Events & News


The 2014 European Elections: Leadership Changes – Challenges and Impact on EU’s External Relations

Dr Pawel Swieboda (Demos Europa)
Prof Dr Kostas Ifantis (University of Athens)
Prof Dr Pascal Vennesson (NTU RSIS)
H.E. Dr Michael Pulch (Ambassador, EU Delegation to Singapore)

8 May 2014
Ballroom 3, The Orchard Hotel, 442 Orchard Rd, S 238879



Europeans are gearing up for the European Parliament elections scheduled to take place across the 28 EU member states from 22-25 May. After the elections various leaders of the European Union will change: the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission, and the High Representative of the Union’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The new leaders of the EU will face some old and new challenges: while the Eurozone economies are on the mend, and staging a recovery from the financial and debt crisis, more steps still need to be taken to control the financial markets and to reduce financial risks and debts; the tensions in Ukraine represent a unique challenge for the common foreign and security policy of the European Union; and the negotiations for a EU-US Free Trade Agreement and the bi-lateral US-EU relation are overshadowed by mistrust because of the spying scandal.

How will European citizens vote in reaction to the way crisis has been managed in the EU, and with the consequences of the pain from the austerity measures still fresh in the minds? Do they support a common policy towards the Ukraine and Russia? Will the influence of far right and extremist parties increase in the European Parliament? How would the results of the elections and the leadership changes in the EU set the future course of the EU and how would this in turn impact EU’s attention and policy towards Asia?

These are some of the questions and issues that the public panel on “2014 European Elections, Leadership Changes – Challenges and Impact on EU’s External Relations” discussed.

Four distinguished panellists, Dr Pawel Swieboda from DemosEuropa, Brussels and Poland, Prof Dr Kostas Ifantis from the University of Athens, Greece, Prof Dr Pascal Vennesson from the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the EU Ambassador to Singapore Dr Michael Pulch debated what is at stake at the upcoming elections and leadership changes.

Panel Discussion Report on the 2014 European Elections [print version]

1. Introduction

A panel discussion on “The 2014 European Elections: Leadership Changes – Challenges and Impact on EU’s external relations”, jointly organised by the EU Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) was held on 8th May 2014 in Singapore. The four distinguished panellists of this public discussion included: Dr. Pawel Swieboda, President of DemosEuropa, Poland; Professor Kostas Ifantis from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Kadir Has University, Istanbul; Professor Pascal Vennesson from the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and His Excellency the EU Ambassador to Singapore Dr. Michael Pulch. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Wilhelm Hofmeister from KAS.

The convening of this panel discussion was to discuss what was at stake in the upcoming European elections and reflected the recognition of the urgent challenges facing the new EU leaders after the elections. While the Eurozone economies are on the mend, and staging a recovery from the financial and debt crisis, more steps still need to be taken to control the financial markets and to reduce financial risks and debts; the tensions in Ukraine also represent a unique challenge for the common foreign and security policy of the European Union; and the negotiations for a EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the bi-lateral US-EU relation are overshadowed by mistrust because of the spying scandal.

2. Highlights of the presentations by the panellists

Dr. Yeo Lay Hwee, Director of EU Centre, welcomed the participants. She remarked on the various elections taking place in the region of significance to Singapore, and hoped that this panel discussion would also help set out the relevance of the upcoming European elections to our region.  Dr. Wilhelm Hofmeister observed that EU has become a more active player in Asia and the relations between EU and Asia have deepened in the past decades. There are many reasons why Asia should try to understand EU elections.  To start with, EU is Asia’s most important economic partner and vice versa. EU’s ambitious free trade agreement with US has the potential to transform the landscape of the current international trading system. In addition, Asia, is in an active search for a role model to form a regional order, and is watching closely at how Europe dealt with issues of international law and institutions building. . Last but not least, EU has made significant efforts to strengthen the power and competence of the European Parliament in response to the criticism of EU’s institutional triple deficits in transparency, democracy and legitimacy. Dr.  Hofmeister then introduced each of the four panellists and invited them to make their presentations.

