Europe and the February 2016 Irish general election

Michael Holmes

Although the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition was defeated, no clear alternative emerged and the radical left secured its best-ever result in an Irish election. The outcome is likely to be some form of agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Background

The 2016 general election in the Republic of Ireland was one where the EU was at the heart of the campaign, but in a manner that meant hardly any substantive discussion of Ireland’s relationship with the EU. Irish politics has been dominated by the economic crisis since 2008. Financial support had been sought from the EU and the IMF in November 2010, and an €85 billion bail-out package was put in place, accompanied, of course, by stringent austerity conditions and tight supervision by the EU-ECB-IMF troika.

The government at the time was a coalition between the centre-right Fianna Fáil and the small Green Party. They suffered very badly in the February 2011 general election – Fianna Fáil’s vote fell by almost 60%, and they lost 51 out of 71 seats, while the Greens lost every one of their six seats. However, the incoming coalition between another centre-right party, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party did not represent any major shift in policy. It was committed to working within the constraints imposed by the troika, and the cutbacks continued.

At one level, the economic strategy seemed to work. Unemployment declined gradually from a peak of 15% in late 2011, Ireland exited the bailout programme in 2013 and by the end of 2015 the country had the fastest-growing economy in the EU. But from another perspective, there were continuing problems, with the decision to impose water charges being a particular focal point for public protest.

There are two technical features of the election worth noting. First, a new law had been passed in 2012 introducing a 30% gender quota for all parties. Second, the Dáil (lower house) had been trimmed from 166 seats to 158, carried out by an independent commission through a significant revision of constituency boundaries. It is also worth noting the high degree of party political volatility in the period between 2011 and 2016, when three new parties were formed and with three significant electoral alliances. The three parties were: the centre-left Social Democrats; the right-wing conservative Renua Ireland; and the left-wing Independents 4 Change. The alliances were: a co-operation agreement between the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit; the Independent Alliance; and the Right 2 Change movement which was a loose grouping of left-leaning parties, trade unions and individuals. Of these, only Renua failed to win a seat.

The campaign

From the beginning, both Fine Gael and Labour argued that after a painful but necessary adjustment, the country was now back on the road to prosperity and an end to austerity was in sight. However, that depended on keeping to the narrow path. Fine Gael’s manifesto was titled “Let’s keep the recovery going”, while Labour talked of the need to “sustain and spread the economic recovery”. Unsurprisingly, there was virtually no criticism of the EU from them. Fine Gael has always been a strongly pro-European party, and it claimed credit for “regaining our status as a committed and active member of the European Union” and asserted that “Ireland has returned to the heart of Europe”. Back in 2011, Labour had been more critical of the EU, but once in government their tune changed. This time their manifesto declared “we believe that Ireland will be strong and our interests are best served when there is a strong European Union”.

While there were many strands to the opposition, a common view was that the recovery was narrowly confined, and far too few people were experiencing any actual improvement in their lives. If anything, a deeply unequal economy and society was becoming still more engrained. Fianna Fáil argued that government policy “threatens to make us more unequal and divided”, but also committed themselves to “uphold Ireland’s EU and national fiscal obligations” and “to adhere fully to EU and national rules”. Sinn Féin also argued that “it isn’t a fair recovery. It is a two-tier recovery”. But they adopted a much more critical tone in relation to the EU, stating that “recent governments have been totally deferential to the EU”. They did not espouse an outright anti-EU policy, but called for reforms of decision-making in the EU, the introduction of a “growth and investment oriented policy of the EU” and they criticised TTIP.

Among the smaller parties, attitudes to Europe showed general support for the idea of integration but criticism of aspects of the EU. The Green Party was one of the few to talk about the migration crisis, arguing that a “retreat to nationalism and the closure of borders is precisely the wrong direction” for Europe, but identifying TTIP as “a major retrograde step”. The Social Democrats talked about “a deep sense of injustice that these banking debts were foisted on the Irish people due to a combination of weak and incompetent Irish politicians and bullying from European institutions”, while the common platform of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit declared opposition to TTIP and CETA and generally to “a Europe run in the interests of big business and the bankers” while calling “for a democratic and socialist Europe of the millions, not the millionaires.”

However, despite the fact that the economic situation created by the crash and the bail-out was central to the election campaign, the EU itself did not feature in any significant way in the actual campaign debates. The campaign kicked off with a debate about what was termed the ‘fiscal space’ – in other words, the degree of budgetary freedom that was now available. There was broad agreement that there was room to allow a limited relaxation of austerity, but each party chose a different path – tax reductions to the right of the spectrum, greater public spending to the left. This was linked to two further dominant policy issues in the campaign. First of all, there was a major debate around the issue of housing, as a return to rapid growth in house prices was accompanied by a serious continuing problem of evictions and homelessness. Second, a crisis in the health care system was a continuing issue.

But as the campaign continued, another issue began to come to the fore – the question of government formation. Opinion polls showed that the incumbent coalition was very unlikely to be returned, with Fine Gael stuck just below 30% and Labour struggling around 8%. There was a lack of trust in the government, and their basic argument about economic recovery did not seem to be gaining much traction. But the polls also indicated that this was not transferring to any clear alternative. Fianna Fáil was lodged around 20% with Sinn Féin around 16%, and there were a clutch of smaller parties jostling between 2-4% each. The polls also suggested that a large minority of people were likely to vote for independent, non-party candidates.

The results and outcome

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Table 1: Results of the February 2016 Irish general election

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Votes (%)        Change                        Seats                Change

Fine Gael                                 25.5                 -10.6                50                    -26

Fianna Fáil                              24.3                 +6.9                 44                    +24

Sinn Féin                                 13.8                 +3.9                 23                    +9

Labour Party                             6.6                 -12.8                  7                    -30

AAA/PBP                                 3.9                 +3.9                   6                    +2

Independent Alliance               4.2                 new*                 6                    +1

Independents 4 Change            1.5                 new*                 4                    0

Social Democrats                      3.0                 new*                 3                    0

Green Party                               2.7                 +0.9                   2                    +2

Independents                          11.7                 +0.4                 13                    -1

Turnout: 65.1%

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Source: RTE (2016) Election 2016: national summary, online at http://www.rte.ie/news/election-2016/ [accessed 4 March 2016]

*First time to contest an election; formed during previous Dáil and thus already held seats.

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As Table 1 shows, the results confirmed the patterns evident in the opinion polls, and there was no late surge by either the government parties or the opposition. After their success in 2011, both Fine Gael and Labour saw big falls in their support, although despite dropping more than 10% of their vote and losing 26 seats, Fine Gael just clung on to their position as the largest party. Labour lost two-thirds of their vote, and only barely reached the target of 7 seats needed to hold on to full party rights in the new Dáil. Fianna Fáil could be considered the main winners from the election, as they more than doubled their number of seats. However, having been the dominant party throughout most of the history of Irish politics, they remained still far below their traditional level of support. And Sinn Féin, who had been growing steadily, continued this rise without any achieving any dramatic breakthrough.

A prominent feature of the result was fragmentation. At least nine parties or groups gained representation (ten if the two components of the AAA-PBP alliance are treated as separate parties), and there were also a large number of independents elected, reflecting the highly localised, parochial and clientelistic nature of Irish politics.

