Most of the commentary leading up to — and after — the Sunday election of the European Parliament was based on the idea that few people care, including the 375 million citizens from the 27 European countries who were eligible to vote.
In the seventh straight election since direct elections to the European Parliament were introduced in 1979, about 47% of eligible voters turned out throughout the continent to vote for representatives in the 736-seat legislative body. That’s slightly up from the 45.7% turnout in the last European parliament elections in 2004.
The most-watched candidate for parliament was businessman Declan Ganley, who made international headlines last year by spearheading Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty (through which countries become member-nations of the EU). As he did when he was interviewed by HUMAN EVENTS earlier this year, the 40-year-old Ganley underscored that he was not a “Euroskeptic,” that he believed in a European community, but was also a small-d democrat who wanted to see the EU’s ruling commission elected rather than appointed.
As results trickled in, Ganley apparently lost his bid for a seat.
In most cases, the campaigns had less to do with true EU-related issues (such as appointment of the new European Commission that oversees the EU and is not directly elected) and were run on issues related to the individual countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, voter anger with Prime Minister Gordon Brown was pivotal to a mediocre showing by his Labour Party — and fresh stepped-up calls for Brown to leave office. In France, the very public rancor between opposition Socialist Party rivals Martine Aubrey and Segolene Royal (“They are acting like anything but leaders,” a French journalist told me) were the ingredients in the plurality of seats won by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party.
Pretty parochial, all right. But make no mistake about it: in terms of key international issues — one of those issues involving billions of U.S. dollars — as well as the future of some of the most important governments in Western Europe, the EU elections were a very important barometer of things to come.
Brown Down, Sarko Up, and “Angela In Wonderland”
With some races still to be counted, the center-right parties seem assured of maintaining the plurality of EU parliament seats they now hold. Socialists lost some ground.
But all of the mainstream parties who dominate the parliament will almost surely step up the pressure on the U.S. Congress to approve the $100 billion President Obama wants for the International Monetary Fund over the next ten years. With unemployment rising in the Eurozone from 8.9% in March to 9.2% in April (the highest since September 1999, according to the EU statistic office), hopes for IMF financial rescues are rising and that means more money for the Fund whose managing director is former French Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
In addition, more rhetoric will likely come from Brussels (home to the European Parliament) about a harder line on immigration. Although the “hard-liners” on this issue have been increasingly quiet in the last few years, they had a surprisingly good day Sunday. In Italy, the hard-line anti-immigrant party known as the Northern League doubled its showing from 4% in 2004 to 8%. In France, 80-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, known worldwide for their tough stand on this issue, were triumphant. And in Great Britain, the xenophobic British National Party — the lineal heir to the pro-Nazi party made famous by the notorious Sir Oswald Mosley in the 1930s — actually won a seat in the European Parliament for the first time.
Most importantly, there were some probably-prophetic winds that blew out of Brussels about the fate of current European heads of government. The weak showing of the British Labour Party is sure to increase calls for the head of embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Coming on the heels of a poor performance by Labour in local elections, the results in the EU contests mean the odds are up on Brown relinquishing Number Ten Downing Street before the next general election. His most talked-of successor is Health Minister Alan Johnson.
France’s Sarkozy, whose personal popularity is down because of economic woes, nonetheless got a reprieve. His center-right party won a plurality of seats from France and the opposition Socialists got a pathetic 17.5% of the vote. Olivier Besancenot, the charismatic leader of the new New Anticapitalist Party, led his supporters to a strong 8% of the vote, while the Greens sent to parliament Daniel “Danny the Red” Cohn-Bendit, famed as a student revolutionary in 1968.
There is little argument Sarkozy can still write his own political ticket for a while.
Germany has an election this fall and the Sunday voting portends good news for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government in the general election this fall. Merkel’s supporters won a strong 37.5% of the vote, while the Socialists (headed by Foreign Minister and chancellor candidate Frank Walter Steinmeier) dropped to an unimpressive 20%. The small Free Democrats, which have led the charge against government-run stimulus packages, had the biggest gain of all Sunday as they leaped to 11% of the vote.
Should these results be repeated in the general election this September, then Merkel and Company will be able to form a ruling coalition with the Free Democrats and end the “Grand Coalition” they now share with the Socialists. And that could mean a move to the right by Merkel, who of late has accepted more government election in the economy.
As one radio correspondent who covers the EU put it, “Things could change because of the uncertainty of the economy but right now, it’s ‘Angela in Wonderland.’”