Book Review: Routledge Handbook of European Elections

Donatella M. Viola, Routledge Handbook of European Elections (London, New York: Routledge, 2016). 786 pp., £150,00 (hardback), ISBN: 9780415592031.

This book, edited by Donatella Viola, is a remarkable work for a number of reasons: first, for its size—786 pages (in addition to the 36 pages of prefaces and the prologue) organized into 32 chapters plus a synoptic appendix on European politics and an analytic index; second, for its content. The heart of the book (“Part II – Country Reviews”) consists of 27 chapters concerning the EU member states written by academic experts from various countries. The different national cases are classified according to the historical evolution of the EU building process and of the chronology of the various enlargements. Only the case of Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, is not analyzed because the book was originally an analysis of the 2009 EP (European Parliament) elections. The 2014 elections, however, are explained in a supplementary chapter written by the editor (where the Croatian case is included). These last elections appear crucial because of the electioneering process and the problematic outcomes in the context of the deepest economic crisis since the postwar period.

These chapters are organized according to a standard structure: after a brief but useful country-specific profile (geography, history, geopolitical profile, political parties, electoral system, and form of government), the results of all the European elections (from 1979 to 2009) are retraced and usefully compared with the results of the national elections. Overall, this long section of the book precisely constitutes a valuable “Handbook” of European politics and elections. But there is more: It also offers a specific interpretation that is well underlined in the foreword by J.H.H Weiler, one of the main scholars on the politics of the European Union. In particular, he writes, “it is a virtue of this project that it understands that Europe in general, and the machinations of European democracy in particular, can only be understood by close attention to the specificities of the national Member States” (p. XXVIII, emphasis added). In brief, the national context is important, and indeed, the national dimension and the supranational dimension interact constantly. This fact does not mean that we should forget that the supranational level has its own “emerging qualities”; it is also true that institutions matter. However, there is no doubt that the Handbook describes a variety of features and specific outcomes of the single countries that highlight the differences between old and new member states (chapter 31).

But the Routledge Handbook of European Elections is also important for its specific topic. In this regard, the three chapters in Part I in with Viola outlines the general framework of the entire work are particular useful and interesting. Chapter 1 retraces a brief history of the European Parliament, underlining its transformation from an “appointed Consultative Assembly” to a “directly elected legislative body” and from a legislative body without powers to an institution with greater ability to influence European politics, that is, from a functioning to a functional body. Chapter 2 addresses the classical structural and functional analysis of the EP emphasizing the specificity of a supranational Assembly, starting from aspects such as the EP’s location in Strasbourg and Brussels (but also the Luxembourg headquarters of the General Secretariat of the EP) and multilingualism. From this chapter there emerges the exceptional nature of an elected international body that, having the role of representing many nationalities, has increasingly become a composite assembly in terms of size and number of states: from 142 seats of the six members in 1958 to 751 seats of the 28 member states in 2014. The chapter then addresses the political groups in the EP, identifying them as forms of transnational political proto-organizations. The dynamics of European parliamentary groups, especially if analyzed in the long run, are interesting in a number of respects: a) the evolution of the main European ideological families, 2) their internal variance, and 3) the instability of their composition during the same legislature. Photographs of European politics tell us much about the structural transformation of national politics.

The first part of the book ends with a chapter that looks at two main theoretical perspectives that have characterized the international debate on European elections: the second-order election model (SOE; also applied to regional and local elections, as well as to the mid-term elections in the United States) and the Europe salience (ES). The first theory emphasizes national voters’ perceptions of the European elections. This leads to identifying some typical characteristics of European elections (that tell us a great deal about the deficit of institutionalization in the EU as a polity): “1) low turnout; 2) focus on National issues rather than European issues; 3) the defeat of government parties; 4) defeats of major parties; and 5) the impact of timing of EP contest within the domestic electoral cycle on the results for ruling and big parties” (p. 41). This voting pattern is closely associated with the distinction between expressive voting and strategic voting, where the voter’s choice is influenced by the expectations of a candidate or a party’s success. These expectations are usually higher in the proportional systems (generally used for European elections).

However, with the progressive evolution of European integration, although the SOE model has not disappeared, the Europe salience theory has gained ground; Europe-related issues increasingly have bearing on political parties’ programs and voters’ preferences. In particular, the salience theory involves three hypotheses regarding European elections: we have 1) better performances by Green parties; 2) gains by extreme parties; and 3) success of anti-European parties. After the economic crisis of 2007–08, the salience theory gained greater prominence, and the 2014 elections have been read as a success of the anti-European attitudes.

At this point, it is appropriate to shift the focus on Chapter 31 (“Final Remarks”). This chapter explicitly and systematically compares the first seven European elections (it would have been useful to also include the 2014 election, which instead is analyzed in the chapter that closes the volume) based on some divergent key features, i.e., whether the 27 member states are big or small (under the geopolitical profile), old or new democracy (pre or post-1974), pro-EU/Euro or anti-EU/Euro (soft or hard Euro-skepticism), but the chapter also aims to verify the SOE and ES models. Essentially, “the core postulates of the Second-Order Election theory continued to be upheld, even following the subsequent treaty changes that have gradually expanded the role of the European Parliament” (p. 696). European elections continue to work as a rematch over national competition. At the same time, “[the] European salience theory has gained some ground, since voters’ choices have slowly been directed to movements that confer an increasing relevance to Europe” (ibid.). That means the increasing diffusion of Eurosceptic and populist parties. Particularly, after the long and intense economic crisis of 2007–08, the last European elections showed the existence of some fractures or structural conflicts that may harm the EU’s existence: between euro-zone and non-euro-zone countries (United Kingdom, Scandinavia); between weak (southern European democracies plus Ireland) and strong (continental democracies) euro-zone countries; between Western and Eastern countries; and between the stronger states such as France and Germany that struggle for hegemony.

Ultimately, the volume is important because it draws attention to other issues related to European politics starting from the paradox between powers (increased) and legitimacy (in decline) of the European Parliament and of the EU itself. This raises some questions. How can a polity without politics exist, especially if the policies are perceived in a negative way by citizens? What is the relationship between parlamentarization and the “constitutional” equilibria that occur in the quadrangle made up of the supranational institutions (Parliament and Commission) and the intergovernmental institutions (European Council and Council of Ministers)? Are most decisive elections sufficient to ensure accountable and representative institutions? More generally, will they strengthen the EU’s legitimacy? In conclusion, regarding the Tower of Babel depicted on the cover of the book, will there the negative side of the conflicts prevail or the positive side of the opportunities? More generally, the book, edited by Donatella Viola, leaves us with a (implicit) question: Does the EU mark a further development in democracy, from the city-states to the national states and, therefore, to a supranational order? In other words, does the EU herald the advent of a post-democracy?

Francesco Raniolo, University of Calabria

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