Inevitably, the results meant a complicated picture for government formation. There were three broad groupings, none of which was even close to a majority: a centre-right bloc with Fine Gael at its core, another centre-right bloc centred on Fianna Fáil, and a left-wing bloc including Sinn Féin. Given that the parties in the left-wing bloc were strongly opposed to the austerity programme, they were largely out of consideration. However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would have the seats for a potentially cohesive and coherent centre-right government.

Such a deal was anathema to both parties – they had been the rival poles of Irish politics for almost 100 years, even if their differences were more tribal than ideological. The 32nd Dáil met for the first time on 10 March and again on 6 April, but on both occasions it could not elect a Taoiseach. Eventually, over forty days after the election, the two parties began direct talks about the possible formation of a government, either a grand coalition between the two or else Fianna Fáil support for a minority Fine Gael government.

Conclusions

Similar to other European countries, the economic crisis is leading to some potentially significant political transformations. In Ireland, this has taken the form of a weakening of the traditional parties of government and a boost for the radical left. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, there is no extreme right trading on anti-immigrant policies, nor is there an openly Eurosceptic right-wing party akin to UKIP or Alternativ für Deutschland. The radical left secured by far their best ever result in Ireland, albeit in a very fragmented manner between Sinn Féin, AAA-PBP and Independents 4 Change.

Instead, the election may have led to the two traditional rivals being pushed into each other’s arms. Throughout the economic crisis, governing parties – particularly those in bail-out countries – have suffered defeats. The 2016 Irish election can be seen as a test of whether a government could sell a story of recovery and hold on to power. The answer was very clearly no, but it has thrown up the tantalising prospect of a fundamental re-adjustment of Irish politics.

Michael Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Liverpool Hope University.

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Slovakia’s surprise election result: a new attitude to the EU?

Karen Henderson

Unexpected election results are the norm in Slovakia, but 5 March 2016 was more surprising than most. As Table 1 shows, for the first time since 1989, eight different parties crossed the 5% threshold necessary for gaining seats in parliament and, although one new party normally enters the Slovak parliament at each election, this time there were three of them. Slovaks bucked the regional trend towards dominant-party rule, and Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy, which had formed Slovakia’s first single-party government after gaining 44% of the vote in 2012, was cut down to 28%, which meant it would need at least two coalition partners in order to stay in power. Nationalism appeared to be on the rise though, and not only did the Slovak National Party re-enter parliament, but the more extreme right People’s Party-Our Slovakia led by Banska Bystrica regional governor Marian Kotleba, also made its parliamentary debut. Since neither government nor opposition is prepared to consider Kotleba as a coalition partner, forming a government is going to be extremely difficult and early elections are likely.

With Slovakia’s EU presidency due to start on 1 July, and the country determined to impress, this is bad news. It may be possible to cobble together a fractious and fragmented broad coalition for the duration, and there is even talk of a non-party government of technocrats (a solution adopted by their Czech neighbours when the government disintegrated half-way through its EU presidency). However, in a small and heavily politicised country like Slovakia, almost no-one is considered to be politically neutral, and any arrangement that gave more power to the non-party President Kiska would be unwelcome, particularly to the centre-right, who regard him as a potential rival. 

Table 1: Slovak parliamentary election 5 March 2016

  % votes seats votes March 2012
Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) 28.28 49 737,481 (83)
Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) 12.10 21 315,558 (11)
Ordinary People (OĽaNO-Nova) 11.02 19 287,611 (16)
Slovak National Party (SNS) 8.64 15 225,386 (0)
Kotleba – People’s Party-Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) 8.04 14 209,779 (0)
We are the Family – Boris Kollár 6.62 11 172,860 (-)
Bridge (Most-Híd) 6.50 11 169,593 (13)
#Network (#Sieť) 5.60 10 146,205 (-)
Others (15), including: 13.16 0 343,277 (0)
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) 4.94 0 128 908 (16)
Party of the Hungarian Community (SMK) 4.04 0 105,495 (0)
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS)    0.26 0 6,938 (11)
Total 100.00 150 2,607,750 (150)

Turnout: 59.82%

Source: Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, https://www.volbysr.sk/en/index.html

What caused Slovakia’s surprise election result? Three interlinked themes are particularly interesting: the government’s exploitation of the refugee crisis, the salience of corruption as a political issue, and a shift in perceptions of the EU.

Firstly, Prime Minister Fico’s decision to exploit the refugee crisis for political gain backfired. He had had a relatively successful four years in power, and it was assumed, even a week or two before the election, that he would still be in office for the EU presidency, which would be a highlight of his 25 years in politics. Despite some notable corruption scandals, the country’s economic performance had been good, and the government presented three ‘social packages’ with goodies such as: free train travel for students and pensioners, rebates on gas bills and a reduction of VAT on certain ‘essential foodstuffs’ that just happened to be normally produced in Slovakia. Unwilling to rely on this alone, Fico then mercilessly exploited the Syrian refugee crisis to whip up nationalism he assumed would aid his party, and changed his party’s main slogan from ‘we work for the people’ to ‘we protect Slovakia’. Slovakia attracted international attention at the end of August 2015 when an interior ministry spokesman stated that it could only accept Christian refugees as it had no mosques and Moslems could not integrate if they did not feel at home. (Slovak law on the recognition of religions does not permit the building of mosques, but this was overlooked.) When Slovakia later refused to accept refugee quotas, and started legal proceedings against the Council of the EU, there was consequently reasonable doubt that the Slovak government was really concerned about sovereignty and the way the decision had been made, with racism appearing a more likely motive. Repeated comments by the prime minister stating that Moslem communities could not be integrated (as if this were actually a fact) were not challenged by most of the opposition, who were too timid to dismiss Islamophobia as a distasteful election ploy.

Yet on election night it turned out that the tactic of exploiting racism had not worked. Sowing the wind of Islamophobia had reaped the whirlwind of racism and the party was outflanked by Marian Kotleba’s far-right party. A Smer-SD election law change backfired as well: the publication of public opinion polls within 14 days of the elections was banned, thus concealing the fact that Smer’s support was dropping lower than it had been at any point in the last four years.

The second theme was continued public hostility to political elites and a perfectly understandable distaste for corruption. Strikes by nurses and teachers in the run-up to the elections had moved both sectors up the political agenda, with it finally becoming widely recognised that, in education in particular, Slovakia lagged behind even by regional standards. Both areas were politically sensitive as they touched upon most voters’ everyday lives, and some Smer-SD politicians were perceived to have enriched themselves by corrupt practices in both, with hospitals being a particular bone of contention.

