There cannot be many legislatures in Europe where the largest political party and the second largest party are rivals, yet vote the same way 80 per cent of the time. Since last May’s European Parliament elections, the EU assembly has turned into just such a place.
What does this say about European democracy? I have some thoughts on that – but, first, the facts.
In the first six months of the new legislature, from July to December 2014, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) voted together in four out of every five votes. For good measure, the centrist liberals (ALDE) usually joined them as well. Taken together, these three forces, all convinced supporters of closer European integration, command an almost two-thirds majority in the parliament, with 478 out of the 751 seats.
By contrast, the legislature’s smaller party groups – especially rightwing populists, nationalists, far leftists and other insurgents and oddballs – were generally on the losing side. Not all politicians in these groups are anti-EU. Still, it would not be far off the mark to say that votes in the EU assembly have tended to pit not right against left, or left against right, as in a classical parliamentary system, but rather the bulk of the European political establishment against its sworn enemies and critics.
For the above information, by the way, I am indebted to VoteWatch Europe, a research group that tirelessly follows everything happening at the European Parliament. In a short report published on February 27, VoteWatch made the interesting point that the harmony between the centre-right, liberal and centre-left party groups “makes it much more difficult for the public to understand what the alternatives proposed by these mainstream political forces are, and therefore for the citizens to relate to any of them”.
Hear, hear to that.
As it happens, one sees much the same problem in Germany, where the Christian Democrats have governed since 2013 in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Real opposition comes these days from Die Linke, a far-left party with roots in east German communism, and Alternative für Deutschland, an anti-euro party on the right.
But the threesome that rules the roost in Brussels – and in Strasbourg, where the EU assembly decamps every month – is even wider than Germany’s grand coalition. It is, if you like, a grand coalition with maraschino cherries on top.
Even if you find it hard to admire the anti-establishment parties – and there is ample reason to think that they don’t come close to offering realistic solutions to Europe’s problems – it is not healthy for democracy, or for the European Parliament’s legitimacy, for the mainstream parties to be so cosy with each other.
Political competition for its own sake can be silly at times – just look at Westminster at its worst. Even so, mainstream parties must make voters feel that they have a choice. Otherwise, they may veer off to the unconventional or the extreme.
VoteWatch’s analysts suggest that competition among the EU’s three mainstream groups will probably intensify as the legislative agenda moves forward. Proposals on reducing EU red tape, environmental protection and a EU-US free trade deal all have the potential to divide the centre-right, liberals and centre-left.
I’m sure that’s true. However, another way of looking at it is to note that, even before the May 2014 elections, the EPP and S&D groups were voting together 73 per cent of the time – only 7 per cent less than now. In other words, an establishment consensus prevailed at Brussels and Strasbourg even before Europe’s anti-establishment parties started making electoral gains.
Dare I suggest that it was the European establishment consensus that created the space for the anti-establishment insurgency in the first place?
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