Dr. Pawel Swieboda

Quoting Jean Monnet’s famous statement “[n]othing is created without men, and nothing survives without institutions”, Dr. Pawel suggested that Europeans were proud of the EU institutions. The upcoming EU parliamentary elections could be the most important one for the Parliament since 1979 when direct voting was introduced for the first time as it occurred after a serious crisis. It would allow European electorates to make an assessment of the performance of EU elites in containing the euro crisis. In addition, although the Parliament was long believed to be playing a “secondary role” to the Council because of its lack of resources at its disposal, its capacity has been significantly enhanced by the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2009. This year’s parliamentary elections will also be the first time that voters will indirectly elect the President of the European Commission as the presidential candidate nominated by the European Council must take into account the election results. The partisan electoral contest for the Commission Presidency has also led for the first time to public television debates in April and May.

Dr. Swieboda then highlighted three broader phenomena across Europe that would impact the result of the elections and where decisive actions should be taken by the EU after the elections.  Firstly, the EU should deal with the evolution of democracy and the rise of populism in Europe. The new Parliament will be different as far left- and right-wing political parties are taking up more and more political space. The compositional change in the Parliament would be a reflection of the will of the people, and should therefore be accommodated properly. Secondly, EU should deal with a divergence between a strong sense of interdependence and a weakened sense of mutual solidarity among EU member states. Lastly, there has been a growing demand and a parallel shift in political discourse in Europe that community and individual interests should be bridged and even merged.

Dr. Swieboda also spelt out the two big tasks for the EU and its leadership: consolidation and reinvention. Consolidation means to finish the reconstruction process of the euro zone, making sure that the crisis is over for good and preventive mechanisms have been put in place for the future. Reinvention refers to the efforts to make EU institutions more transparent and participatory. In addition, three specific challenges need to be addressed – the Eurozone crisis, the Russian-Ukraine crisis and the negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

On the surface, the euro crisis is over. The economic indicators are very positive, there has been an up surge in investment to Southern European states, and all 28 EU members except Cyprus and Croatia will be out of recession this year. However, the level of indebtedness has been increasing in some European countries. In Spain, Italy and Greece, the debt to GDP ratios this year are approximately 100, 130 and 100 per cent, respectively. The ghost of indebtedness has not disappeared, but the cost of servicing the debt has been reduced thanks to the mechanism that was created in the midst of the euro crisis. Dr. Swieboda suggested that basically there are two approaches to proceed with euro zone reconstruction. One is a federalist approach and the other is called the management of diversity. A federalist approach assumes common institutions, pooling sovereignty and mutual inspection between governments are necessary; while the managing diversity approach argues that the huge disparity between euro zone countries prevents the creation of a cohesive and well-functioning monetary union and the key is to manage the diversity. The ultimate solution of this dilemma may situate somewhere between the two approaches. An associated phenomenon is that given the growing reluctance of Germany in providing hegemonic leadership in the EU, EU will slowly move to a power sharing arrangement in which other countries will grasp back more responsibility for the future trajectory of the EU and the euro. The relations between euro zone countries and non-euro zone countries within the EU – especially with the UK which will hold a referendum to determine its EU membership this year – also posit a great challenge to the new EU leadership.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is a wake-up call for Europe as Russia will increasingly diverge in behaviour despite various efforts made by the EU to engage Russia and make it “one of the European family”. President Putin will act in accordance to his own sense of history and his view of Russia’s place in history.  The view of Putin can be best reflected by his famous statement that “[a]fter Gandhi’s death, there is no one worth talking to in the world.” The EU should have a clear understanding of the nature of Russia’s governance: Putin and the oligarchs surrounding Kremlin collectively govern the country. Europe has been attempting to be “smart” in influencing Putin’s behaviour by sending signals without shooting its own foot. The message of Europe seems to be received by Putin as he recently delivered a speech to call for postponement of the referendum by separatists in the East of Ukraine and gave support for the 25 May elections. . Another major challenge for the EU in its relations with Russia is the creation of an European Energy Union to wean off Russian oil and gas.  With respect to TTIP, Dr. Pawel remarked that no other trade agreement has attracted so much attention and TTIP is referred by many as an “Economic NATO”. As a political project, TTIP is not originated out of transatlantic affection; rather it is a cool headed calculation in response to the global shift of power and is a reaction of the status of transatlantic community vis-a-vis the rising rest. Bill Clinton once asserted that the most important goal of US foreign policy should be to prepare the world for the time when US will no longer be a hegemonic power. The goal of TTIP is to remind Washington and Brussels to prepare the global economy for a world in which US and the EU would not necessarily exercise hegemonic influence as they do today.  The geopolitical significance of TTIP is as follows: firstly, TTIP will build organic ties between EU and US economies. Even though eliminating tariffs will be meaningful, the greatest benefit of TTIP is the regulatory convergence between the two large economies. Nevertheless, TTIP unnerves the European Parliament and some elements of the deal, such as the investment protection mechanism, has elicited fierce oppositions within Europe. The second geopolitical implication is about the bilateral relationship of EU and US with the rest of the world. In dealing with advanced economies, EU and US aim to open up their respective protected sectors. In contrast, in dealing with developing economies which are featured by loss-plagued state-owned-enterprises, the EU and US want to create a level playing field globally in which various “economic short-cuts” are not utilised. The third dimension of TTIP is about how to go back to multilateralism since the EU has been a champion of multilateralism for decades.