However, the centre-right was also affected by hostility to established elites – as well as its own self-obsession, inability to unite and general preference for targeting each other’s voters rather than those of Smer-SD, whom they sometimes regard almost as belonging to another species. A further election night surprise was the success of the liberal rather than conservative parties of the centre-right. (Considering whether this might be because the left in Slovakia has to vote for someone and can’t be expected to choose Smer-SD would involve a long debate on the meaning of ‘left’ and ‘right’, best left for another occasion.) Richard Sulik’s Freedom and Solidarity, which pushed neo-liberal economic policies as well as being the only party that supported registered partnership, became the leader of the right, followed closely by Igor Matovic’s ‘Ordinary People’ standing together with a break-off party of younger Christian Democrats, Nova. ‘Ordinary People’ refuses to impose policy on its members of parliament, who were expected to vote according to their consciences (thereby making them a nightmare coalition partner). Their candidate list did, indeed, contain some impressive civic activists who genuinely appeared to have consciences, including several holders of the ‘white crow’ award for people who had suffered after whistle-blowing (which, as the party’s posters emphasised, included uncovering some of the government’s more notable corruption scandals). Interestingly, all three parties – Freedom and Solidarity, Ordinary People and Nova – have MEPs who sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists. They were also the parties which had declared unequivocally that they would not go into coalition with Smer-SD.

The four parties whose MEPs sit with the European People’s Party, as well as the new #Network party which has a similar orientation, fared less well. The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party, which presided over the two governments which assured Slovakia’s accession to the EU and NATO, failed to survive a change of leader and gained just over 6,000 votes. The Christian Democratic Movement, which had been the only Slovak party elected to every parliament from 1990, had gradually become a fundamentalist Catholic party more interested in sex than in economics and sank just below the 5% mark necessary to enter parliament. Of the two parties representing Slovakia’s 10% Hungarian minority, the Party of the Hungarian Community fell below the 5% threshold for the third parliamentary election in a row, while Bridge – a party which commendably united both Hungarians and Slovaks and had also been the only party to challenge the dominant discourse portraying refugees as a dire threat to security -retained its existing vote while the polls suggested that it should have done better. Finally, #Network, which had appeared to be the leader of the right in almost all opinion polls, barely scraped into parliament with 5.6% of the vote.

Behind the Game of Parties, however, was also a marked shift in the whole Slovak discourse on the EU, which was a third theme underlying the election. Slovakia had, up until 2015, been a cheerful aid junkie, happy to publicise the fact that about 80% of its public investments were financed by EU funds. The EU was regarded rather like a benevolent rich uncle who gave Slovakia money, and was occasionally required by the centre-right to act as the headmaster who told off Smer-SD for doing things that weren’t democratic (a task where ‘Brussels’ lived up to expectations less frequently than in its role as the provider of ‘EU funds’). Election manifestos on the left and the right had, for over a decade, been full of promises that would be financed by EU funds. While such references were by no means completely absent in 2016, they no longer provided the dominant EU discourse, and EU funds were increasingly linked to corruption rather than well-being. Freedom and Solidarity – the only party which had traditionally used Eurosceptic arguments and challenged the desirability of structural funds and cohesion policy – presented an alternative discourse summed up by its main poster slogan: ‘So that it’s worthwhile to work, run a business and live at home’. The idea that hundreds of thousands of young Slovaks moving abroad was a problem was quickly picked up by other parties of the right, who listed ‘migration’ as one of Slovakia’s big problems and then immediately made clear that they meant out-migration of Slovaks rather than the Syrian refugee crisis.

A number of reasons may lie behind the shift in discourse on the EU. With the argument over refugee quotas making the EU less popular than it had been in the past, highlighting EU funding as a positive may have appeared risky. Opposition parties probably also believed that Smer-SD’s securitisation of the migration issue was best countered not by daring to defend the rights and needs of refugees, but by turning the migration theme around to point indirectly to defects in the Slovak economy for which the government was responsible. Politicians may also have realised, at least at a subliminal level, that there was something inherently ridiculous about Slovakia reacting hysterically to the idea of receiving a few thousand refugees while it was itself still a major producer of economic emigrants.

However, the shift in the portrayal of Slovakia’s relationship to the EU also indicates a sense of empowerment and a switch to the country being an active participant rather than a passive recipient. This may come not just from the new assertiveness of the ‘Visegrad Four’ over the refugee crisis, but also from the upcoming EU presidency. Slovakia’s foreign ministry is one of its most effective, where competence and professional expertise have survived successive changes of government. Consequently, the turbulence on the political scene that will follow the unexpected election result may not adversely affect Slovakia’s performance in the EU presidency. And although the growth of Euroscepticism is a major challenge to the EU as a whole, in the Slovak case the recent, more critical discourse may actually be healthier and more constructive than its former incarnation as an unquestioning aid recipient. Likewise, while rejecting political elites because they are tainted by corruption is sometimes designated as populism, it is surely far better than accepting corruption as an inevitable.

Karen Henderson is senior lecturer in Politics at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava. She has been living in Slovakia permanently since 2014, but has closely followed political developments there since first visiting Bratislava as a British Council scholar in 1987.

Is the only man that can keep the UK in the European Union actually Wayne Rooney?

Dan Hough

British Conservative prime minister David Cameron now appears to have agreed to the cornerstones of a deal that he hopes will see the British people vote to remain in the European Union. It’s not yet been confirmed, but it’s now looking increasingly likely that the residents of Blighty will get to make that call on 23rd June. Current opinion polls – assuming they are polling more accurately than they did in the 2015 UK General Election – tell us that, regardless of the precise nature of the deal that Cameron ultimately secures, it will be a very close race. The Yes vote generally seems to be just ahead, but there are polls that say the contrary. Come what may, four months out and it is, to use a cliché, still very much all to play for.

Given the closeness of the contest, it is worth asking: what might ultimately prove decisive in deciding the outcome? Academic research on referendums gives us a number of pointers.

On the one hand, it’s clear that decisions like this are not going to be purely about the minutiae of the deal that Cameron and co finally agree on. The majority of British people won’t read the text and a fair few who do will have a tough job in making sense of it – EU legalese is not exactly a rip-roaring read. So what will Brits use as pointers in helping them make their decisions?

Mark Franklin, Cees van der Eijk and Michael Marsh, in one of the seminal pieces on voting behaviour in referendums (see here), argue that the standing of the government of the day is in reality the key thing to watch out for. They argue that “referenda in parliamentary systems” are “subject to a ‘lockstep’ phenomenon” where the actual outcome is “tied to the popularity of the government in power” (Franklin et. al., 1995: 101).  They go further, claiming that this remains so even when the subject of the referendum has little to do with the reasons for the government’s (un)popularity. Not so much a case of it being ‘the economy, stupid’, but rather ‘it’s the government, silly!’ 

So, Franklin and co would expect Cameron to come through. As they rather bluntly note, “popular governments will get votes in favour of referenda that they propose” (1995: 102), meaning that pro-EUers can, given that Cameron’s government is still doing well in the opinion polls, begin to sleep just a little easier at night.

Not everyone, however, completely buys in to Franklin et. al.’s argument. Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart (see here), in an award-winning conclusion to their special issue of West European Politics on referendums in Europe in 2004, talk of the importance of “cues provided by elites”, but one shouldn’t neglect the underlying trends of the population at large (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 753). Indeed, they clearly end up in a slightly different place to Franklin et. al. when they state that “the outcomes of referendums are neither the exclusive preserve of masses or of elites” (2004: 753).

Szczerbiak and Taggart use evidence from the referendums held across Central and Eastern Europe on EU membership to illustrate this, pointing out, for example, that non-political figures can have small but significant influences on campaigns. And these influences will obviously be all the more significant when the result looks like it’ll be close (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 767).

