Historically, elections to the European Parliament haven't mattered much, even to Europeans. Their main role has been to give disgruntled voters a chance to deliver a good shellacking to the parties in charge of national governments. Like mid-terms, then, but with little potential to alter the balance of power or sway the course of policy. The fundamental indifference of Europe's voters has been reflected in turnout percentages, which have fallen at every election since the European Parliament was established in 1979. Most expect turnout to reach a new low this year, falling below the 43 percent figure from 2009.
To a certain extent, this lack of enthusiasm is hard-wired into the structure of the European Union (E.U.). For starters, the European Parliament has not traditionally had much power. It still can't initiate legislation, which is the sole preserve of the European Commission, the EU's permanent bureaucracy. What's more, the European Parliament—which houses representatives from more than 100 national parties, grouped into 12 European parties, and then grouped again into seven different alliances—feels very remote to most voters. What power the European Parliament does have is often exercised through back-room deals concluded by politicians the voters don't know, on behalf of parties and alliances they've never heard of. A vibrant democracy this most certainly is not.
And yet the 2014 elections—which begin on Thursday in the UK and the Netherlands—may be different. For one thing, the 2009 Lisbon Treaty extended the European Parliament's power to approve, amend, or block legislation to 40 additional areas of policy. It also gave the European Parliament a greater say on the EU budget, as well as a range of international agreements (including, for example, the proposed U.S.–E.U. trade deal). Legislators have not been shy about exercising their new powers: The Financial Times notes that they now wield more influence than their limited constitutional role would suggest.
The latest power-grab involves each parliamentary group nominating a "lead candidate" in the elections, and demanding that the victor be made president of the European Commission. It remains to be seen whether the European Council—consisting of the heads of the E.U.'s 28 national governments—will accept this usurpation of its authority, but if it does, the consequences for E.U. policy could be significant. The European Commission has traditionally been a force for liberalization and market competition; the European Parliament, by contrast, tends to prefer regulation and protectionism.
This matters because the E.U. is at an important crossroads in policy terms. The eurozone crisis may have abated for now, but growth remains sluggish, unemployment is shockingly high, and a Japanese-style "lost decade" looms on the horizon. And that's to say nothing of renewed geopolitical instability in the E.U.'s own backyard. Europe desperately needs to liberalize its labor and consumer markets, strengthen its trade links with other economies (not least the U.S.), and develop an energy policy that doesn't leave it reliant on the Kremlin to keep the lights on. For better or worse, the European election results will go some way to determining whether any of this is possible.
One crucial factor will be the electoral performance of Europe's insurgent populist parties, which may end up controlling more than a quarter of the seats in parliament. These parties do not constitute an homogenous political force—Italy's anti-establishment but relatively liberal Five Star Movement has little in common with Greece's neofascist Golden Dawn, for instance. But for the most part, Europe's populists are skeptical of European integration, suspicious of globalization, and hostile to immigration. The most extreme among them can be downright nativist. Their rise to prominence gives libertarians precious little to cheer: The result can only be a Europe that is more illiberal and less free market.
So do the European elections matter? In so far as they give some indication of the economic prospects of the world's biggest market, the fate of the U.S.–E.U. trade deal, and the future complexion of a political union serving more than 500 million people, the answer to that question must be "yes."
Tom Clougherty is managing editor at Reason Foundation.