This weekend's EU-wide elections for the 736-seat European
Parliament generated the lowest turnout in the legislative body's
30-year electoral history. Less than 43 percent of approximately 375
million eligible voters went to the polls.
Despite the low turnout, center-right parties across
Europe--especially in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and
Britain--were the biggest winners. The rise of fringe parties,
including several extremist parties, was another notable trend.
Overall, the European electorate sent a clear message of
dissatisfaction with the European project and opposition to further
Center-right parties in four of the EU's largest member
states--France, Germany, Italy, and Spain--either maintained course
or improved their electoral performances. These parties will form
the largest parliamentary grouping, the European People's Party
(EPP), with total membership projected at 264 MEPs. Incumbent parties at
the national level in President Sarkozy's France, Chancellor
Merkel's Germany, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Italy
outperformed their main rivals by a large margin.
- In France, the EPP gained 13 additional MEPs from Sarkozy's UMP
party to return 29 members in total, while the Socialist grouping
in the European Parliament lost 14 French members to return just 14
MEPs in total.
- In Germany, 42 CDU-CSU MEPs will take their seats with the EPP,
compared to 23 German SPD MEPs joining the Socialists.
- In Italy, the EPP will have 35 members, and it remains unclear
whether any Italian MEPs will join the Socialists in the 2009-2014
- In Spain, the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers' Party of Prime
Minister Zapatero garnered a lower share of the national vote (39
percent) compared to the Popular Party (42 percent) and will return
21 MEPs to the Socialist Grouping, compared to 23 Spanish MEPs
joining the EPP.
The results in Germany bode especially well for Angela Merkel,
who will face off against her Social Democratic Foreign Minister
and Vice Chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in federal elections
this September. She enjoyed 31 percent of the national vote in
comparison to the SPD's 21 percent, their worst national electoral
showing since 1945.
A Repudiation of European
Despite contradictory statements from his vice president,
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso described the
European Parliament elections as a "victory for [the] European
project." This astonishing statement demonstrates
that EU leaders are out of touch with the general mood among
European electorates. In fact, the three most notable trends of
these elections were:
- The lowest turnout for European elections since their
- The election of parties committed to bucking the federalist
status quo and forming a new parliamentary grouping dedicated to an
EU of nation-states; and
- The election of fringe and extremist parties.
1. Disinterest and Disenchantment
The European public was, on the whole, hugely disinterested in
these Europe-wide elections. Since 1979, participation in European
Parliamentary elections has gradually decreased from 62 percent in
1979, to 57 percent in 1994 to less than 43 percent in 2009. This
number is also inflated by countries where voting is legally
compulsory such as Belgium. In Slovakia, participation fell below
20 percent (to 19.64 percent). In other recently acceded member
states--including the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovenia, Romania,
and Poland--turnout did not even reach 30 percent.
Where voters did participate, there was widespread
disillusionment. Pre-election indicators showed that EU issues were
of very little concern to voters, and even where these issues were
important, voters have become more hostile to further European
For example, when asked what the electoral theme of the campaign
should be, just 10 percent said "European Values and Identity,"
compared to 57 percent of respondents who were concerned with
unemployment. Only 12 percent of respondents were interested in the
"powers and competences of European institutions," compared to 45
percent of respondents who were worried about economic growth.
Fifty-nine percent did not believe that the European Parliament
deals with their problems, and 61 percent did not believe that
their vote would change anything. Of the 25 EU member states
surveyed, more than half had a neutral or negative image of the
Eighteen percent of respondents said that they would not vote
because they were hostile to the construction of a European
superstate. However, many millions did vote
specifically against the European project. For example, the United
Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose main election platform
advocates Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, beat the
governing Labour Party into third place to secure 13 MEPs with 16
percentage of the national vote.
2. A New Conservative Parliamentary
The British Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, secured a
crushing defeat of Gordon Brown's governing Labour Party. In fact,
Labour suffered their worst election results since 1918, being
forced into third place behind the Conservatives and UKIP. The
commitment of the Conservative Party to holding a referendum on the
discredited Lisbon Treaty--the only mainstream national party to do
so in the U.K.--gained traction with the British electorate, who
have grown increasingly hostile to the centralization of power in
In July 2006, Cameron also committed to forming a new
parliamentary grouping after the 2009 European elections, one
dedicated to free markets and a model of European governance that
protects national sovereignty. Under previous arrangements, the
Conservative Party was a member of the EPP-ED, a committed
Euro-federalist party that is supportive of a supranational EU. In
coalition with the Czech ODS Party (with nine MEPs) and the
Poland's Law and Justice Party (with 15 seats), the Conservative
Party will now seek partners from additional countries to form the
new "European Conservatives" grouping.
3. Fringe Parties and Extremists Gain
The election of two MEPs from the UK's British National Party
(BNP) sent shockwaves throughout Europe. The neo-fascist BNP, whose
constitution restricts membership on ethnic grounds, is
widely regarded as an extremist party that opposes immigration into
the United Kingdom. Jobbik, a Hungarian party with its own
paramilitary wing and closely allied with the BNP, also won three
seats. Other parties classified as "far-right"
made gains in Austria, Italy, and Romania, leading to speculation
of an extremist grouping in the European Parliament that will have
access to increased parliamentary allowances.
Green parties increased their total number of MEPs from 43 to
53, as well as their Europe-wide share of the vote from 5.5 percent
to 7.1 percent. France was of particular note, where 14
MEPs will sit in the Green's European Free Alliance.
The EU Needs to Listen
The disenchantment of the electorate with the European project
was demonstrated through non-participation in the 2009 European
elections and the elevation of parties opposed to further European
integration. The Lisbon Treaty, which proposes to significantly
centralize power in Brussels, was rejected in Ireland by popular
referendum, having already been rejected in its prior
constitutional form in France and Holland. European leaders must
now heed the growing momentum in favor of an EU of sovereign
McNamara is a Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs at The
Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. She
would like to thank Nicholas Connor, Intern at the Margaret
Thatcher Center for Freedom for his assistance in preparing this