Voters hit back

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

in Paris

JUNE 13 was not a lucky date for most incumbent European governments. As the results of the European parliamentary elections trickled in, it became clear that the majority of the voters had been stricken by a massive case of the sulks, while those that did vote had delivered a stinging slap in the face to their rulers.

It was the lowest turnout ever recorded in European Union (E.U.) parliamentary election history, with only 45 per cent of the 320-million-strong electorate voting. Contrary to expectations, it was not the electorate from the older E.U. member-states that stayed away, but voters from the 10 new entrants that had knocked hard on Europe's door for membership. The abstention rate was 53 per cent in the wealthier older E.U. nations, the club of 15, whereas it was 75 per cent in the new entrants from Eastern Europe, with only 16 per cent voting in Slovakia.

In almost every country, incumbents suffered heavy losses. In France, the Opposition Socialists came out on top, while in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SDP) got the drubbing of its life with just 22 per cent of the vote. It was the same story in Britain, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, Austria and Finland: voters used these elections to tell parties in power that they had become deeply unpopular. In Greece and Spain, where the governments of Prime Ministers Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Costas Caramanlis are just a few months old and where the honeymoon period is not yet over, voters showed themselves more indulgent. Stalwarts like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, all had their noses rubbed into the ground.

More significant than voter apathy and the anti-incumbent vote is the fact that in many countries there has been a shift to the Right, with euro-sceptic parties doing much better than expected.

"One must be careful, however, when speaking of a definite shift to the Right and a victory of the euro-sceptics. This has been, above all, an anti-incumbency vote," said Jerome Jaffre, an eminent French political scientist. "In France, for instance, the anti-European parties from the Left as well as the Right have been mauled, the main victor being the pro-Europe socialists. There is no right-wing sweep as such. The same is true of Austria, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Estonia, where the ruling Centre-Right lost. In Belgium, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Britain, Latvia, Slovenia and Hungary, where the Social Democrats were in power, right-wing parties have done remarkably well. In some of these countries - Britain, Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic - anti-European parties have scored. Of course, we should sit up and take notice of this discontent, this lack of enthusiasm, even antipathy, for the idea of Europe."

The fanfare with which Europe's 10 new members were inducted into the club on May 1 would have led one to imagine much more enthusiasm for the E.U. and its institutions. Why then this disenchantment with its Parliament?

Voters from these new countries know little about European institutions and had almost no interest in casting their ballot for a faraway, complex and apparently toothless Parliament. This comes on top of the fact that there is a sense of disillusionment and apathy about politics in general, especially in Poland and the Czech Republic. The idea of Europe has yet to take strong root in the new member-countries, and only in the next parliamentary elections, in 2009, will it become clear whether people from the East have come any closer to the older members in dreaming the European dream.

The vote, of course, will have an immediate effect on the composition of various parliamentary groups within the newly elected body. The conservative Centre-Right EPP-ED (European Popular Party-European Democrats), which, along with the Socialists, is one of the two most powerful groups in Parliament, is likely to implode. Centrist parties resent the presence of euro-sceptic formations like Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Czech President Vaclav Klaus' Civic Democratic Party or Hungarian nationalist and former Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz within the EPP-ED. They also fear that the success of the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party in Britain will push the British Conservatives to seek more hard-line right-wing policies. It is quite likely, therefore, that more centrist elements will leave to form a separate political grouping.

Such a regrouping could have a direct impact on the election of the next President of the European Commission. Italy's Romano Prodi is to be replaced by October end and the race is on to find his successor. Under the present rules, the President of the Commission must have the support of Parliament.

Left- and right-wing parties do not see eye to eye on the choice of a candidate. If the Right favours Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, the Left is vehemently opposed to him on the grounds that he has governed with the support of the extreme right-wing Freedom Party. However, the EPP-ED may not be in such a strong position in a couple of weeks. If pro-European centrist parties form a separate parliamentary group, a candidate backed by the more united socialists just might win approval.

Several names are already doing the rounds: Luxemburg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker (Christian Democrat), Portugal's E.U. Commissioner for Justice Antonio Vitorino (Socialist), Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (Conservative), Spain's Javier Solana (Socialist) and Denmark's Conservative Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Britain's Chris Patten and Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, backed respectively by Britain and the Franco-German duo, cross each other out.

A positive fallout of the parliamentary elections was that it was a severely chastised and more accommodating bunch of leaders that was in Brussels on June 17 and 18 to adopt Europe's new Constitution.

Having failed to reach an agreement at their summit meeting in December under the bumbling and incompetent presidency of Berlusconi, they could hardly risk failing again. The meetings began with ferocious spats and mutual recrimination, especially between Chirac and Blair. The process was smoothed over by the remarkable negotiating skills of Bertie Ahern, who managed to imbue the proceedings with a spirit of compromise.

The 333-page document they adopted was indeed historic. It has been in the making for over two years. Without a Constitution and with creaking institutions, a 25-member Europe had become ungovernable. Europe will now give itself a Foreign Minister and a full-time President. It will also allow for more majority voting. Under the new rules, any decision must have the backing of at least 55 per cent of the member-states representing 65 per cent of the population from at least 15 countries. This gives some guarantees to small nations that they will not be crushed under the feet of economic and political giants like France, Germany and Britain. The Constitution also gives more weight and real powers to the European Parliament.

The heads of state and government, however, failed to agree on a name to replace Romano Prodi. Bertie Ahern will attempt to convene an extraordinary summit before his term as E.U. President comes to an end on June 30. But it is doubtful if enough time will be found, the European political agenda being chock-a-block with a United States-E.U. summit and a major meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The bitter quarrels over the choice of President have once again underscored the deep divisions that exist within Europe. The adoption of the Constitution is unlikely to heal these differences and give back the Union some of its lost elan. The text is still not final and needs ratification either by national Parliaments or through national referenda. Given the enthusiasm generated by the parliamentary elections, winning approval from a disgruntled electorate would be a risky proposition at best. The constitutional debate has ended in victory for Tony Blair, who opposes the idea of a federalist Europe and has managed to retain his veto over fiscal and social issues.

Europe is at a crucial and difficult stage. Countries like France, Germany and Belgium would like to push for more federalism in the belief that only a united Europe armed with an independent foreign and defence policy would be able to hold its own against U.S. unilateralism. Countries like Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands and several East European nations are loath to cut loose from NATO and the U.S. umbrella. The differences that surfaced over Iraq are only the tip of the iceberg, a colliding, not colluding, vision of what Europe as an economic and political entity can and should achieve.

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