European Elections Special

“Neither Juncker nor Schulz”

Zeinab Badawi covered the European elections for the BBC last weekend. She talked to The European about why the populist threat is exaggerated, what politicians must learn about voters, and why neither Jean-Claude Juncker nor Martin Schulz will be the next president of the European Commission.

The European: Ms. Badawi, were these European elections the historical, watershed elections many politicians predicted them to be?
Badawi: This was unprecedented for the EU in some ways and business as usual in other ways: pro-EU parties still have around 70% of the seats in the European Parliament, but the protest vote has gone up from 21% to 30%, which is a wake-up call for mainstream parties. These were the first European elections since the effects of austerity (following the 2008-2009 financial crisis) were properly felt, and so there was always going to be an element of protest vote against the ruling parties.

The European: What is your impression of the election result?
Badawi: My overwhelming impression is that the European voters are largely unmoved, indifferent and apathetic about these elections, even though they do actually make a difference to their lives, because the European Parliament is having more of an impact on EU policies and legislation than ever before and therefore merits greater attention.

The European: For the first time in history, turnout in the European elections actually increased. Was this due to the “Spitzenkandidaten” or to the populists like Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen?
Badawi: You are right, it is the first European election in which the turnout did not diminish – in 2009 it was 43% – this time round it was 43.1% – so a marginal, almost negligible increase – therefore I don’t think one can read too much into this.

The European: Do the strong results of the populist parties (especially in France and in the UK) surprise you, or was this to be expected?
Badawi: The Eurosceptic and anti-establishment parties were expected to do relatively well, benefiting from a backlash against austerity measures and immigration in some countries, but the level of defeat for the governing Socialists in France at the hands of the FN was humiliating, and the topping of the vote by UKIP in the UK – pushing the Conservatives into third place – was unprecedented in a nationwide poll.

“A strong vein of discontentment is visible amongst Europe’s citizens”

The European: Do you think that UKIP’s result will have an influence on the planned referendum on EU membership?
Badawi: UKIP did well, but let us not forget that in the European elections, 64% of British voters backed pro-EU parties: the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. And turnout in the UK was lower than the EU average at 34% – therefore, one cannot conclude from UKIP’s top position in these elections (with 27% of the vote) that the UK is overwhelmingly anti-Europe. Having said that, their victory will accentuate David Cameron’s message that he wants a referendum to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU.

The European: Will David Cameron have to become more EU-critical in order to hold his party together and not lose voters to UKIP?
Badawi: I think David Cameron may be tempted to win back support from Conservative voters who turned to UKIP by moving rightwards on Europe and immigration, but he will want to be careful not to alienate moderate voters by trying to ‘‘outkip’’ UKIP. Therefore, I think he will wish to balance both segments of voters and not get bogged down in these two specific issues but offer a wider narrative of what he can deliver for Britain.

The European: Can the populists in the European Parliament be a blessing in disguise by challenging and pressing the centrist parties to sharpen and strengthen their arguments and policies?
Badawi: The populist, Eurosceptic and protest vote that now makes up 30% of the European Parliament’s seats is a real rag bag with huge ideological divides and will not function as one coherent body. You have the radical left Syriza in Greece, the far-right Front National of France and the Feminist Party in Sweden that garnered as many votes as the far right there. Moreover, the Parliament functions through groupings, so even though the FN did well in France, the party faces an uphill struggle to make its presence properly felt unless it can find a group or family of parties from six other states to form its own anti-Europe grouping. However, there will be more political banter and knockabout in the Parliament through the greater presence of these parties – which may make it more lively and therefore bring greater media attention! But claims that these smaller parties can veto and greatly influence EU legislation is wide of the mark.

The European: During the election campaign, both Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz have repeatedly said that one of them must become the next president of the EU commission. Now other names are already thrown around and there’s a lot of conjecture. Do you think it is likely that another candidate will be elected to the post?
Badawi: Jean-Claude Juncker has the claim to represent the biggest bloc – the right-of-center EPP – in the Parliament, with around 214 seats, so he will say he has a mandate for the job. Mr. Juncker claims he has the backing of Angela Merkel – though that is seeming more tepid of late. And David Cameron has already opposed him as being too much of a federalist. Similarly, Martin Schulz, who represents the second biggest bloc, the Socialists and Democrats, is seen as being an arch-federalist. My guess is if neither gets the job of Commission President, it will be given to a compromise candidate and then both men will lay a claim on one of the other big jobs, e.g. President of the European Council and the top foreign policy job.

The European: What lessons should be learned from this election?
Badawi: I think the lesson from the election is never to underestimate the voters’ capacity to surprise and humiliate even well-established parties and leaders: a strong vein of discontentment is visible amongst Europe’s citizens; the people have spoken. Now, their political leaders must heed their voice and address their concerns.

Questions by Max Tholl


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