1979-2014: the expansion and decline of the EU

In 1979, the first elections to the European Parliament were held. 410 Members (MEPs) were elected in the first true international election. At the time there were only members of the European Community (the forerunner of the European Union):

  • France
  • West Germany
  • Italy
  • UK
  • Ireland
  • Belgium
  • Netherlands
  • Denmark
  • Luxembourg
The first session of the European Parliament, 1979
The first session of the European Parliament, 1979

The general turnout across the EC was poor (averaging 63%) perhaps reflecting a lack of ‘Europeaness’, as if EC citizens still thought of themselves only in terms of nationality rather than as members of a common institution.

That said, other countries across the continent were queuing up to join the EC, seeing the benefits of economic integration in a Cold War world. Even by 1999, however, the now-EU had only 15 member states.

Fast-forward to today’s elections, and 751 seats in the European Parliament are up for grabs, spread across 28 member states. The enthusiasm provoked by this remarkable expansion of the EU – helped by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the declining influence of Russia – is tempered by the widespread anti-EU sentiment across the continent.

Agitation for an EU exit is strong in the UK
Agitation for an EU exit is strong in the UK

Since 1979, more and more power has been devolved from individual nations to Brussels, allowing the EU an overbearing influence on domestic policy. Additionally, the economic recovery on the continent since the 2008 financial crisis has been ponderous at best, with many countries (particularly along the Mediterranean) still suffering from austerity budgets, job losses and sluggish growth.

Just as significantly, in 1999 the Amsterdam Treaty was signed, effectively abolishing border controls between EU member states. This has fuelled resentment in many countries where immigration levels have become unsustainable.

This changed European climate means that many parties contesting today’s election are running on anti-EU or reform-EU ticket, rather than promising further integration, or even espousing any political ideology.

The devolution of power (and money) to the EU is alarming, and the open borders arrangement in an expanding community is a farce. With many immigrants unwilling or unable to integrate in their host countries, ethnic and racial tensions are stirring. In a bid for greater homogeneity and unity, the EU has exacerbated existing divisions, creating others.

At the same time, there has been no concerted effort towards a regional economic revival, with stimulus packages and austerity measures instead applied in an ad hoc fashion to country’s in need.

There may, then, be one thing in common between the 1979 and 2014 European Parliament elections: a low turnout. The EU’s resistance to reform makes the effort of voting (even for anti-EU parties) seem a futile gesture.

Declining public opinion towards the EU is encapsulated in this graphic
Declining public opinion towards the EU is encapsulated in this graphic

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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