European elections: What makes this year’s elections different?
Anti-EU sentiment and a popularity contest will battle it out on this year’s ballot.
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On 23 May the European electorate – over 500 million of us – will vote and reshuffle the European Parliament. Not since 2009 has this happened as European elections take place every five years. A lot in Europe has changed since ‘09: fiscal austerity, bank bailouts, slashed services and skyrocketing emigration levels from many European member states including, as you might know, Ireland.
Europeans have lived under some of the harshest conditions to date, so it’s no wonder politicians are worried about how Europe will vote this time. The upcoming elections have been highly anticipated by political groups across the European Union – and some groups are riding the wave of discontent gleefully.
There are two main differences to this year’s vote: for the first time ever people will be actively voting for the next president of the European Commission (beforehand, the heads of governments and States chose the president after the Parliament elections) and never before has the Eurosceptic vote been so loud.
European Commission President
The European Commission is the prime policy-making body of the European Union. It deals with the budget, funding and enforces EU law, so it’s pretty damn important to know how it works and how it can benefit you. Right now José Manuel Barroso is the President – he was sworn in in 2009 (his second term) for the habitual 5 years of service. A popular Europhile, he was nominated without resistance by the European Council, and won his office through the European Parliament vote – though some groups opposed his re-election, he got through with a comfortable win.
But now, in 2014 a different approach to selecting the president is happening. Each of the seven political groups within the European Parliament will put forward presidential candidates before the European elections – an idea championed by Barroso, who hopes the people will get out and vote for the specific leaders in the running. The new approach is seen to be more democratic, with Europeans now being able to affect change at the highest office in the EU.
Since the first European election in 1979, voter turnout* has decreased from its initial 60% region, to fewer than 40%, according the European Parliament’s own statistics. In Ireland voter turnout has reached the same levels: never above 69% and never below 42%. In 2009, 58% of the Irish Republic voted in the European elections. It is widely expected, hoped even, that this new presidential candidate approach could improve voter turnout in this year’s elections.
There are many people and political groups in Europe that think the European Union does not work for them and their national member states’ interests. Typically eurosceptics have an affinity with anti-EU sentiment. Some have right wing, far right and extremist ideologies, other eurosceptics can fall left of the margin, being left wing or far left. This distinct – that sceptics can be both right and left – is always important to note.
But who are they? Do they have a chance of winning more of the 751 seats in the European Parliament? Here are the eurosceptics that have stood out beyond their national borders: Front National (France), headed by Marine Le Pen is a very popular far right nationalist group. So popular that in the latter half of 2013, Front National was dubbed the most popular in France, even surpassing support for the governing Socialist Party headed by President François Hollande.
Other notable far right, populist and extremist groups include Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (The Netherlands), Jobbik (Hungary), UKIP (UK) – some are more extreme than others, but all promote an anti-EU, nationalist and somewhat anti-immigration agenda. Eurosceptic groups are expected to make gains this year, and have banked on the failures of the current EU cabinet to influence public opinion in their favour.
Two of the European Parliament’s more eurosceptic political groupings – Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) have nearly 90 MEPs sitting in Parliament today. With expectations of them gaining combined seats resting at over 100 seats in a 700+ seat parliament, the risk of eurosceptic MEPs influencing policy is minimal – yet Europe’s citizens continual unhappiness and lethargy at polling time can always change this.
* In 1979 there was only nine member states in the EU. The European Parliament had very limited powers then too – which is why, some would argue, a voter didn’t care about what happened at EU level back then. Now, with 28 EU member states, over 500 million citizens and a more powerful Parliament, politicians are looking to make EU elections more palatable this time around.