European Parliament elections: from secondary to primary

With Euroscepticism on the rise and increased contestation over the EU as a political entity, will the 2014 European Parliament elections become more politicized than ever?

The next European elections will be held in May 2014 (Photo:

Through a comprehensive and rigorous analysis of public debates prior to the 2009 elections to the European Parliament, Pieter de Wilde, Asimina Michailidou and Hans-Jörg Trenz in the book Contesting Europe demonstrate how elections are turned into a moment of critical reflection about the EU as a political entity.

The world's second-largest parliament

In May 2014, Europeans will be called to vote for representatives to the European Parliament (EP). These will be the eighth Europe-wide direct elections, and they will beat any record. More than 375 million Europeans are entitled to vote for the second-largest legislative body in the world, and they will vote for a parliament with extended rights and competences.

The new EP will not only be a veritable legislator, it will also, for the first time, elect the EU executives. The party coalitions will have the opportunity to nominate candidates for the Commission presidency and a much more personalized election campaign will probably be the result.

Towards primary elections

This will confirm a trend of change over time in the character of EP elections, from being secondary in the first years towards becoming primary elections. EP elections have become increasingly contested by political parties, and voters are mobilised not only on domestic issues but increasingly also on European choices.

Euroscepticism on the rise

There is, however, an important caveat in this development from secondary to primary elections. The more EP elections have become publicly debated, the more voters have also turned away from Europe. Not only has the voter turnout been in steady decline, Euroscepticism has also increasingly gained ground, as many voters opt for protest vote or wish to express their fundamental opposition with the EU political system.

This is the starting point of the 2009 survey of European parliamentary election campaigns, which is analysed and discussed in Contesting Europe.

Contesting the EU as a political entity

The authors observe that public and media debates in the context of EP elections are characterized by a specific mode of contesting Europe that is different from party contestation in national political arenas.

Asimina Michailidou and Hans-Jörg Trenz at the ARENA book launch

The study of media debates reveals a form of discourse in which not EU policies themselves are contested, but rather the basic legitimacy of the EU as a political entity. To mark this difference from ‘politics as usual’, the authors use the term ‘EU polity contestation’ for these evolving discourse forms and practices.

Such polity contestation typically evolves around particular argumentative patters: you can contest the very rational and principle of European integration; you can contest the current institutional and constitutional set-up of the EU; or you can contest future options of European integration. By categorizing these arguments, the authors arrive at a matrix of justifications of European integration that comprises both pro-European and anti-European arguments

Moments of critical reflection

The book confirms that EP elections provoke such forms and practices of polity contestation. They are turned into a moment of critical reflection about the EU, its purpose, its democratic deficit and its open and unsecure future. In this sense, one can indeed talk of EP elections as primary, but still as fundamentally different from national elections.

More politicized 2014 elections

Based on these observations, the authors predict that the 2014 elections will become even less secondary. To the contrary, they observe a mainstreaming of EU polity contestation also in the context of national elections campaigns. EU polity choices are now becoming heavily contested on national arenas.

With this new salience of Europe, one can expect the 2014 elections to become more heavily politicisized than ever. The outcome of the European elections will shape EU politics and national politics. It is therefore ever more important to understand the dynamics of public contestation.

Published Dec. 13, 2013 10:40 AM - Last modified Dec. 18, 2013 9:44 AM