While the aggregate result of the European Parliament elections was a win for the center-right, there were really 27 separate elections. And, while they theoretically have nothing to do with national politics, they in fact were about little else.


As an unsigned Time magazine piece notes, “It’s perhaps an inevitable consequence of European parliamentary elections that voters in country after country across the continent so often choose to thump national politicians over distinctly domestic issues.”

Some highlights of countries where the EU elections may have substantial ramifications for the current government follow.

United Kingdom

As I wrote Friday, Gordon Brown’s government is in trouble.  The weekend’s results only compounded his problems.  As John Burns and Alan Cowell report for NYT, “Mr. Brown’s Labor Party was beaten into a humiliating third place behind the small, euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party and the opposition Conservatives in first place.”  Indeed, The Times’ Philippe Naughton terms these “the worst electoral results in its [Labour’s] history.” Time demurs, writing “You have to go back close to one hundred years to find a worst result for Labour in a national poll.”  Then again, Labour has only been in existence since 1906 and formed its first government in 1914.

Be that as it may, Burns and Cowell reckon, “Mr. Brown has 12 months at the most — until the end of Labor’s five-year parliamentary mandate — to call a general election. But a weekend of continuing acrimony in Labor ranks left it far from certain that Mr. Brown, 58, will still be at the helm when the election comes, or even that he can survive the next few weeks.”

Moreover, the far-right British National Party won its first ever seats in the European Parliament when “Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, clinched a seat in the North West and the party also gained a MEP in Yorkshire and the Humber.”  This, despite condemnations from both Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron and urgent appeals from both not to legitimate BNP.


Unlike her counterpart at No. 10 Downing, Angela Merkel has to be very pleased.  Not only did her Christian Democrats do well but her grand coalition partner Social Democrats did poorly, making the time ripe for new elections to put together a more ideologically compatible coalition.  Deutsche Welle reports that, “The conservatives’ victory dealt a crushing blow to their Social Democrat (SPD) grand coalition partners. Support for the SPD fell to record lows in Sunday’s election.”

Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD’s candidate to challenge Angela Merkel described the defeat as “a disappointing result.” Steinmeier said there was no point in beating around the bush. “I expected a different outcome,” he said. “Moreover, I would have liked to have seen a different outcome”.




“We will be able to build on these results in preparation for national elections in September,” Ronald Pofalla, general secretary of Chancellor Merkel’ Christian Democratic Party (CDU) told radio station Deutschlandradio. “We have achieved our mission: the CDU is by far the strongest political party in Germany.”  Pofalla said Sunday’s poll had proved Chancellor Angela Merkel to be the “most popular and most trusted political personality in Germany.”

Meanwhile, the rightist Free Democrats garnered 10.9 percent of the vote and is the most likely partner with CDU if national elections mirrored the weekend’s results.


Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right UMP won 27.7 percent of the vote, “making him the first French president to lead his party to victory in a European ballot since 1979,” Ben Hall reports for FT.

The socialists suffered a humiliating defeat with only 16.8 per cent of the vote, a result that will raise questions about the leadership of Martine Aubry. The greens were very close behind on 15.7 per cent, pushing the Democratic Movement party of François Bayrou, who fought an anti-Sarkozy campaign, into a distant fourth place with 8.5 per cent.

The greens’ score – and equal share of seats with the socialists – was a triumph for leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the few party heads to fight the elections on European issues. Turnout hit a record low of 40.6 per cent.

A big caveat, however:

The UMP’s victory was far from a ringing endorsement of Mr Sarkozy’s presidency. Party colleagues will expect him to use his win as a platform for rebuilding support for his presidency. They want him to adopt a sober and consensual style of government while resuming social and economic reforms. The president is expected to reshuffle his ministerial team in the coming weeks.


Despite yet more embarrassing personal scandals leading up to polling, Silvio Berlusconi’s Fredom’s People party won a plurality of 35 percent of the vote. Indeed, an unsigned Euractive report argues, Berlusconi came away empowered and with PDL “increasing its chances of appointing the next president of the EU assembly.”

Time‘s roundup (“Despite Much Huffing and Puffing, Italy’s Political Landscape is Mostly Unchanged”) speculates that “There’s now a risk that Italy’s left might splinter further, mostly because nobody can agree on how best to take on Berlusconi, a man who has dominated politics for 15 years with the most personalized of approaches to governing.”


