European elections in the UK - first signs of a shift in politics?
The triumph of Nigel Farage's UKIP didn't surprise the guests of the event held in Europe House on May 25, although there is no modern precedent of a third party overtaking the main parties in popularity. The decline of many traditional parties across Europe and the low, but better than expected, turnout were the key talking points at a soiree hosted by the BBC's Maxine Mawhinney.
Although British voters cast their ballots at polling stations on Thursday 22 May, the anticipation ahead of the final results of the 2014 European Parliament elections was still great three days later as demonstrated in the success of a special event held at London's Europe House on 25 May. 240 registered guests gathered at the UK's European Parliament Information Office, in the heart of London, to follow and discuss every aspect of the election night as the final results surfaced. An expert group of panellists guided by BBC journalist Maxine Mawhinney, chair of the event, were responsible for explaining the emerging figures, turnouts, percentages, etc. to a vast audience which included not only politically-engaged citizens, but also international renowned journalists, ambassadors, and even political candidates.
Turnout was almost one point higher than in 2009
With 35.4% of the electorate voting, the UK's turnout was almost one point higher than in 2009 (34.5%), but once again one of the lowest in the European Union, where it was slightly higher than in 2009 at 43.1%. Despite that, the UK's results were regarded as one of the key talking points of these 2014 elections. While the two main groups - European People's Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) - still maintain power when considering the overall results, the two traditionally strongest parties in the UK -Conservative and Labour- lost ground in favour of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a eurosceptic political force whose main ambition is to get the UK out of the EU. UKIP got 24 MEPs (11 more than in 2009) compared with 20 and 19 obtained by Labour and Conservatives respectively.
"Clearly is a big shift in the European political dynamic" Joey Jones, Sky News
"I think that although we are watching these figures tonight, it will be in the coming months and years that the significance of it will be known", explained Mawhinney when the UK results were almost definitive. UKIP's victory was no surprise for anybody, but that didn't mean people wouldn't feel more curious to see where these results will lead Nigel Farage's party. That was one of the main concerns of Sky News reporter Joey Jones: "A lot of analysts group UKIP as an extreme right party, but they do not see themselves as an extreme right party, and actually, I think most of the people who voted for them wouldn't see them in those terms either." Jones, who attended Europe House with his team responsible for doing the coverage of the night, opined that the course of the party once in the European Parliament will be an issue that will maintain public interest long after the results are digested. "Over the past few weeks Nigel Farage has been very much concentrating on appealing to people in this country on a very UK focused publicity drive, and I think is going to be quite interesting to see how is he going to deal with what clearly is a big shift in the European political dynamic".
"...it's going to be very interesting to see what they'll achieve." James Frater, CNN
CNN journalist James Frater's analysis was also focused on the rise of the eurosceptic parties in Europe and, specially, in the UK. "We will see quite a big change in the way the European Parliament is structured over the next five years. We will see the main parties maintaining where they are but there's definitely going to be a change to the right with the UKIP and it's going to be very interesting to see what they'll achieve", he explained. "I really want to see how the groups will form, what the groups are going to do. If Marine Le Pen goes there and she says: 'No, I want to be friends with all the people on the right'... It'll be an interesting game and I can't wait for the 1st of July. "
Economic crisis and migration, the two main pitfalls for Brussels
The UK's future was not the only concern for international journalists gathered at Europe House. Niels Lindvig, a veteran Danish Broadcasting Corporation correspondent, established the parallels between the British and Danish results, expressing a similar concern about the rise of Eurosceptic politics in his own country. "It's basically because there is a barrier. It might be invisible but it's still there between Brussels and Copenhagen, and most Danes are weary about leaving it to Brussels to decide too much as it is because we have seen an expansion of the EU and most Danes probably think this has been too fast." "Migration is a huge problem in Denmark and in the UK. More for the UK, of course, but it's a general picture, I suppose." The economic situation across many European countries was another concern when it came to explain the results. "Then you have the crises in Greece and in Spain, and Italy, Portugal, Ireland... and it has been very difficult to cope with it, and the EU didn't come looking too pretty out of it, many people think."
Different national issues explain different national results
Whilst in many EU countries voters have shown a desire to leave or reform the EU, that wasn't the only vindication that night. From Catalonia, in Spain, RAC 1 correspondent Joan Maria Morros tried to explain the particular case of his region, where the turnout was 10.5% higher than in 2009, compared with the Spanish average being almost 1% lower. "Catalans want to show that they want to vote, that they're not afraid to vote and that's why they have voted in such large numbers. That is a clear representation of how they want to do the things, through voting, and they want Europe to take notice", he pointed referring to the aim of some political parties willing to seek independence from Spain but not from Europe in the short term. However, unlike the general shift to the right, Spain, like Greece, has seen an unexpected punishment of the traditional bipartisanship turning their votes to the left. "We're seeing how the traditional driving forces are suffering a tremendous deterioration; as much the PP (Popular Party) as PSOE (Socialist Party), they accuse them of lacking credibility and having deteriorated following years of being in government, and they are beginning to put their faith in new parties", he explained referring to Podemos, the big surprise, a left-wing party constituted only four months ago and rooted in the 'Indignados' movement, which got five MEPs in its first ever elections.
What's next for the UK in the Union?
Another talking point of the night was the role of the UK in the EU after an election process that showed the discontent of British citizens with the institution and traditional politics. The rise of UKIP and its anti-European agenda along with the possibility of a referendum to decide whether the country should continue its EU membership - as recommended by the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, should he win the next year's general elections - set the tone of many speeches that night, as did the case of a Liberal Democrat candidate standing in the local elections - which took place on the same day as the European - Anthony P. Williams. "The turnout it's not high enough, but I hope it will encourage people to realize how important it is that the UK stays in the EU rather than subscribe to all these idiotic ideas of pulling out, because that will impoverish us, and besides, we are part of Europe. We have been part for 30, 40 years of the European Union and we want to stay that way. Economically, historically... we belong."
By Pablo Ibáñez
Pablo Ibáñez is a Political Science graduate from Universidad Complutense de Madrid with a Master's degree in Journalism from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid-El País. He is working as a stagiaire at the European Parliament's information office in the UK.