Assuming that Szczerbiak and Taggart are right and the behaviour of those outside the political class can have an effect, then it might also be worth noting one other thing about the proposed 23rd June date of the referendum. And for that one needs to look back at a bit of recent history.

In 1970 the then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was all set to be returned to Downing Street in a June election. He had been consistently ahead in the polls and in the run up to polling day there was, despite a little bit of economic turbulence, confidence that the Conservatives under Ted Heath would be successfully defeated.

Yet Labour lost. The reasons for this were much debated at the time, with Wilson himself coming up with a decidedly left-field explanation. The 1970 election took place in the middle of the 1970 football World Cup, staged in Mexico. And, England, as defending champions, were all set to do well. Alf Ramsey’s side came out of their group intact and ended up – as so often seems to be the case – locking horns with Germany. This time in the quarter-final in the sweltering heat of Leon. England looked to be cruising to the semi-final, leading 2-0 with little more than 20 minutes to play.

Alf Ramsey, conscious of the hot and humid conditions, subsequently took off Bobby Charlton to save his (by now aging) legs. Things immediately started to go wrong; Peter Bonetti, the stand in goalkeeper (Gordon Banks, England’s legendary keeper of the 1960s, had been taken ill in the morning) made a couple of now infamous mistakes and before anyone really knew it England were out of the tournament.

So what? Well, the game took place just four days before the UK’s general election.  The crushing nature of England’s defeat seemed to be of more significance to many than an election to see which white, middle-class man would lead the country.  Indeed, Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was reported (see here) to be bamboozled by having to deal with questions about whether Alf Ramsay or Peter Bonetti was the bigger national scoundrel (the answer according to this football fan, for the record, is that both of them were to blame!). Wilson himself noted that the national mood seemed to have changed, and the optimism that generally prevailed beforehand was shifting to a much more negative feeling of disgruntlement. A small number of government supporters, so the hypothesis went, subsequently lost enthusiasm for Labour and didn’t vote, whilst others went from giving Labour the benefit of any doubt to having had enough of them. The numbers involved were, again so the theory goes, not particularly large but they may have been large enough to help give momentum to a late swing.

In June 2016 England will be playing in the European Championships. Although England had a truly dismal 2014 World Cup finals (the less said about which the better), the side does appear to have been given a new lease of life. Young players such as Deli Alli, Ross Berkley, John Stones and Jamie Vardy represent a breath of fresh air, and ten wins out of ten (with 31 goals scored and just 3 conceded) in the qualifying group is clear evidence that all need no longer be doom and gloom. England, furthermore, have been drawn in a group from which they should qualify; Russia, Slovakia and Wales all represent challenges, but if England are serious about being a football mover and shaker, then Roy Hodgson’s men really should progress to the knock out stages.

The final group game against Slovakia takes place on 20 June. Just three days before the proposed date of the referendum. As those with longer memories will know, and regardless of events in 1970, football certainly can impact on the national mood; the cases of 1990 and 1996, when England got to the semi-finals of major tournaments, are evidence of that. David Cameron, therefore, needs to hope that Wayne Rooney and co come to the party in France in the summer.

Furthermore, if England don’t qualify out of the group that they’ve been drawn in, the very opposite (in terms of mood) could happen. All of the footballing indicators say that England should achieve that goal, making the feelings of disappointment all the more pronounced if England were to crash out. If Joe Hart proves more Peter Bonetti than Gordon Banks or if Wayne Rooney proves to be more Luther Blissett (google him!) and less Geoff Hurst, then this could have ramifications that are potentially much wider than simply (yet another) calamitous performance in a major football tournament by the English national football team.

Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex where he is Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption.

How will the EU’s ‘rule of law’ investigation affect Polish politics?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing government found itself on the defensive last month following the European Commission’s unprecedented decision to initiate an investigation under the EU’s ‘rule of law’ mechanism. An ongoing row with the Commission will be debilitating for the government which will have to spend valuable time and political capital defending its reputation in the European arena. However, the ruling party has shown that it can fight its corner and the Commission’s intervention could prove a double-edged sword for Poland’s opposition.

Law and Justice on the back-foot

The Polish government – led, since last October’s parliamentary election, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – found itself on the back-foot last month following the European Commission’s surprising decision to initiate a preliminary investigation of the country under the EU’s so-called ‘rule of law’ monitoring mechanism. In 2014, the Union adopted the instrument, intended to address ‘systemic’ breaches of the rule of law and EU principles in any member state. It was meant to complement the so-called ‘nuclear option’ provision in Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows the European Council to impose sanctions on countries found to be in serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values; in the worst-case scenario, suspending their voting rights. So far the Commission has agreed to the first step under the framework which involves undertaking a preliminary investigation of whether or not there are clear indications of a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’ and initiating a dialogue with the member state concerned.

This unprecedented move came in response to concerns about recent actions by the Law and Justice government in relation to the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws, and a new media law passed by the Polish parliament in January. The government’s critics accuse it of undermining the fundamentals of Polish democracy and the rule of law by: ignoring the tribunal’s rulings on the constitutiality of a law determining the body’s membership and trying to curb its power to place checks on the government, as well as placing public broadcasting under direct government control. These actions, they argue, represent attempts to interfere in the independence of the judiciary and put Law and Justice party loyalists in charge of state TV and radio.

Mrs Szydło’s counter-offensive

Law and Justice tried to regain the initiative by undertaking a (somewhat belated) public relations offensive aimed at improving Poland’s image within the EU institutions; re-assuring European leaders of the government’s broadly pro-EU attitude and that it was committed to upholding the rule of law and European values. The government’s supporters defended its actions as necessary measures to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) grouping, the previous governing party. More broadly, they argued that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and claimed that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by political forces unable to come to terms with their electoral defeat and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the state and introduce sweeping socio-economic reforms.

The centrepiece of Law and Justice’s counter-offensive was (what even the government’s critics admitted was) an effective intervention by prime minister Beata Szydło in a European Parliament (EP) plenary debate on the political situation in Poland held in the week after the Commission’s decision was announced. Although Mrs Szydło’s critics accused her of being evasive and misleading in responding to the Commission’s concerns, in a calm and conciliatory performance she tried to de-escalate the dispute: insisting that the Polish government was open to dialogue and would co-operate to patiently answer all of the criticisms. However, Mrs Szydło did not make any substantial concessions arguing that the constitutional tribunal dispute was an internal matter of a political rather than legal nature for Poland to solve on its own, and that the government’s changes to public broadcasting conformed to European standards. Earlier, she tried to undercut the Commission’s arguments by organising consultations with opposition leaders, for the first time since the new government took office last November, to find a compromise solution to the constitutional tribunal deadlock (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). The EP debate was also preceded by a visit to Brussels by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda who tried to lower the emotional temperature of the debate by meeting, and holding a (generally good natured) joint press conference, with EU Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

Law and Justice was helped greatly by the weak performance in the EP debate of Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping. The Polish opposition enjoys close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice, so it was assumed that the EP debate would be favourable territory for the party. Indeed, during party leadership election hustings with local activists, Civic Platform’s new leader Grzegorz Schetyna (who was elected unopposed at the end of January) identified utilising the European arena as a key element of the opposition’s anti-government strategy. However, the party was divided over which tactics to pursue in the EP debate: anxious to capitalise on the government’s difficulties, but fearful of leaving itself open to criticism that it was weakening the country’s international standing by using a European forum to air domestic political grievances. In the event, except for one brief intervention from a Civic Platform MEP, the party effectively sat out the debate and ended up with the worst of both worlds: apparently supporting the Commission intervention but only half-heartedly. 

