As the final day of voting in the EU elections kicks off, Europe gleefully awaits the announcement of the results on Sunday evening– or does it? Follow RT’s alphabetized breakdown to find out about the polls, the parliament, and problems on the continent.
Voting began on Thursday in the UK and the Netherlands, with Latvia, Malta and Slovakia all casting their votes on Saturday. The final day of polls will close with Italians voting for their preferred candidate.
Low voter turnout and increasing Euroskepticism sweeping the continent suggests that the 400 million who have the right to vote may not want to exercise it; Ireland’s Friday exit polls showed that turnout stood at a mere 30 percent.
Austerity measures have descended upon Europe since the beginning of the eurozone crisis in early 2009. Governments have been implementing increasingly harsh fiscal policies to pick up the pieces. Unemployment has been a direct result of the mass public spending cuts with Spain being hardest hit, shortly followed by Greece. A report published in April demonstrated that spending cuts in Greece have directly led to the suicides of 500 people.
The eurozone’s three big lenders, known as the Troika, yield a great amount of power, as they have lent over 396 billion euro to Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. Greece was the first in 2010, and most recently, Cyprus in 2013. Ireland exited its bailout last December, and Portugal exited its 78 billion euro ($108 billion) international bailout program earlier this month. However, all other countries which initially received Troika ‘bailout’ funds are still being supported.
Catalonia has been seeking independence and self-governance since the final years of the 19th century. According to a March poll, up to 60 percent of Catalan people want independence from the rest of Spain. Last December, the Catalan regional parliament set November 9, 2014, as a referendum date to decide their fate. Historically Catalonia, which already enjoys significant autonomy from Madrid, has been one of Spain’s better-off regions and the local population has resented having to send their taxes to the capital to help support poorer areas of the country. However, the area of 7.5 million residents is currently 57.1 billion euro ($78.5 billion) in debt, which is the most of any of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.
In the last European Parliament elections in 2009 there was a mere 43 percent voter turnout. According to European Parliament figures, only 34.7 percent of eligible UK voters exercised their right in 2009. The only countries to regularly achieve a high turnout of around 90 percent have been Luxembourg and Belgium – and that’s because voting is compulsory in both. Voter turnout has been steadily decreasing since the first parliamentary elections in 1979.
The elections for European Parliament will take place from 22 to 25 May 2014 and will elect 751 deputies. The last set of elections was held in 2009 on the backdrop of a nascent financial crisis in the Union. Since the onset of the economic upheaval, EU politicians have championed austerity measures and cuts to social welfare as a solution to the crisis.
European far right parties have been steadily gaining popularity, and nowhere is that tendency more evident than in France. Crisis, immigration, and unemployment have been nudging disillusioned Frenchmen towards the Front National – headed up by Marine Le Pen. At the end of March, Le Pen saw an unprecedented win for the far right when her party won mayor’s seat in 15 towns. Polls suggest that the FN may well be in line to win a large proportion of the votes in France.
It’s impossible to do a round-up of Europe-wide politics and factors influencing the impending elections, without mentioning Greece – which is frequently held responsible for the eurozone crisis.
Greece has received a 130-billion-euro loan to help keep its ailing economy afloat, but in return, it has had to comply with strict austerity measures governing its budget.
The measures have had a serious knock-on effect in the country, triggered mass protests with enraged Greeks alleging European banks are pocketing the bailout money. Greece has also seen a rise in suicides related to the economic hardship with reports of HIV injections being used as a way to qualify for state benefits.
European countries were up in arms in April over the possibility of introducing a common EU-wide design and causing sweeping fears that all cars would have to bear the 12 stars of the EU flag on their license plates. UK Conservative MEPs called the idea “idiotic.” Officials later stated that there had been no firm proposals, according to a BBC report published shortly afterwards. However, the uproar that followed was symptomatic of wider fears of EU top-down regulations being apparently imposed on unwilling member states. EU legislation presides over domestic law, so some countries (incl. UK) started calling for national parliaments to have a ‘red card’ of sorts to block MEPs.
