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Analysis: New Europeans Behave Like Old Europeans

  • Michael Shafir

Citizens of the 10 countries that joined the European Union on 1 May for the first time participated in European Parliament elections held last week. The election to what is now the world's second-largest legislature after India's should have marked a historic occasion. Instead, it served only to demonstrate -- in a most bizarre fashion -- that those who divide Europeans into "old" and "new" are not very realistic.

In the expanded EU, about 350 million people were eligible to vote in the elections, and less than half of that number did so. But while the percentage of eligible voters who turned out for the elections was the lowest ever (just 45.5 percent EU-wide, compared with 49.4 percent in 1999 and 63 percent in the first 1979 Europarliament elections), it was lower still in the eight former communist countries that were recently admitted as new EU members. Remarkably, Malta and Cyprus -- the two new EU members that are not former communist states -- bucked the trend, with Malta recording 82.4 percent turnout and Cyprus 71.2 percent (although it must be noted that in Cyprus voting is compulsory). The average EU turnout figure might have been even lower, were it not for the two island states. The dishonor of recording the lowest turnout goes to Slovakia, where less than 17 percent of voters bothered to go to polling stations. Poland, the largest of the new members and one of the largest among the 25 EU states, fared only slightly better with 20.8 percent turnout, followed by Estonia (26.8) and Slovenia, which registered its lowest election turnout since its independence with 28.3 percent, on par with the Czechs. Hungary's 38.4 percent turnout could be considered a success compared with the Slovaks, but turnout was also a historic low for a postcommunist election there. Latvians boasted voter participation of 41.2 percent, but were bettered by their Baltic counterparts in Lithuania -- who set the pace for the eight former communist countries with 48.15 percent turnout. This was largely due to the fact that Lithuanians were also casting ballots for a successor to their impeached president, Rolandas Paksas.
This is not how one would expect the eight former communist countries to mark their return to European democracy.


While Slovaks might benefit from voter fatigue, having just voted in a presidential election in April, the low turnout among the new EU states indicates that their endorsement of EU accession in referendums was due more to their perceptions of what the EU symbolizes (prosperity) than to their approval of its ideological principles (democratic participation of its members in the decision-making process). It is tempting to speak of a "democratic deficit" and doing so may be warranted. However, the blame is not to be entirely laid at the door of the "new" Europeans. The low (albeit somewhat less spectacularly so) turnout in the 15 "old" EU members demonstrates that voters are simply unaware of the extended powers of the European Parliament and how much these prerogatives already affect their daily lives. And the fault for failing to clarify that lies with their respective governments.

Not that the incumbent officials were not penalized by voters. After absenteeism, this is indeed the second common trait between "new" and "old" Europeans. But the powers that be were sanctioned for the wrong reason. Instead of perceiving the Europarliament ballot as an opportunity to send to Brussels and Strasbourg those most knowledgeable on European affairs, in most places the vote was little more than a showdown between incumbents and the opposition on domestic issues. This was not entirely unexpected, for due to unawareness of what the tasks of Europarliament are, most Europeans both "old" nor "new" yielded to the temptation to transform the elections into a sort of by-election and prelude to parliamentary elections in their own countries -- and incumbent governments seldom win by-elections. They failed to do so only in a few places, notably in Greece; in Cyprus, where voters appeared to give the thumbs-up to the government's rejection of the UN blueprint for the island's reunification; in Luxembourg; in Spain, where the new government's decision to withdraw Spanish soldiers from Iraq probably counted most; to a lesser extent in Belgium; and, surprisingly enough, in Slovakia. It must, however, be borne in mind that a 16.95 turnout tells nothing about how Slovaks might vote the next time around. Otherwise, candidates from ruling parties lost everywhere, from Warsaw to Prague, from Budapest to Ljubljana, and in the three Baltic capitals.

At first sight, the expanded (from 626 to 732 seats) European Parliament will not look essentially different from the outgoing legislature. It will be still dominated by the center-right European People's Party (EPP), with the Socialists as the second-largest faction and the Liberal Democrats third. Yet, this "X-ray" may be misleading. Among parties affiliated with the EPP, one finds many populists and/or "Euroskeptics" of one shade or another. That is certainly the case of the Czech Civic Democratic Party, which won a plurality of the 24 Czech votes; of the Hungarian Alliance of Young Democrats-Civic Democratic Party (FIDESZ), which likewise won a plurality of the Hungarian vote; or of the League of Polish Families, which placed second in elections in Poland (the most clearly anti-EU Polish formation, Self-Defense, fared less well than predicted by pollsters and won six out of the 54 seats to which Poland is entitled in the enlarged Europarliament). To these one must add the unreformed Czech communists, who are strongly anti-European and who placed second in the Czech ballot.

It could have been worse: in Great Britain, the moral victor of the elections was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose platform calls for withdrawal from the EU altogether, and which won 17 percent of the vote. But it could have been better, as this is not how one would expect the eight former communist countries to mark their return to European democracy.
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