The EU intervention could drag on

In fact, the Commission has no powers to impose sanctions on Poland as the ‘rule of law’ framework only constitutes a political dialogue without any legally binding recommendations. These can only arise if the Commission proposes them to the EU Council under Article 7 where they require unanimity in one of the three stages of voting; and the Hungarian government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce such measures. However, Mrs Szydło’s effective EP performance – and, more broadly, Law and Justice’s public relations counter-offensive – have not ended the conflict between the Commission and Poland. While the government is keen to move political debate back on to ‘normal’ socio-economic issues, where Law and Justice feels it is more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opponents, the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation process could be a lengthy one, potentially forcing the Polish ruling party to spend valuable time and political capital responding to criticisms and defending its position in the European and international arena.

The Commission has said that it will return to the issue in March after the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe (a non-EU organisation which aims to uphold democracy and the rule of law), issues an opinion on Poland’s constitutional tribunal reforms. If the matter is not resolved by then, the Commission can issue a ‘rule of law recommendation’ giving Poland a specific time period to address the problems it has identified. If it still considers that the problem has not been dealt with to its satisfaction, the Commission can then recommend the invocation of Article 7. At the same time, the constitutional tribunal crisis looks set to rumble on with most of Poland’s opposition parties rejecting a government proposal to resolve the crisis by replacing the tribunal’s membership with eight judges nominated by the opposition and seven by the ruling party. It could also re-surface as a major issue of contention this month when the tribunal expects to rule on the constitutionality of amendments to the law determining its functioning passed by the Polish parliament at the end of December; which the government argues has already come into force and the tribunal has no power to review.

How will Poles react?

At this stage, it is difficult to tell how Poles will react to any further EU interventions. On the one hand, many of them are quite sensitive to international opinion, and understandably wary of anything that might lead to the country losing influence which could make it more difficult for Poland to promote its interests within the EU. Not only do Poles still support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, but one of Law and Justice’s opponents’ most effective criticisms of the previous 2005-7 party-led administration was that it had isolated Poland within EU institutions by alienating the main European powers, particularly Germany, and created the perception of the country as an unreliable and unstable EU member. This charge was strongly rejected by Law and Justice supporters who, for their part, argued that it was the previous Civic Platform-led government that failed to advance Poland’s interests effectively within the EU in spite of locating the country squarely within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ and enjoying extremely close relations with Berlin.

Moreover, notwithstanding the potential threat that isolation within the EU might pose to Poland’s tangible, material interests, at a more abstract level many Poles may feel particularly uneasy about the charge that the Law and Justice government is undermining so-called European values. This is because one of the key motivations for Poles voting overwhelmingly to join the EU in a 2003 accession referendum, and main reasons why levels of popular support for the country’s EU membership have remained so high, was the idea that joining the Union represented a historical and civilisational choice: a symbolic re-uniting of Poland with a Western international community of shared values that they had always considered themselves to be part of culturally and spiritually.

However, although most Poles remain broadly pro-EU, they also value their national independence and are likely to react instinctively against the idea of foreign interference in their domestic affairs. Moreover, as last month’s events have shown, Law and Justice will fight its corner in the European arena, so a heavy-handed EU intervention could simply allow the party to present itself as the defender of Polish sovereignty against unwarranted meddling by arrogant Brussels officials. Moreover, the idea of Polish EU membership as representing a ‘civilisational choice’ has been undermined in recent years by an increasing sense of cultural distinctiveness that many Poles feel towards Western Europe. This has been particularly evident in the sphere of moral-cultural values where Polish attachment to traditional morality and national identity stands in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European political and cultural elites.

This issue has surfaced recently in the contrasting reactions of Poles (and other Central Europeans) and West European political elites (although not necessarily their publics) to the European migration crisis. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities. Indeed, one Law and Justice response to the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation was that the EU should be concerning itself more with addressing the fall-out from the migration crisis than the political situation in Poland. In other words, it not as obvious as it once was – and, arguably, becoming less so – that the ‘civilizational choices’ that are being made by political and cultural elites in other parts of the continent are the same ones that Poles want to make. The ‘European card’ is, therefore, one that the government’s opponents need to play with great caution and could easily backfire on them.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at Polish Politics Blog

Euroscepticism: an overhauled notion?

Cécile Leconte

In late August 2015 the French economist Jacques Sapir called for the creation of a “national liberation front” against the Euro that would unite the radical, right-wing Front national, the nationalist movement Debout la France (whose leader broke away from the Gaullist party) and the radical, left-wing Front de Gauche. Opposition to the Euro, according to Sapir, implied the building-up of ‘transversal alliances’ transcending the Left/Right cleavage. To be sure, this attempt at creating a union sacrée against the Euro, despite being unsuccessful (at least for the time being), confirms the plausibility of a scenario long envisaged by some political scientists: namely, that the pro-/anti-integration cleavage might re-configure the dimensions of domestic political spaces, to the point that it would eventually supersede the Left/Right cleavage. Moreover, this call for the building up of a “transversal” alliance illustrates two important things related to the phenomenon of Euroscepticism. First, it points at the “empty heart” of Euroscepticism (to borrow an expression initially applied by Paul Taggart to populism) as a phenomenon that escapes any substantial definition in terms of a specific ideological positioning. Second, it shows that Euroscepticism has long ceased to be constrained to the margins of domestic party systems and is now present at their core; indeed, altogether the three parties that Sapir called on to coalesce against the Euro received 35% of the domestic vote at the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Euroscepticism: long considered a marginal phenomenon, a proxy for domestic politics

In fact, for almost two decades, hostility towards European integration has been analyzed as a peripheral phenomenon: mainly located at the ideological margins of party systems. It was also considered as the privilege of a minority of parochial, backward-oriented voters, to be found predominantly in countries seen as “peripheral” to the core of founding countries (such as the UK and the Nordic states). Moreover, to the extent that it was taken into account, Euroscepticism was largely understood as a proxy, through which voters mainly expressed their views on domestic politics, especially their dissatisfaction with incumbent governments’ perceived performance. Certainly, this understanding of Euroscepticism reflected reality, to some extent. However, it was also a by-product of the predominance of specific academic fields or schools of thought in the study of European integration. While the focus on political elites and on the so-called “founding fathers” of the European Communities seemed to confirm the validity of neo-functionalist accounts of European integration, the predominance of an International Relations perspective (both in Political Science and History) long obscured sources of dissent or opposition to integration, be it within specific civil society segments, segments of state institutions, etc.

