By Daniel Ureña
On June 7, more than 375 million Europeans from 27 different countries were called to participate in the elections to the European Parliament—the only multinational parliament in the world elected by universal ballot. It was the seventh such calling since the first pan-European election in 1979. The European Parliament holds significant power—over environment, transportation, immigration, commerce, agriculture and foreign policy—and its legislation affects the daily life of millions of people. Some say more than 70 percent of a country’s laws are decided or directly influenced by the decisions in Brussels, where the European Parliament is based.
That means this should have been an election to decide Europe’s political orientation for the next five years, determining who is best going to represent the interests of each country at a European level. In principle campaign issues should focus on the analysis of last legislative term and ascertain who has best contributed to the development of European policies. But reality has been radically different. In most countries, the elections have had a strong domestic character. In many cases, it has been a popularity test for the domestic governments. In Spain, Italy, the U.K., France and Germany, political parties have developed campaigns where their main characters were not the candidates to the European Parliament, but their national leaders from home and abroad.
In Spain, the Socialists presented a campaign using Barack Obama. They identified their party with Obama and their adversaries with George W. Bush and the Republican right. Their first campaign ad contained footage from Obama’s Nov. 4 victory speech with the slogan “Este partido se juega en Europa,” punning on the word partido: “This party plays in Europe” / “This match is played in Europe.” Socialist representatives argued that while the Spanish youth were unable to vote for Obama, they could vote for the socialists now. But the strategy backfired. Their popular support fell by five points, and the People’s Party, in the opposition since 2004, achieved victory. That’s a serious warning for the government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has lost two elections in three months.
In Italy, the campaign centered not on the candidates but on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi was immersed in controversy about his recent divorce, and a series of pictures in which he was shown at a private party in the company of various models was published just days before the elections. Still, the outcome of the elections was very good for his party. But in the U.K., where Labour Party leader Gordon Brown is facing scandals, Conservatives also took advantage of the situation and confirmed their party’s rising trend.
In general terms, Europe has taken a turn to the right. The European People’s Party, which combines the conservative parties from the main European countries, received the 32 percent of the vote, the most of any party, and 265 seats (4 less than in 2004). The socialists, united as the European Socialist Party, earned 22 percent of the vote and a total of 152 seats, a substantial drop of 55 from 2004.
The most worrying factor—for all parties—is decreasing participation. On June 7, only 43 percent of the voters heeded the call, the least ever in a European Parliamentary election. In the first European elections in 1979, 62 percent of the electorate voted. A 20 percent drop in 30 years should cause Europeans leaders to pay attention: Europeans are feeling even further away from the multinational institutions.
Daniel Ureña is Managing Director of MAS Consulting Spain, an affiliate to MAS Consulting Group, based in San Antonio, Texas. He is the first Spanish political consultant named as a Campaigns & Elections Rising Star.