Approaching the end of his presentation, Dr. Swieboda explained the significance of the EU parliamentary elections to Asia. Dr. Pawel made five observations. Firstly, the EU is back into game and less introverted after gradually recovering from the financial crisis. Secondly, the immediate neighbourhoods such as Russia and North Africa will not absorb as much EU’s attention as in the previous periods because of the EU’s new pragmatic crisis management approach. US pivot towards Asia strategy will not be affected by the Ukraine crisis and Russia is perceived to be just a spoiler instead of a real challenger. Thirdly, Europe will be more humble, more realistic and more coordinated in its approach after the crisis. There will be more economic policy dialogues between Europe and Asia to address the sensitivity of global economic exchange. As the EU continued on its path towards institutional maturity, it is willing to share its experience with ASEAN in building the ASEAN Economic Community. Fourthly, Europe and Asia have shared interests beyond their respective geographical regions. Finally, the next decade will be about diffusing conflicts involving major powers. Europe and Asia are together in this regard.

Professor Kostas Ifantis

In his presentation, Prof. Ifantis elaborated the EU crisis and the parliamentary elections in the context of Greece. Prof. Ifantis started his presentation by stating that Europe is indeed in a multidimensional crisis. The crisis is political because it is a crisis of leadership, democracy deficit, EU aspiration and vision and European identity. A recent study published in Eurobarometer indicates that the proportion of European citizen who view the EU favourably has declined from roughly 52 per cent in 2007 to an astonishing low of 31 per cent in 2014.

Against this background, Prof. Ifantis then zoomed in to focus on Greece. Due to a long series of policy errors, Greece suffered the worst crisis in its post-war history. There is a general perception among the Greek population that the socioeconomic system, government, democracy and Europe have collectively let them down. Therefore, it is by no means coincidental that an alarming rate of young voters cast their vote in favour of neo-fascist and neo-nazi parties such as Golden Dawn. Although the Greeks have to be held responsible for their policy failures, the crisis was also accentuated by the design defects of the euro.