Euroscepticism as a mainstream phenomenon: towards conceptual overstretching

This situation started to change in the early twenty first century – most pronouncedly with the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands that brought the EU constitutional process to a halt. Referendum campaigns in both countries not only highlighted the strength of internal divisions on EU issues within mainstream political parties (most notably in France) but also the significance of the No vote within segments of the electorate deemed to be pro-European (young voters for instance). This only confirmed the results of a vast number of studies showing that hostility towards the EU was not limited to ultra-nationalist, xenophobic voters but was underlain by a complex set of attitudes, where distrust of mainstream politicians and of domestic elected institutions played a crucial role. In the same vein, works on the territorial logics underpinning Euroscepticism broke with previous accounts of British or Nordic “exceptionalism” , by pointing to the changing mood towards the EU in countries hitherto considered as Europhile (like Italy), by focusing on “hidden” forms of Euroscepticism (like indifference or apathy towards the EU) and by refining our understanding of the “geography” of Euroscepticism (that is, by bringing to the fore the relevance of local and regional factors in shaping citizens’ views on the EU).

Recasting the debate on Euroscepticism

However, the ensuing conceptual overstretching of the term ‘Euroscepticism’ led a number of scholars, to question its very relevance. Not only was the non-scientific, polemical nature of the term judged to be inappropriate for academic use; it was deemed as over-simplistic in order to analyze the vast array of possible attitudes towards the EU beyond a mere pro-/anti-integration cleavage.

This questioning of the term went hand in hand with two broader trends in the study of the EU. First, EU studies have witnessed the emergence of a sociological turn leading scholars to move beyond the study of party and political elites’ positions towards the EU and to investigate how civil society actors at the local level and ‘ordinary’ citizens (that is, actors long neglected in mainstream research on the EU) perceive the EU and position themselves on specific EU issues. At the same time, researchers have given up on the idea of giving precise ideological content to Euroscepticism and have started paying attention, rather, to the different uses that actors can make of a Eurosceptic position in the domestic arena – for instance, within specific socio-political power relations. Second, the constructivist turn in the study of the EU led to the development of discursive approaches that investigate, in particular, the de-politicized nature of elite-level discourses on the EU and their impact on domestic public debates on EU integration.

This is where latest research on ‘Euroscepticism’ meets a pre-existing research agenda on populism. Indeed, both notions share a number of similarities: their non-scientific origin and their polemical use, their compatibility with any ideological positioning on the Left/Right cleavage (the ‘empty heart image) etc. Instead of considering populism as an ideology, scholars now focus on the nature of populism as a specific mode of mobilization or as a type of political discourse. Similarly, Euroscepticism can be conceptualized as a specific type of (populist) discourse, disparaging EU integration as an elite-led project and chastising the EU for not relying on a ‘people’ (be it defined in ethnic or in socio-political terms). Moreover, the vast literature analyzing populism as a reaction to de-politicized democracy can be very helpful in order to improve our understanding of the democratic deficit of the EU. Like populism, Euroscepticism can be seen, indeed, as a reaction to de-politicized governance, to the perceived lack of alternatives and to the prevalence of consensual politics – features that deeply characterize the political system of the EU. Finally, placing the study of Euroscepticism within the broader literature on populism paves the way for future, comparative research on other forms of resistance or contestation against regional or international forms of governance, thus breaking with the sui generis and EU-centric perspective that has long characterized much of EU-related research.

Cécile Leconte is senior lecturer in political science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, CERAPS/CNRS). This contribution is based on an article initially published in the International Political Science Review.

Eurosceptic party performances in the 2014 European elections

Giovanni Barbieri

Over the years the issue of European integration has acquired greater salience. Because of the intensification and spread of the economic crisis, the media, politicians and scholars have devoted particular attention to two issues: firstly, the activities of the European Parliament (EP) which, more or less effectively, could tackle the crisis; and, secondly, the consequences of the enlargement process. Nevertheless, turnout in EP elections has been decreasing since 1979, reaching its lowest rate of 43% in 2009 and 2014. Voters, therefore, regarded European elections as “second-order” polls: public opinion accorded little importance to their outcome; voters punished governing parties; while opposition and protest parties achieved their best results. Furthermore, citizens’ trust in European institutions has decreased. The “permissive consensus” toward European integration, which began to decline following the negative outcomes of referendums on European issues, appears to be almost completely eroded. Against this background, one could have expected an excellent performance by the Eurosceptic parties in the 2014 EP elections. However, what was the actual outcome? Did Eurosceptic parties truly achieve extraordinary election results? And, if they did, were these results consistent throughout Europe?

A preliminary analysis of the Eurosceptic parties’ electoral performance can be performed by considering the results achieved by those EP political groupings that are typically considered to be Eurosceptic: the soft Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the hard Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), which includes parties adopting both hard and soft Eurosceptic stances. Finally, the Not-attached Members (NA) must also be included in the examination, as they are generally Eurosceptic.

Table 1 shows the electoral results obtained by European political groupings from the first to the most recent EP elections: 

Table 1:  EP political groups 1979-2014 (percentage of MEPs)

1979 1984 1989 1994 1999 2004 2009 2014
Epp 26.3 25.3 23.4 27.5 37.2 36.6 36.0 29.4
S&D 27.3 30.0 34.7 34.9 28.8 27.3 25.0 25.4
Alde 9.8 7.1 9.5 7.8 8.0 12.0 11.4 8.9
Ecr 15.4 11.5 6.6 7.3 9.3
Efdd 3.4 2.6 5.1 4.3 6.4
Eul/Ngl 10.7 9.4 8.1 4.9 6.7 5.6 4.8 6.9
Greens/Efa 4.6 8.3 7.4 7.7 5.7 7.5 6.7
Na 2.4 1.6 2.3 4.8 1.4 4.0 3.7 6.9
Others 8.1 10.5 7.1 9.3 7.6 3.7

Source: Elaboration of data from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/elections_results/review.pdf and http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/election-results-2014.html.

In 2014, the European People’s Party (EPP) remained the largest political group in the EP, despite considerable losses. Together with the EPP, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group suffered the worst decline in recent years. Conversely, from 2009 to 2014, the share for all Eurosceptic groups increased. If, for the sake of argument, one were to add the results obtained by the three Eurosceptic EP groups and the NA members, we would have a total of 29.6% of the seats; a plurality not particularly far from the forecasts expressed by many opinion polls before the elections.

To perform a more in-depth analysis, I have also examined data on individual Eurosceptic parties. To define parties as Eurosceptic or not many scholars have considered their official documents – election manifestos, party platforms and leader’s speeches – whereas others have preferred to appeal to expert judgment. The results of these two approaches, of course, do not always correspond with one another. Thus, to develop a list of the Eurosceptic parties that is as detailed and reliable as possible I compared the main analyses on the topic. Table 2 thus presents the final list of the Eurosceptic parties. It includes 62 parties from 26 countries. Eurosceptic parties are present throughout Europe. Moreover, there are no significant differences relating to: territorial distribution, the date of EU accession, or old political and military cleavages.