Fianna Fáil, which The TimesDavid Sharrock dubbed “the most successful political party in Western Europe” on account of having maintained power since 1997,  was crushed.  As a result, “Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader, now faces demands for a general election from the main opposition party Fine Gael, which pulled comfortably ahead of its rival for the first time.”

FT’s John Murray Brown observes “voters punished the government for its harsh economic reforms.”

Brian Cowen, prime minister, said: “Sometimes in politics, when you take the necessary decisions, you have to put the country first even it means the short-term popularity of the party is affected.”

The lack of a European parliament representative for Dublin would be a symbolic blow to Fianna Fáil as the government prepares to restage a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which Irish voters rejected last June. On paper, Lisbon should pass, as all big parties in the Irish parliament except Sinn Féin are strongly in favour. With voters anxious not to alienate Europe further at a time when it needs the support of its EU partners to manage its economic crisis, a weekend poll suggested there was a clear majority – 54 per cent of those who said they intended to vote – now in favour of the treaty. But analysts say there was a clear majority going into the last vote, yet the referendum was defeated by an opposition that mobilised concerns about Ireland’s perceived loss of influence, the threat to its conservative abortion laws and its low-tax business model.

While the incumbents were punished, it was also not a good day for the fringe:

Exit polls suggested Declan Ganley, leader of the Eurosceptic Libertas party and a main figure in last year’s referendum defeat, may just fail to take a European parliament seat in the North West constituency. He says he will not take a leading role in any rerun referendum if not elected.

As of this writing, it appears Libertas will fall just short.


FT’s Stanley Pignal predicts, “Belgium looks set for another period of political instability after the expected outcome of Sunday’s regional elections pointed to a changing political landscape that could force a new federal election within months.”

A weak showing by the French-speaking Socialists has raised questions about their ability to continue as a partner in the federal government, particularly after a bad-tempered campaign caused a breakdown in relations with one of their federal coalition allies.


The collapse of the coalition in the Francophone region, which includes the Socialists and MR, means one of them is expected to pull out of the federal government, which would in turn trigger elections after the summer break.


At the heart of the problem is the widening gulf between Belgium’s Dutch-speakers, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the 10.5m population and living mainly in the north, and its French speakers, who live mainly in the south.


A drubbing for the incumbents and a strong showing for radicals has shaken things up.  NRC Handlesblad headlines Herman Staal‘s report “The Netherlands is now a polarised country” and adds the ominous subhead “Stable government coalitions may be a thing of the past in the new, polarised Netherlands.”

In politics, things can turn on a euro cent. Just six month ago Wouter Bos was celebrated for the way he dealt with the financial crisis. The Dutch Labour party leader and finance minister soared in the opinion polls. But all that was forgotten when people went to vote on Thursday, and dealt Bos’ party a devastating blow: Labour lost four of its seven seats in the European parliament.

The Christian democrats, the other major coalition partner, also took a severe beating: it went from seven to five seats. That didn’t keep prime minister and party leader Jan Peter Balkenende from claiming victory: “We said we wanted to remain the biggest party and that’s what happened,” Balkenende said, adding nevertheless that his coalition government will have to work hard to regain the public’s confidence.

The big winner of Thursday’s election was undoubtedly Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) went from zero to four seats, making it the second biggest Dutch party in the Brussels parliament in its first European election.

No one, least of all Wilders, predicted that his party would outpoll Labor. 

Just two months ago, the other parties said they were thrilled that the PVV had decided to take part in the European elections. Finally, they would get a chance to prove that the PVV had no real answers to European problems, was the thinking. The mainstream parties would have no trouble at all convincing the electorate that Europe was in the end a good thing for the Netherlands, or so they thought.

But the PVV’s Barry Madlener, a former real estate agent, ran a better campaign than expected. His message was clear and simple: Brussels should have less power, and Turkey will never ever join the European Union. The mainstream parties, by contrast, had a much fuzzier stand on Europe, as Madlener never failed to point out.

Staal argues, convincingly, that the result was not so much a referendum on Europe but rather a victory of clarity over obfuscation.

The electoral gains of the eurosceptic PVV are offset by the success of the pro-European D66. Another eurosceptical party, the Socialist Party, gained slightly compared to the 2004 election but lost big-time compared to the 2006 national election. The pro-European Green party held its own. By contrast, parties like Labour, the Christian democrats and the right-wing liberal party VVD, who tried to be pro-European and eurosceptic at the same time, were penalised by the voters.

In a proportional representation system, it’s likely better to run on an ideological platform rather than as a catch-all party.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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