Prof. Ifantis reiterated that Greece’s entry into the euro was not a problem per se; it was what happened afterwards – ease of borrowing, low interest rates, etc – that was to blame. Secondly, there was also a failure to gather political support to initiate and implement much needed structural reforms to achieve national competitiveness for Greece. Greece’s participation in the euro zone was marked by a period of complacency and no major reforms were undertaken until 2010 when harsh austerity measures were imposed in the face of sovereign default. In some way, Greece was a textbook case of euro zone failure: public sector failed to reform and the economy  grew on borrowed money. Greece has since the crisis implemented the largest fiscal consolidation ever undertaken by any OECD countries in the last decade. Primary budget deficit has decreased from 10.5 per cent in 2009 to recording a surplus of 1.5 per cent in 2013. Greece regains its competitiveness which has been lost since 2000 when Greece joined the Euro zone, although this achievement is primarily due to the wage cuts (notably in the public sector). At the same time Greece has also undertaken long-term reforms across all policy sectors involving local governance, labour market and pension system, and made further liberalisations in its markets. . Unfortunately the austerity measures and reforms have also given rise to political and economic irrationalities that poison the public debate in Greece. Despite the diminishing optimism, the majority of Greeks are committed to Europe and the commitment has found its expression in the June 2012 national elections in which political parties, putting their political existence on the line, laid aside partisan differences to preserve Greece’s European relevance. Therefore, Greece nowadays is usually perceived to be a responsible country with responsible citizens who make responsible decisions.

With respect to this year’s elections, Prof. Ifantis warned optimism is not warranted. Since more than half of the voters did not respond to the European poll, the favourable European poll results might not necessarily lead to positive elections outcome. Prof. Ifantis observed that many Europeans who suffered from the crisis blamed the EU and individual member states. Europe is likely to face a “tragic comic” prospect and European voters may execute a belated punishment on those who caused and exacerbated their sufferings in the crisis in the first place. Hence, there is a chance that Greek political elites who have salvaged Greece’s European aspiration and helped the country enormously in the crisis may face backlash from voters. As usual, European elections are not only about Europe, they reflect domestic political struggles and emotions as well. Prof. Ifantis argued that the EU is in a desperate need of political legitimacy in order to proceed with the strategic and institutional overhaul in areas such as common foreign and security policy.

In conclusion, Prof. Ifantis suggested that Greece in many ways is a test case for Europe. The greatest question for Greece is what kind of model the EU wants Greece to follow.

Prof. Pascal Vennesson

In his comments, Prof. Vennesson presented a few thoughts about how the various trends that have been identified by panellists would translate on the European parliamentary elections. He began by challenging the mainstream narrative that has become increasingly dominant in the news media in both Europe and Asia. The dominant narrative, which Prof. Vennesson did not subscribe to,  is one that predicted  that this election is going to be a major catastrophe because of  the triumph of the European populist tsunami in recent years.

There are three often-heard specific claims about the elections. The first claim is that the far right political parties are going to “win big” because the elections are held in the context of economic crisis. The second claim that is widespread is the notion that the Eurosceptics are going to rebel in the elections. There comes the third claim that the parliament and more broadly the European institutions as a whole will be under siege because of the presence of the far right and eurosceptics.  Given the new powers granted to the parliament, the rise of Euroscepticism and far right political groups can potentially create institutional deadlocks. In the rest of his presentation, Prof. Vennesson assured the audience that these three concerns are “highly exaggerated”.

Prof. Vennesson reminded the audience to compare the electoral results of far right parities throughout the EU before and during the current economic crisis. There are in fact roughly as many examples of electoral gains for far right parties as there are of electoral losses. Only 10 out of 28 EU member states experienced far rights gains and the far rights in merely four countries (Hungary, Latvia, France and Austria) gained more than five per cent of the vote. However, many mainstream commentators and politicians have been constantly warning about a possible strong far right presence in the next European Parliament. Indeed, there are some debates about this perspective, but for entirely different reasons.