Table 2 – Results of the Eurosceptic parties in the European elections of 2014

Country

Party Political group Seats (%) Difference Seats Position
2014 2014 2009-14 2014 2014
1 AT FPÖ  Freedom Party of Austria NA 19.7 7.0 4 3
2 EU Stop 2.8 0 6
3 REKOS The Reform Conservatives 1,2 0 8
4 BZÖ Alliance for the Future of Austria 0.5 -4,1 0  9
5 BE Vlaams Belang Flemish Interest NA 4.1 -5.7 1 10
6 BG NFSB/НФСБ The National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria 3.1 0 7
7 ATAKA Attack 3.0 -9.0 0  8
8 CY ΑΚΕΛ – ΑΚΕL Progressive Party of Working People UEN-NGL 27.0 -7.9 2 2
9 ΕΛΑΜ/ELAM National Popular Front 2.7 2.5 0  7
10 CZ KSČM Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia UEN-NGL 11.0 -3.2 3 4
11 ODS Civic Democratic Party ECR 7.7 -23.8 2 6
12 Svobodni Party of Free Citizens EFDD 5.2 3.9 1 7
13 Usvit Dawn of Direct Democracy 3.1 0 10
14 DE Die Linke The Left UEN-NGL 7,4 -0,1 7 4
15 AfD Alternative for Germany ECR 7,1 7 5
16 NPD National Democratic Party of Germany NA 1,0 na 1 10
17 REP The Republicans 0,4 -0,9 0  14
18 DK DF Danish People’s Party ECR 26,6 11,8 4 1
19 N. People’s Movement against the EU UEN-NGL 8,0 1,0 1 6
20 EE EIP Estonian Independence Party 1,3 na 0  7
21 EL SYRIZA Coalition of the Radical Left UEN-NGL 26,6 21,9 6 1
22 X.A. Golden Dawn NA 9,4 8,9 3 3
23 KKE Communist Party of Greece NA 6,1 -2,3 2 6
24 ANEL Independent Greeks ECR 3,5 1 7
25 ΛΑ.Ο.Σ/LA.O.S. Popular Orthodox Rally 2,7 -4,5 0  8
26 ES IU United Left UEN-NGL 10,0 6,3 5 3
27 BNG Galician Nationalist Block UEN-NGL 2,1 -0,4 1 9
28 FI PS Finns Party ECR 12,9 -1,1 2 3
29 FR FN National Front NA 24,9 18,6 23 1
30 PCF French Communist Party UEN-NGL 6,3 0,3 3 6
31 DLR Arise the Republic 3,8 2,1 0 7
32 LO Worker’s Struggle 1,0 -0,2 0 9
33 NPA The New Anticapitalist Party 0,3 -4,6 0  10
34 HR HSP AS Croatian Party of Rights ECR 41,4 1 1
35 HU Jobbik NA 14,7 -0,1 3 2
36 IE SF Sinn Féin UEN-NGL 19,5 8,3 3 4
37 IT M5S Five Star Movement EFDD 21,2 17 2
38 LN Northern League NA 6,2 -4,0 5 4
39 FDI-AN Brothers of Italy-National Alliance 3,7 3,7 0  7
40 LT TT Order and Justice EFDD 14,3 2,0 2 4
41 LV TB/LNNK For Fatherland and Freedom ECR 14,3 6,8 1 2
42 NL PVV Party for Freedom NA 13,3 -3,7 4 3
43 SP Socialist Party UEN-NGL 9,6 2,5 2 5
44 SGP Dutch Reformed Political Party ECR 7,7 0,9 2 7
45 GroenLinks Green Party Greens-EFA 7,0 -1,9 2 8
46 PL PiS Law and Justice ECR 31,8 4,4 19 2
47 KNP Congress of the New Right NA 7,2 4 4
48 SP United Poland 4,0 0  6
49 RN National Movement 1,4 0 9
50 PT PCP Portuguese Communist Party UEN-NGL 12,7 2,1 3 3
51 BE Left Block UEN-NGL 4,6 -6,1 1 5
52 RO PRM Greater Romania Party 2,7 -6,0 0  8
53 SE MP The Green Party Greens-EFA 15,3 4,3 2 4
54 SD Sweden Democrats EFDD 9,7 6,4 2 5
55 V Left Party UEN-NGL 6,3 0,6 1 7
56 C Centre Party ALDE 6,5 1,0 1 6
57 SI SNS Slovenian National Party 4,0 1,2 0  9
58 SK SNS Slovak National Party 3,6 -2,0 0 10
59 L’SNS People’s Party – Our Slovakia 1,7 0  11
60 UK UKIP United Kingdom Independence Party EFDD 26,8 10,7 24 1
61 Cons: Conservative Party ECR 23,3 -3,7 19 3
62 DUP Democratic Unionist Party NA 0,5 0,1 1 10

Source: Elaboration of data from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/elections_results/review.pdf and http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/election-results-2014.html.

More than 30% of these parties were not able to satisfy the electoral thresholds that most countries selected. Furthermore, they failed to achieve satisfactory results throughout Europe. Many parties – such as the Danish DF, Greek SYRIZA, French FN and UK Independence Party – achieved extraordinary success, but others – such as the Bulgarian ATAKA, Cypriot ΑΚΕΛ-ΑΚΕL and Czech ODS – suffered painful defeats. National contexts and political systems, therefore, appear to have played a pivotal role in affecting electoral outcomes.

The electoral results cannot be perceived in a unitary way for Eurosceptic parties, as they include both positive and negative aspects. Clearly, the Eurosceptic parties obtained an unprecedentedly large percentage of votes, but no “political earthquake”, “sweeps”, or “Europe’s populist backlash”, as predicted by much of the press before the elections, occurred. While suffering a decline of 5.1%, the EPP remained the largest group in the EP; former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker, the leading candidate of the EPP, took charge of the European Commission; and a new grand coalition of the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and ALDE was formed. The Eurosceptic parties, therefore, will not have substantial authority within the EP.

Furthermore, Eurosceptic parties have never been able to form a joint anti-European front both because of their different stances, purposes, aspirations, and, above all, their mutual mistrust. A detailed consideration of the negotiations that the various Eurosceptic parties, especially those in the right-wing camp, undertook to form new EP groups may be extremely useful to clarify this issue. No extreme right or neo-fascist party, such as the Greek X.A. or the Hungarian Jobbik, has ever been allowed to join any EP group. The attempts made by Marine Le Pen, leader of the French FN, and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch PVV, to form a new political grouping called the European Alliance for Freedom (EFA) failed. The two most prominent figures in the potential alliance managed to ally with the Austrian FPÖ, the Italian LN and the Belgian Vlaams Belang but were unable to secure the necessary support of two additional parties. The negotiations opened by the French FN with the Polish KNP were quickly interrupted by Wilders, who deemed the misogynistic and anti-Semitic positions of its then leader, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, intolerable.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP, by contrast, was able to form the EFDD grouping, although this is the smallest EP political grouping and has MEPs from only seven member states. In the first official EFDD meeting after the elections, Farage declared that he would not accept the possible future entry of those parties that supported the formation of the EFA group. Thus it would appear that each Eurosceptic party has a rather negative opinion of its fellow Eurosceptics; in particular, the centre-right parties consider the right-wing parties to be extremists, and neither wishes to have anything to do with the far-right and neo-fascist parties. “He’s worse than me”, could be the statement that best epitomizes the relationships within the Eurosceptic right-wing camp. It should be noted, however, that several Eurosceptic parties – such as the Danish DF, Greek Syriza, the French FN and the UKIP – received the most votes in their respective countries in the EP election, and others – such as the Italian M5S, the Latvian LNNK, and the Polish PiS – secured second place. It would, therefore, appear that these parties were able to move away from the niche positions they have typically held in the electoral market and, thereby, became influential players in the national political arena. In pursuing their goals, they will probably encounter fewer obstacles in the national arena than in the European one.