Ireland exited from the EU bailout scheme last December, hailing the event as a milestone. However, the country’s finance minister declared at the time that Ireland was far from being at the end of the road. Moody’s Investors Service has already upgraded Ireland’s government debt rating to investment grade based on the one-time Celtic Tiger’s growth potential and Dublin’s timely exit from its EU/IMF support program. The debt upgrade came amidst falling unemployment figures and lenders slashing the interest charged on the national debt to 3.5 percent – lower than the cost of loans under the bailout and less than was paid before the debt crisis, according to the Irish Independent.
Jose Manuel Barroso is the 11th and current President of the European Commission. The former Portuguese prime minister assumed the post in 2004 prior to the onset of the financial crisis and has since had the problematic task of directing the 28-nation bloc. Barroso admitted earlier this month in a speech that the EU had failed to engage with its citizens during the crisis. However, he urged them to strike a balance between full federalism and anti-Brussels populism at ballots.
The tense situation in Ukraine has been the setting for the entire buildup to the European elections. Elections in Ukraine are currently taking place at the same time as the European elections. Violence and political instability has rocked the south and the eastern regions of the country meaning it could be impossible to open polling stations in these areas. The Council of the European Union stated on May 12 that it “stands by Kiev for free and fair presidential elections.” However, Russia has warned that the May 25 presidential vote in Ukraine may aggravate the crisis if military operations in the south-eastern regions are not halted and the OSCE road map drawn to settle the situation is not implemented. “The upcoming elections on May 25 can only worsen the differences in the country,” Russian deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, said at a meeting with the British Ambassador to Russia Tim Barrow, on May 20.
The small Italian island off the coast of Tunisia is hotbed of
migrant activity which has only got worse since the beginning of
the year. At least 34,800 people have made the crossing from
Africa to Italy already this year – compared to 43,000 across the
whole of 2013. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano demanded on May
13 that the EU step up its efforts.
“The European Union has two options: either it comes to the Mediterranean to put the EU flag on Mare Nostrum or we will let migrants with right of asylum leave for other countries,” Alfano tweeted. Hundreds have died in attempted crossings in the past two years.
Seven hundred and fifty MEPs and a European Parliamentary President are being elected, fewer than the current figure of 766. Elections take place by proportional representation which means seats are allocated based on the population of each Member State: The UK and Italy get 73 apiece, France 74, Finland 13, Greece 21 and smaller countries such as Luxembourg, Estonia and Malta get six each.
However, MEPs still organize themselves into political and ideological coalition groups rather than comprising a party as such. The European People's Party (EPP) made up the largest block in the most recent incarnation of the European Parliament, with 274 MEPs. The Non-Inscrits are the members who don’t belong to any particular political group and they are the smallest group, comprised of only 30 MEPs.
While the flagrant abuse of lavish expenses and lax oversight
that once gave the European Parliament a bad name has been
addressed, parliamentarians still enjoy a comfortable lifestyle,
particularly compared to their constituents.
Unlike the system in place before 2009, when all MEPs received the same wage as those in the domestic parliament, the salary for all incoming MEPs will be 96,000 euro per year.
The number is supplemented by generous expenses allowances that total more than 4,200 euro a month, as well as a daily allowance, paid-for first class travel, and large discounts on healthcare.
Once all of these are factored in, an average MEP earns more than 200,000euro a year. Together with their support staff (who can no longer be just family members given a sinecure) MEPs are estimated to cost their countries, which foot the bill, between 30,000 and 40,000 euro a month.
Nationalism and, at times, neo-Nazi sentiments have been rising in Europe in the face of increasing Euroskepticism. Neo-Nazism is on the rise in Europe and if nations do not opt-out of the EU democratically, the entity has a violent end ahead of it, UKIP leader Nigel Farage predicted during a second public debate on the UK’s EU membership at the beginning of April.
“There is a neo-Nazi party in Greece that look certain to win seats in the European parliament …We see in Madrid, we see in Athens very large protests, tens of thousands of people, a lot of violence,” Farage said.
The EU’s annual budget exceeds 140 billion euro and many experts have voiced concerns that the sum is being mismanaged.
However, more than 40 percent of that money goes towards
subsidizing farmers through its Common Agricultural Policy.
Farmers constitute about 5 percent of the population of Europe,
and produce less than 2 percent of GDP, but receive nearly 60
billion euro from the EU. While the policy has been accused of
misallocating resources and rewarding uncompetitive businesses,
the EU insists that it ensures food security and rural
development, even as Europe struggles with austerity. The policy
has been criticized for giving money to the most profitable farms
and already-wealthy farmers.
Funding is divided between direct aid to farmers at 39.4 billion euro, 11.5 billion euro for rural development, 385 million euro for export refunds and 94 million euro for food storage. France gets the biggest subsidies, receiving some 9.85 billion euro.
A deal signed last year for EU budgets up to 2020 produced the first real-term reduction in EU spending, by 3 percent. But this has not made the purpose of EU expenditures, which are jointly administered by Brussels and the 28 member states, any less controversial. The new budget will see 20 percent of all funds allocated to combatting climate change – a highly politicized area that has sparked pushback from conservatives across Europe.
There are 766 MEPs, who are responsible for representing some 500 million people dispersed across 28 EU countries. The European Parliament met for the first time some 56 years ago after being created by Europe's founding Treaty of Rome. However, elections weren’t held until 1979. The European Parliament is the only directly elected institution of Europe – the other most important component bodies of the institution are the European Commission and the Council of the EU. Both rely heavily on appointments. Elections begin on May 22 and last through until May 25. Italy will be the last country to vote, closing ballots on Sunday evening.
A host of issues will face the newly-elected European Parliament
at a time when the future of the Union is doubtful. The financial
crisis has given rise to questions from member nations over the
centralized control of the EU.
How to function better as a better as a multicurrency union? What is the best use of EU funds? The role of the EU in 21st century society – especially since the eurozone crisis is still very much in doubt, especially given the swing to the right? And does the EU have a future at all?
In January 2013, UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised that there would be a nationwide referendum on EU membership should the Conservative Party win the next general election in 2015. Other regional and national separatists have been seeking referenda – such as Catalonia and Scotland.
Support for Scottish independence has been gaining ground - a poll published on May 14 showed that support for Scotland to vote to leave the United Kingdom in a referendum on September 18 had risen. While there was little major surface change – with support elevated by only one percentage point since previous polls, it showed that among those who were definitely going to vote, some 35 percent would opt for independence, according to Reuters. Forty-four percent opposed the move.
The voter turnout at the EU elections has been steadily declining over the last few years, with the previous vote in 2009 seeing only 45 percent of the EU population make their way to polls. Luxembourg and Belgium have consistently topped the 90 percent mark in previous years mainly because the vote is obligatory, while the rest of Europe struggled to meet the 50 percent mark.
Britain’s UKIP party has blossomed from a single issue campaign group – attempting to keep the UK out of Europe - into an important minor party. On May 16, Scotland’s first minister said that in the UK the Lib Dems could be edged out by UKIP and YouGov polls conducted in April predicted UKIP would garner 23 percent, Conservatives 21percent, Liberal Democrats 14 percent, Labour 31 percent and Greens 7 percent in the EU elections.
Disenchantment of the voting public prompted Denmark to devise an animated muscle-bound maniac on a mission to make young Danes vote. Voteman caused global controversy after the video triggered a storm of complaints over scenes of pornography and violence.
Dutch Politician Geert Wilders who leads the right wing Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) is a controversial figure in European politics. The anti-Islam, anti-immigration politician has drawn criticism in the past for calling for “repeat offenders to be forcibly removed from their neighborhood and send to a village for scum.”
According to exit polls PVV has seen a decrease in its popularity in the EU elections, winning 12.2 percent of the vote as oppose to 17 percent in 2009. As a result the party will lose three of its five seats in the EU parliament.
Generation X was born between the mid-1960s and mid 1970s and has the lowest voter participation rate on account of high skepticism. Members have been described as cautious and pragmatic and generally retaining less faith in governments.
Generation Y –the millennial generation - is generally defined as the subsequent group, from the mid-to-late ’70s until the early ’90s. The group has changed the ways in which people communicate with its maturity now having its own impact on politics. Having followed a generation that generally regards politics as unimportant, its young, but confident and ambitious members have shown signs of wanting to reclaim this area of life.
Generation Z is still developing its identity. However, the atmosphere of rapid change and widely-available and elaborately-developing technology means that priorities will undoubtedly have a significant impact on its attitude and outlook. Only part of it is currently even of voting age.
However, the group faces significant obstacles, growing up in the knowledge that it will take time to regain lost earning power, studying and entering the job market as austerity measures, unemployment and cuts to welfare programs continue in Europe.