The debate exists because there is a striking difference between national and European electoral system. In France and the United Kingdom, there is a shift in election mode from a system that usually minimises a parliamentary representation of extreme parties to a system of proportional presentation that actually makes far right presence more significant quantitatively. This change created an illusion of a massive rise of far right extremist parties in the parliament. Contrary to most of the expectations, Prof. Vennesson noted that specialists predicted that far right parties will aggregately reach a total of about 34 seats in the next election, constituting merely four per cent of all European parliamentary seats. This discrepancy in perceptions comes from two factors according to Prof. Vennesson. The first one is that the far right is only applicable in just over half of all EU countries. Throughout the EU, far right is not significant everywhere. The second factor is that even in those countries where the far right parties do exist, they are relatively modest from an electoral standpoint. So even if the seats of far right and various Eurosceptics (who are not necessarily ideologically on the far right) are aggregated, one may come out a number like 50 seats within the parliament. Even for these 50 seats, which comparatively is not that huge, there are doubts about the capacity of those far right parties to work effectively together as a group as historically they have failed to cooperate. Overall, it is certain that the radical right will gain publicity; its potential influence on the European Parliament, however, would remain moderate.

Prof. Vennesson also debunked the fear of institutional deadlocks even ifEuroscepticism grows in the next parliament. The perception that the next parliament is more Eurosceptic is correct by definition because historically the European Parliament has seen almost zero presence of Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, Prof. Vennesson believed that the presence of Euroscepticism is unlikely to significantly alter the position of most pro-Europeans in the parliament, and that there will be no major institutional crises.

After refuting the three overplayed claims, Prof. Vennesson his own concern of what he termed the “Euro-abstainers”. . Euro-abstainers refer to the Europeans who are not going to vote in this election. The turn-out rate has declined in each of the six European parliamentary elections since 1979 and reached a new low of 43 per cent in 2009. It is those that are disengaged that perhaps the EU should be worried about.

His Excellency Ambassador Dr. Michael Pulch

Ambassador Dr. Michael Pulch presented his thoughts on the importance of the upcoming European elections and commented on the potential rise of fringe parties on the basis of his professional experiences of working closely with the European Parliament.

Ambassador Pulch argued that the parliamentary election is becoming increasingly important because the European Parliament has gained power and competency from the provisions in the Lisbon Treaty. To comprehend the European system’s significance on a national level, one should refer to the astonishing fact that an overwhelmingly number of legislations implemented by national parliaments were decided in Brussels. The European parliament now has the right of co-decision in many policy areas, and any European law adopted by the European Council must be at least endorsed by the parliament. In particular, the European Parliament has the power over the budget. The parliament has also the right to control and investigate the operation of European organisations. For example, the parliament interprets the Lisbon Treaty in the way that the winner of the majority faction in the parliament should also be the President of the Commission.

With respect to the possible election outcome, Ambassador Pulch agreed with the view that the number of fringe parties will increase for a few reasons. Firstly, the participation of European elections is low and the low turnout tends to support fringe parties. Secondly, changes in the European electoral systems in some countries, such as the elimination of minimum threshold in the German political system, allow parties that are unable to make their presence in national parliament to be represented in the European Parliament. Thirdly, there is a Europe-wide l sense of dissatisfaction that derived from the perceived incompetence of the EU to solve the persistent social crisis that came with the economic crisis. Lastly, voters may take this low-cost opportunity of European elections to teach their national governments a lesson and to express their unhappiness with certain domestic policies. For all the reasons mentioned, the parliament will see the rise of fringe, radical right and radical left parties.

However, Ambassador Pulch asserted that the effect of their rise will not be dramatic at all in real life. Since the European Parliament has no specific national government to support or oppose, approximately forty per cent of the parliamentary decisions are made on a consensus basis and roughly thirty per cent are taken by a broad coalition. There is a relatively strong pro-European force in the parliament to continue the pro-European policies.

