The strategies of Eurosceptic Members of the European Parliament

Nathalie Brack

The European project is once again in the eye of the storm. The ongoing crises have not only re-opened debates about the goal of European integration and the EU’s legitimacy but they have also increased the EU’s visibility in national political arenas. This context has contributed to engendering a new phase of opposition to the European project (Vasilopoulou 2013). And, as predicted by various scholars and commentators, Eurosceptic parties increased their share in the European Parliament (EP) in the 2014 EP elections (although the idea of a Eurosceptic ‘earthquake’ or ‘storm’ should be nuanced, see: G. Barbieri, 22 June 2015 and G. Benedetto, 17 April 2015).

While opposition to Europe at the national level has been much studied, the literature on Euroscepticism at the supranational level remains comparatively sparse (for some recent exceptions, see: Bonikowski and Gidron 2015, Brack and Costa 2012, Lynch and Whitaker 2014). In order to contribute towards filling this gap, the research that I conducted concentrates on the strategies Eurosceptics develop once elected to the EP. The aim was twofold: 1) to analyze how Eurosceptic MEPs conceive and carry out their job and 2) determine what could be the implications of their presence at the heart of the EU.

To do so, the analysis relies mainly on interviews with a sample of 65 Eurosceptic MEPs (and 30 parliamentary assistants and staff members), both right-wing and left-wing, from the margins and the mainstream, as well as the analysis of their parliamentary activities (including a qualitative content analysis of their questions and voting behavior during two years). The analysis reveals that Eurosceptic MEPs have contrasting views of their job, responsibilities, and relations to citizens, which can be summarized in four strategies: an empty-chair strategy (absentee), a noisy opposition (public orator), a limited and instrumental involvement (pragmatist), and integration into the parliamentary game (participant). Moreover, even with their increased success at the last EP elections, Eurosceptics remain too marginal and heterogeneous to deeply influence the EP’s deliberation. But that does not mean that their presence has no impact at all. Indeed, I argue that the presence of these dissenting voices can be an asset for the EP’s representativeness and the EU’s legitimacy. 

Four strategies available to Eurosceptic MEPs

In the media, Eurosceptics are often portrayed as a homogeneous group of outsiders who are either absent or seeking to disrupt the Parliament’s proceedings. This view is quite simplistic and rather normative. As shown in this research (Brack 2015) in Table 1, Eurosceptic MEPs develop four main main types of strategies: the Absentee, the Public Orator, the Pragmatist and the Participant. 

Table 1: Parliamentary activities according to Eurosceptics’ strategies (Median – 6th and 7th terms)

  Participation in Roll Call Votes (%) Reports Declarations Speeches Motions for resolution Opinions Questions Amendments
Absentees 61.88 0 0 24 0.5 0 5.5 0
Public Orators 83.6 0 0 101 2 0 101 2
Pragmatists 88.69 1 3 147 21.5 2 99 71
Participants 86.91 2 1 52.5 18 2 24.5 28.5

Data from European Parliament and Votewatch

Absentees are characterized by comparatively low involvement in the chamber and an emphasis on the national level. This is an exit strategy from parliamentary work: considering their limited capacity for action, such MEPs believe that any activities undertaken within the institution would be futile. As a result, MEPs identified as Absentee in the 6th and 7th legislatures formed a relatively homogenous group, with comparatively low attendance records and a limited involvement in any kind of parliamentary activity. While neglecting parliament, Absentees are very active at the national and local levels, where they tend to spend most of their time. They see their role as a promoter of Euroscepticism in national public opinion.

Public Orators give priority to public speaking and the delegitimisation of the Parliament. They believe that their role is to speak on behalf of Eurosceptic citizens and the vast majority of their activities consist of general accusations concerning the negative consequences of integration. Their interventions do not address the content of specific EU policies but seek to break down the so-called consensus within the assembly. Even though Public Orators are relatively present in Parliament, they are not interested in the ‘traditional’ aspects of parliamentary work. They believe their role is to oppose nearly everything since they are opposed to the Parliament’s legislative powers and, more generally, the EU. In terms of their behaviour, they form a relatively cohesive group, characterized by a lack of involvement in the legislative process and the priority given to individual action, especially speeches.

