The European Parliament is more powerful — and less popular — than ever. Most of the 500 million citizens represented by the European Union legislature probably don’t know what it does and few pay it much attention. Inside Brussels, it gets plenty of attention and has steadily expanded its reach to everything from banker bonuses and electricity flows to car emissions and e-cigarettes. It’s also playing a bigger role in who gets selected for top jobs in the EU machinery. At the same time, fringe groups are using the Parliament as a soapbox for populist views, increasingly those attacking the notion of the EU itself.
Europe is emerging from a debt crisis that has fed the popularity of protest parties, which boosted their share of seats to about 30 percent from 20 percent in an election in May. Voters in bailed-out southern countries are angry at German-fashioned budget austerity and wealthier northern states oppose more European encroachment on national powers. Seats are divided among EU states based on population. Within each country, they are awarded to parties according to the proportion of votes, a system that paves the way for insurgent national groups to harvest protest ballots. These include Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, which has yet to win a seat in the House of Commons, and the anti-euro, anti-immigration National Front of France under Marine Le Pen. Greece’s nationalist Golden Dawn, which entered the Greek legislature in 2012, gained its first EU seats in May. The stronger presence of fringe groups representing both the right and the post-communist left could further shake up politics in their home countries and lead to less predictable, or gridlocked, EU legislation. Thanks to new rules, the 2014 election result is having a more direct influence on the leadership of the the European Commission, the executive arm that proposes legislation and polices Europe’s single market. Pan-European political families that won about 70 percent of seats put forward candidates for the top commission job as part of the Parliament’s campaign for the May elections. The biggest group supported Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, who ended up as the pick of EU leaders.
Direct voting for the Parliament began in 1979 and is the second-biggest democratic exercise on Earth after India’s elections, extending from the Arctic circle to near the Middle East. Voters in 28 nations elected 751 lawmakers to a five-year term in the May ballot. A series of treaties has given the Parliament rights on par with those of national governments to amend, or veto, most draft EU-wide laws. The bloc regulates areas including consumer protection, bank rescues, airline safety and workers’ rights and many national laws stem from the need to comply with its rules. In the most recent ballot, voter turnout hit a record low of 42.5 percent, comparable to midterm U.S. congressional elections. Many Europeans view the officials in Brussels with suspicion and attention remains on better-known national personalities. News reports have focused on the Parliament’s more flamboyant members and its expensive once-a-month treks, dubbed the traveling circus, from Brussels, where it conducts most of its business, to its formal seat in Strasbourg, France.
Anti-EU parties in the Parliament have given voice to public disenchantment with the financial crisis and fears about low-wage foreign workers from newer EU members such as Romania and Bulgaria. The debate has spilled into national politics, notably in the U.K., where Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to win back powers from Brussels and hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU amid surging support for the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party. Growing extremism has forced the mainstream parties that champion the EU, which for years took the appeal of the project for granted, to make their case more vigorously. They defend the EU’s free movement of people and argue that global economic forces require Europe to become even more integrated. They also make the case that the Parliament, as the EU’s only directly elected institution, deserves even more clout.
The Reference Shelf
- Website of the European Parliament and its guide to the elections.
- Bloomberg News article on the appeal of the U.K. Independence Party and its leader, Nigel Farage.
- “Delors: Inside the House That Jacques Built,” a 1994 biography of Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, by Charles Grant.
- “The Passage to Europe,” a 2013 book by Luuk van Middelaar provides a history of European politics.
- The BBC’s guide to the European Parliament and what’s at stake in the May poll.
- An Economist cover story on the European Parliament, and a blog post.