The results of the European elections represented an undoubted success for Eurosceptics of all stripes. With the big advances made by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Front National (FN), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Movement 5 Star (M5S) in both vote share and seats secured, plus a host of others, there are now more sceptical, critical and generally heterodox voices than ever before.
And yet, there still remains something of a paradox. For all this strength, while it is easy to point to all these parties and to announce the breaking of a Eurosceptic dawn, there is not clarity about what that means or even if it will happen at all.
The reasons for this are threefold.
Firstly, in all the media hype, it has been largely forgotten that ‘Euroscepticism’ doesn’t really exist, at least in the sense of a coherent ideology. Euroscepticism is a manifestation of actions that are themselves ideologically driven, and there are almost as many different motivations as there are parties. The differences between Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament (EP) are as big as the range of ideologies represented in the chamber as a whole. Thus, the ex-communist left has little, or nothing to let it make common cause, with the far-right, or the conservatives, or even the liberal strand represented by AfD.
The struggles we are witnessing now to form parliamentary groups was always going to happen, especially with the fundamental cleavages on the right. With the three parties that were likely to be most successful (in seats) – the FN, UKIP and the British Conservatives – mutually excluding links with each other, the race to lure in the small parties needed to meet the country threshold has been intense.
Even if we concede that the formation of three groups on the right – far-right, Eurosceptic and conservative – is mathematically possible, then just as clearly we have to concede that they will have relatively low levels of cohesion, both internally and externally. Thus, in narrow parliamentary terms, the scope of Eurosceptics to block or even shape legislation coming through the EP will be very limited indeed.
This leads us to the second key factor, namely the other MEPs. Despite the losses suffered – especially by the EPP – the EPP-S&D centrist blocs control 55% of the votes, with ALDE adding almost another 8%. This might not be as robust as the coalitions in EPs past, but the ability to draw on past experience of centrist politics will be helpful.
Added to this is the on-going Spitzenkandidat issue. The high level of support, within the EP at least, for Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President is not only good politics by the EP, but also a vehicle for inter-group cooperation. Notably, it is the Eurosceptic parties and groups that have been least interested in this and so are less bound in.
It is not difficult to imagine a centrist coalition holding the reins of power in the EP for the next five years, regardless of whether Juncker moves into the Berlaymont. The politics of a cordon sanitaire, as practised in several member states, will be the norm, treating critical voices of any kind as being akin to far-right or fascist parties. The communautaire norms of the EP might have taken a knock with the election results, but we are much more likely to see the pursuit of pro-EU actions to ‘reconnect with the public’ than we are to see a dismantling of the system.
Those citizens then form the third key factor. While politicians and media commentators are all claiming they know what these elections ‘mean’, the truth of the matter is that such ‘meaning’ is highly elusive. Given the continuing second-order nature of EP elections, voters will have had primarily national concerns in mind: to take one small example, consider the difference successes of the FN and Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), despite their pre-election alliance.
Despite this, we have to accept that there is much discomfort within the electorate, even if it is inchoate and uneven. However, given the fractured nature of Eurosceptic representation and the likely reaction to it in the EP, it is hard to see how that will be translated into a programme of action, both either the EU or national political systems.
This is not to say that there is no regard for this, but rather that the EU as a political system is designed to build consensus for policy outputs, and the hetereogeniety of opposition and scepticism, makes it very difficult to address: addressing one issue (free movement of people, for example) will either displease sceptics of a different stripe, or be unacceptable to the broader community. Seen like this, the response of ‘more Europe’, via the Spitzenkandidat model, looks like the path of least resistance.
This is unlikely to engender a reversal of popular attitudes towards the EU, or with the democratic system more generally. While turnout might have lifted fractionally this time, the depth of disengagement seen in some countries might become a lot more common next time around.
To pull this all together, we might, therefore, consider that the greatest danger is not the election of so many Eurosceptics to the EP, but the risk that the Parliament (and the Union) can continue to function as if nothing has happened. Even if Eurosceptics are split among themselves and poorly organised, they still form a legitimate part of the body politic and deserve as much attention as any other section of society. Only with a genuine and substantial commitment to trying to engage with such voices can the Union find a way out of this situation: an ambitious demand, but surely one in keeping with the democratic mission of the EU.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and one of the co-ordinators of the Universities Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism.