On the night of the elections for the 9th European parliament there was great satisfaction in many places. 51% of voters – or eight percentage points more than five or ten years ago – had gone to the polls. The all-time low of 43% was only a memory.
The initial analyses were upbeat. Martin Selmayr, the secretary-general of the EU Commission, put it this way: the people’s vote, he said, had strengthened EU democracy as a whole.
In the European Union context, that is something not to be underestimated, for the rank-and-file voters – the 427 million citizens of the EU – have their say on EU leadership only at the elections to the European parliament.
The Commission and the European Council are elected by the governments of the member states, and powerful interests are at work there.
Turnout: ritual and conflict
Yet there is no real occasion for euphoria. As those who study elections well know, habitual high turnout tends to be a ritual. And an increase in turnout usually points to growing conflicts.
A look at the results in the various EU member states confirms this. Turnout remains high and stable in Belgium, Luxembourg and Malta. Turnout increased above the European average in Spain, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Austria and France.
Voters were mobilised primarily by internal conflicts. In Spain, the Catalan independence issue divides the nation. In Romania corruption plagues the elected government. Poland and Hungary are member states with authoritarian-style governing parties and a marginalised opposition.
Meanwhile in Austria and France, there were other events brewing during the election period. Germany saw its traditional party system crumbling, to the advantage both of the Greens and the extreme right-wing party AfD.
Switzerland as an example
For the EU, increasing turnout at parliamentary elections is something new. Switzerland has known this phenomenon for a while.
The shift began in 1995. At that point the downward trend in voter turnout stopped at the 42% mark. Since then it has slowly but steadily increased. In 2015, at the last national elections, it touched 49%.
Two main issues drove the re-politicisation of Switzerland: EU policy in the aftermath of the Cold War, and equality of the sexes in political and social life.
The proposal to join the European Economic Area in 1992 galvanised people living on the land. It drove the nationalist, conservative type of voter, who had previously supported a range of parties, to the polls and into the ranks of the Swiss People’s Party.
The negative counterpart to that was in 1993 when Christiane Brunner, the official candidate put forward by the Social Democratic Party, failed to be elected to the cabinet. The resulting wave of protest drove women – in the cities especially – into the ranks of the Social Democrats and the Greens.
What followed was not an isolated phenomenon but part of a recognisable cycle.
Social Democrats were victorious in national parliamentary elections three times in a row from 1995 to 2003. The trend was maintained four times in a row for the Greens and People’s Party.
At the end of this, Switzerland found itself with a new party system that was strong on the outer edges and weak in the centre.
Political scientists note that a democratic system can work with a large number of competing parties only as long as there is a centre that can form a government.
What it means for the EU
What these 2019 elections mean for the EU we will only know for sure with hindsight.
In the meantime, it can be said that the fragmentation of the European party system is now greater than ever. Christian and Social Democrats are so weakened that they know they no longer have a workable majority behind them, even in combination.
The number of significant conflicts has increased. EU affairs can no longer be reduced to economic policy.
With Brexit, the conflict in the EU changed. Apart from market and state issues, the big issue – since 2016 anyway – has been “for or against the EU”.
On one side are the Eurosceptic voter groups. Populists on the right and sometimes even on the left are stirring them up. In Italy, Hungary and Poland they form the government. In Britain and France, only first-past-the-post electoral systems prevented there being such an upset in the national parliamentary elections.
On the other side, there is the pro-European mainstream. Alarmed by extreme nationalists, who wanted to make Brussels a ‘Stalingrad’ in the EU election, they supported policy programmes with open economies.
And by sympathising with socially liberal movements, they strengthened the hand of liberal and green politicians.
New direction needed
If this analysis is right, the EU in the next five years is going to see plenty of conflict.
The pro-European forces may be doing well, seeing as they now hold two thirds of the 751 parliamentary seats. In the EU Commission and in the European Council they will bring even more weight to bear.
However, the way power has been exercised hitherto is being called into question.
Germany and France no longer enter negotiations with an agreed common position.
The election winners hold back the election losers. They demand that policy challenges like climate change and growth be talked about. Only then should the central jobs be distributed.
Populists, again, bring their topics like cost-cutting or refugee numbers onto the agenda.
Using the political approaches that worked in the first 40 years of the EU will not hold up for another five years.
More flexible, closer to citizens
My initial summing-up would be: the re-politicising of the EU in 2019 led to an increase in voter turnout and a sharper drawing of battle-lines.
Europe has become more pluralistic. In order that democracy be strengthened, this fact has to be taken into account.
This could be done in two ways. First, with a broad-based coalition to rule the EU with a clear direction; but it won’t work without the liberals being given a significant role.
Or with alliances on major issues, flexibly and pragmatically but with a greater awareness of philosophical and national differences.
Switzerland has decided on the latter course: a grand coalition with changing majorities. This has not been a bad thing – with the exception, perhaps, of strategic action.
The Swiss example teaches one definite lesson: in democracy there is need for EU policy to be matched to the interests and viewpoints of citizens.
These citizens are now making themselves heard in the EU itself. Some of them have protested, others see reason for hope. To harness this dynamism, Brussels needs to become more flexible and most of all closer to the citizen.
That is, I believe, the main message from the reawakened citizenry in the EU.
About the author
Claude Longchamp is one of Switzerland's most experienced and highly-regarded political scientists and analysts.
He founded the polling and research institute GfS Bern,external link which he headed until his retirement. Longchamp has analysed and commented on votes and elections on SRF public Swiss television for 30 years.
Longchamp, a historian and political scientist, also runs the German-language blog Zoonpoliticonexternal link.
This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch. Contributors, including outside authors, frequently share their views. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of swissinfo.ch.end of infobox
Adapted from German by Terence MacNamee/urs, swissinfo.ch