In conclusion, Eurosceptic parties do not appear to have passed the EP electoral test with flying colours, although their further success could just have been postponed. A further exacerbation of the economic crisis, and/or the inability of the EU institutions in addressing it, could lead such parties toward new and more considerable achievements.

Giovanni Barbieri is Assistant Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Perugia.

There’s life yet in the European Liberals

Ben Margulies 

For some European liberal parties, the 2010s have been an arduous, disappointing decade. As one academic noted in a recent post on the LSE’s European politics blog, the last five years have seen the precipitous decline of Germany’s venerable Free Democrats (FDP), expelled from the Bundestag in 2013 for the first time, and from many state parliaments since. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats began the 2010s with a surge in popularity, 23% of the vote and their first Cabinet seats since 1945. Five years later, they emerged from the 2015 general election with eight seats, having shed about two-thirds of their electorate. And at least these parties made it to 2010 – Ireland’s liberal Progressive Democrats won but two seats in the 2007 general elections, and dissolved two years later.

But though many European liberal parties are indeed ailing, predictions of the party family’s demise are almost certainly premature. Liberal decline has tended to be worst in Europe’s larger nation-states, and has claimed two very prominent victims in the German FDP and the British Liberal Democrats. But elsewhere, liberal parties, including some new entrants into the political arena, are prospering. In Austria, NEOS-The New Austria entered the National Council at the 2013 elections with nearly 5% of the vote. In Iceland, Bright Future, another new liberal party, won six seats (out of 63) in elections the same year. All three of the Low Countries are governed by liberal prime ministers at present.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) has recently welcomed a number of strong new member parties from Eastern and Southern Europe. The new Modern Centre Party, which won the 2014 Slovenian general elections within a few weeks of its founding, is now an ALDE member. The Reform Party of Estonia recently won a fifth term as the leading party in the governing coalition.

Perhaps most notable in recent months has been the meteoric rise of Ciudadanos-The Party of the Citizens, a Spanish centrist party and ALDE member originally focused on Catalonia (where it represented the center on the center-periphery cleavage, opposing the Catalan nationalist parties). Now competing across Spain on a platform of liberalizing reform, it is nearly level with both with establishment Popular Party and Socialists and the left-populist Podemos. Ciudadanos may soon become the Continent’s most prominent liberal grouping. Ciudadanos’ explosive success was foreshadowed by the more modest inroads made by another new liberal grouping – Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) – which won a seat in the 2008 general elections and five at the 2011 polls.

The German FDP and British Liberal Democrats faltered less due to secular changes in the electorate than tactical and strategic errors in office. The Liberal Democrats betrayed their best-publicised electoral pledge in their rush to make Britain’s first peacetime coalition work. The FDP was hurt by an unpopular leader and a belief that it had veered too far to the right; the current party leadership appears to be attempting to correct this.

Why might liberal parties have a brighter future than the German and British cases would otherwise suggest? Perhaps the greatest reason for the optimism is the sort of social changes that have proved so corrosive to other established parties. (For a more detailed examination of this argument, please see my article in the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, The future of the liberal party family: a survey of new liberal parties and other trends.”) In the last half-century, globalization, the transition to post-industrial economies, and increasing social fragmentation have eroded traditional class and confessional identities. This de-alignment has led to a steady increase in party-system fragmentation, and a steady decline in support for many established parties, especially in the social democratic family. It has also led to greater electoral volatility, as noted by Peter Mair in Ruling the Void (2011).

Liberal parties, old and new, do not have strong class, demographic or other inherited social identifications. Liberal parties have traditionally been “bourgeois” or middle class parties, and in some countries may be identified with business interests (for example, the German FDP). But for the most part, the liberals’ lack a strong class, demographic, occupational or confessional identity, just at the time when most voters are also shedding those same identities. As such, they may be very well positioned to become the “catch-all” parties of the future. The success of NEOS in Austria may prove a key example in this regard – Austrian politics is notable for its domination by two traditional class- and confession-based parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Christian People’s Party (ÖVP), with protest votes going to the once liberal, now right-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Liberal parties may also be well placed to adapt to competition along the post-materialist cleavage. This cleavage is sometimes defined as being between two sets of values-based positions: a left-libertarian camp defined by support for environmentalism and human rights, and a right-authoritarian position supportive of traditional hierarchies and authorities and hostile to outgroups. Though the left-libertarian camp is usually identified with Green parties, its focus on human rights is shared by liberals too. As Giger and Nelson (2010) note, the growth of post-materialist voting will benefit both “left-libertarian and market-liberal parties.” Though, as Marino argues, liberal parties may be losing votes to Green parties or protest parties in some nations, in others liberal parties are proving successful in spite of the presence of Greens. The Democrats ’66, a left-liberal party, made large gains at the recent Dutch provincial elections, while the Greens suffered losses, continuing a pattern observed in the 2012 general elections.

That brings me neatly to another point that favours a bright liberal future, which is the triumph of free-market politics. Mair pointed out in Ruling the Void that established parties have, since the fall of Communism, converged around a free-market consensus. This consensus undermines social democratic parties, who have lost much of their raison d’etre, but suits liberal parties much better. This is especially true if they are able to portray their liberal platform as a strike against vested interests, coddled by the old welfare state or clientelist practices, as Ciudadanos does in Spain and the supporters of Mario Monti did in Italy. This is true even outside Europe – Bruce Cumings explains that South Korean liberals embraced a painful IMF structural adjustment programme in 1997-98 because it undermined the country’s oligopolistic chaebol mega-corporations.

That said, the liberal future could easily portend as much pain as it does hope. For many liberal parties, the lack of a clear class, occupational, or demographic identity is a great advantage; it makes them attractive to many different types of voter and dissociates them from the established political parties and their hidebound ideologies and interests. But it also leaves liberal parties vulnerable to sudden shifts of opinion. Every poor policy decision made by a liberal party risks a rapid erosion of support, much more so than a similar error made by a party with a stable base. As Robert Ford noted in a Guardian piece following the May 2015 UK general election, the Liberal Democrats paid dearly for their “lack of a loyal demographic core.” Liberal parties also carry much greater risks when they go into coalition; as they are often the smaller party, they may have to make more concessions, which increases their chances of alienating a fickle base intolerant of compromise.

All that said, there is much reason to believe that the liberal party family could thrive, or at least enjoy considerable success, in the coming decade. German and British liberals may indeed face an uncertain future, but this is as much due to tactical errors on their part and specific political conditions in each country as it is to secular decline in the liberal party family. The liberals’ future may be less grim than advertised.

Ben Margulies recently completed his doctorate at the University of Essex on the electoral behaviour of liberal parties. Previously he has worked as a policy researcher and his research focuses mainly on party systems, new political parties and populism.