Ambassador Pulch predicted that European People’s Party (EPP) and social democrats will both come out with around 200 votes. However, there is also a real concern that people who have voted for anti-Europe parties will obtain a platform in Strasburg to project their anti-Europe views back to their home countries. This is the most dangerous consequence of the rise of radical parties in the European Parliament to him.

3. Main issues in the discussion

During the discussion, the participants raised a number of points and engaged in a lively discussion with the panellists.

Questions were raised on the difference between the “permissive consensus” that European elites used to “enjoy” in driving integration and the current public perception of apathy and indifference towards Europe. In response, Prof. Vennesson suggested that the risk of apathy is indeed more problematic than in the past because of the increasing discourse on the legitimacy of the European integration project. Prof. Vennesson also agreed with Ambassador Pulch on the tendency of European voters to take advantage of the European elections to express their views on domestic policies, leaving European issues unattended. Prof. Vennesson added however that, for the first time, there is a public presidential debate among top political leaders of the various political groups  in an attempt to convey their political ideology to a broader European public.

Concerns regarding environmental and climate policies and economic ties with Russia of EU were raised. Dr. Swieboda reaffirmed that climate change and environmental issues remain on top of the European agenda. Before the crisis, climate policy of the EU was somewhat missionary as it tried to create a global arrangement to tackle climate change. Although the crisis did change some of the the European prioritiesis, Dr. Swieboda clarified that climate policy and environmental issues are not becoming less important. There are intensive debates about the choice of instruments to achieve emission reduction as the current emission trading scheme fails to function well. With respect to the economic relations with Russia, Dr. Swieboda acknowledged that Russia is certainly an important market for Europe and the political tension should not shake their economic ties. What really worries Europe is the extremely high level of energy dependence on Russian oil and gas. He suggested the EU should hedge the risk and, at the same time, diversify its energy mix. Overall, Dr. Swieboda made it clear that there is no intention to cut off supplies from Russia entirely, but Europe will recalibrate its relationship with Russia to prevent Russia from enjoying excessive leverages in the field of energy security.

The third issue raised was about the norms and values of the EU. Prof. Ifantis responded that the EU has always been a value-driven construction in which European citizen’s support is rewarded by common economic prosperity and political democracy. Nevertheless, Prof. Ifantis admitted that politics between countries is ultimately about power; so whenever there is a crisis, there is a regression back to traditional power politics. Dr. Swiebdoa added that the EU has been very robust in defending its values inside its own house and the normative framework for the 28 member states is very strong. He also argued that Europe should not delude itself about the normative strength it has outside the EU. Ambassador Pulch suggested that values are important factors in European decision-making and the EU has laid down a list of value-defined conditions for member states to fulfil. The European Parliament is particularly strong in urging the European executives to make decisions not only based on economic considerations but also on value implications. Prof. Vennesson highlighted that the EU is quite often obsessed with the idea of value. He argued that the EU should try to face the reality while remain idealistic by recognising both interests and values of Europe.

The impact of European elections on EU-Aisa relations, particularly on how will Europe allocate its diplomatic resources, was discussed. Ambassador Pulch reiterated that Asia is and will continue to be high on the European agenda despite the Ukraine crisis and its worsening relationship with Russia. In the long term, it is of vital interests for the EU to get its relationship with China and the rest of Asia right. Dr. Swieboda noted that the European neighbourhoods stretching from North Africa to the Middle East are undergoing enormous difficulties and will be problematic for quite some time. European strategy towards Asia according to him is best described as “Smart Pivot towards Asia”, a term coined by Javier Solana. He further denied the speculation that troubles in the shared neighbourhoods will distract the EU from attaching strategic importance to Asia.

The last question was about lobbying the European Parliament. Ambassador Pulch remarked that business, NGOs and regional organisations are increasingly aware of the fact that many important decisions are made in Brussels and they obviously want to participate in the decision making.

The moderator concluded the discussion by reiterating the significance of the upcoming European elections and how the EU is perceived in different countries.