID growth.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global economy and trade, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 18, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

European monetary policy: lessons from the past two decades

This event will feature the presentation of “Monetary Policy in Times of Crisis – A Tale of Two Decades of the European Central Bank."

Speakers: Petra Geraats, Wolfgang Lemke, Francesco Papadia and Massimo Rostagno Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: November 4, 2021
Read article
 

Blog Post

European governance

Germany’s post-pandemic current account surplus

The pandemic has increased the net lending position of the German corporate sector. By incentivising private investment, policymakers could trigger a virtuous cycle of increasing wages, decreasing corporate net lending, which would eventually lead to a reduction of the economy-wide current account surplus.

By: Lionel Guetta-Jeanrenaud and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 21, 2021
Load more posts