Pragmatists develop a dual strategy whereby they seek to achieve concrete results while not compromising their Eurosceptic beliefs. Like the Public Orators and Absentees, the Pragmatists are aware of belonging to a minority with little chance of having their point of view prevail. But instead of remaining in a sterile opposition, they try to find a balance between the promotion of their convictions and the pursuit of tangible results. Two categories can be distinguished: the first group emphasizes its mission of control (as watchdogs of EU institutions) while the second group is fundamentally guided by the defence of national or regional interests. Overall, Pragmatists are characterized by greater investment in the EP’s daily work, a tendency to follow the rules and a willingness to change, in a targeted and limited way, the system of which they are critical.

Participants see themselves first and foremost not as opposition players but as legislators. They want to be seen as MEPs like any others and invest the majority of their time in the chamber. Unlike Public Orators and Pragmatists, Participants not only know and respect the formal and informal parliamentary rules but adjust their behaviour to them and can occasionally disregard their Eurosceptic beliefs in order to be influential. They are particularly keen to be in charge of reports, opinions or responsibilities within committees in order to influence the legislative process. They use relatively few individual-type actions such as questions and speeches and actually do not resort to a particular type of activity, their moderation distinguishing them from the other strategies.

Eurosceptic MEPs: threat or asset for the EU?

So far, Eurosceptics haven’t had a major influence on EU decision-making and, despite their success at the 2014 elections, this is unlikely to change. That does not mean, however, that they do not have any impact at all. On the one hand, they are increasingly influential on the agenda and on the framing of EU-related debates in several national political arenas (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2013, Startin 2015). On the other hand, I argue here that rather than being portrayed as a threat, the presence of Eurosceptics in the EP could also be an asset for the EU’s legitimacy.

Indeed, the EP as the EU’s only directly elected institution has failed to build effective links between the people and the EU (Farrell and Scully, 2007) and an important proportion of the European electorate does not share the same views as their representatives on EU issues (Mattila and Raunio, 2012; Thomassen, 2012). Eurosceptic MEPs provide a channel for the expression of segments of public opinion that would otherwise remain unrepresented. Their presence and their strategies, even outsiders such as Public Orators, allows citizens’ dissatisfaction to be expressed inside the EU’s institutional system and could contribute to increasing the EP’s representativeness as an institution open to society in its diversity.

In addition to that, the presence of dissenting voices at the heart of the EU could be a source of politicization. If this politicization has not taken the form expected by neo-functionalists, prompting a constraining dissensus rather than deeper integration (Hooghe and Marks, 2009), its effects remain beneficial for the EU and its democratic nature. Eurosceptics play a key role in this politicization, leading to increased contestation and contributing to the expansion of debates from a closed elite-dominated arena to wider publics (on politicization, see De Wilde and Zürn, 2012; Statham and Trenz, 2012). Their presence could be an asset for the affirmation of the EU as a democratic political system, strengthening the role of the EP as an arena for political conflict.

However, this would require that opposition was not only expressed in the EP but also engaged with. For now, the status of opposition in the EP is still unclear and Eurosceptic MEPs face strong institutional constraints. Repeated reforms to the rules of procedure have allowed the EP to maximize its influence in the EU’s decision-making process. But it has also produced less emphasis on the representative aspects of the EP’s deliberation (Brack et al., 2014). Moreover, the EP remains a bastion of Europhiles (Mudde, 2013) and the coalition between the two main groups (with the support of the Liberals) will continue enforcing its will on the dissenters. In other words, Eurosceptics are not able to play a significant part in the legislative process in the EP or to have a blackmail potential. Whereas the 2014 election results could be interpreted as a signal or even a warning for EU elites, it seems they persist in ignoring the sceptics, which could be damaging for the EU (Usherwood and Startin 2013). The existence of an anti-system opposition within the chamber is not likely to undermine the effectiveness of the EP’s decision-making process because it has no other choice than acting within the existing institutional arrangements. But in the absence of a dialogue between the EU and its critics, the EP cannot (yet) be considered a site where opposition is engaged with. This can only strengthen the Eurosceptics’ critique of the EU.

Nathalie Brack is FNRS Post-doctoral Fellow at Cevipol, Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. This post is based on a longer journal article that can be found in the International Political Science Review.


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