Opinion A Victory for European Democracy

Although voter turnout was down in many places and right-wing populists scored significant gains, this weekend's European Parliament election was historically important. It has shifted the balance of power in Europe in favor of voters.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France: For the first time, voters have decided on one of the most important posts in the European Union.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France: For the first time, voters have decided on one of the most important posts in the European Union.

Foto: GEORGES GOBET/ AFP

For the first time in the European Union's history, the major parties in the European Parliament launched top candidates who campaigned for the job of European Commission president and gave stump speeches across much of Europe in an experiment that affected more than 400 million voters.

The aim of creating the leading candidates was to establish a central feature in what are essentially national elections and also the personalization of the campaign and the intensification of the election on television. The hope had been that voter participation would increase enough on Sunday to hold the right-wing populists at bay in most countries.

The experiment didn't work as many had hoped it would.

Jean-Claude Juncker campaigned on behalf of the conservative Christian Democrats and Martin Schulz for the center-left Social Democrats. Both candidates took on the task of creating a truly European election to the point of exhaustion. Throughout, they had to tackle a number of small and large adversities that at times put them under great strain.

Voters Settle Scores

Despite their efforts, the two didn't manage to increase voter turnout dramatically. They had more success in doing so in countries where the economy is doing relatively well, like Germany. In countries like France, Italy, Britain, Austria and Greece, however, their campaigns didn't succeed in a drowning out domestic debates and sensitivities. Instead, voters in those countries on the left and on the right settled scores with their own governments. For them, anti-EU parties were a means to an end, and national considerations outweighed European issues. As happened in the past, the vote was used to punish national parties.

On this issue, the experiment of fielding leading candidates was a failure. The election was, however, still a historically important one.

It may not be the case in Germany, but it will make waves in domestic politics in some member states and rock the current situation. Above all, the balance of power has shifted in Europe -- providing quite a bit more to the European Parliament and the voters.

The two leading candidates, with their personalization of the election, have created some facts that will be hard to change. It is very hard to imagine that the leaders of the EU member states would be able to prevent election victor Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next president of the European Commission if a majority in parliament backs him. The traditional "grand coalition" in the European Parliament between the conservative Christian Democrats (the European People's Party) and the center-left Social Democrats (Socialists and Democrats) will this time be led by the conservatives and is likely to achieve that needed majority. What that ultimately means is that leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel, who has said the winner wouldn't automatically become the EU Commission president, will have to yield to the wishes of voters. Although the leaders will still be free to choose other important EU posts, including the other members of the Commission, a very important one has likely now been turned over to the discretion of voters. That's how things should be and it is a positive development.

Although the experiment with the leading candidates didn't work out as well as people had hoped, it still proved to be a worthwhile endeavor. Even if voter turnout wasn't as great as it could have been, this election has still made Europe more democratic.

European Election Results in Germany
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