Hungary’s EU refugee quota referendum: “Let’s send a message to Brussels they can understand” – or not

Agnes Batory

Sending a message to Brussels was, at least, the main declared objective of Hungary’s Fidesz government which posed the following referendum question to voters on 2 October 2016: ‘Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?’

The answer, from virtually everyone (98%) who cast a valid ballot, was ‘No’. This outcome was never in doubt, since most people who bothered to vote seem to have interpreted the question, to simplify greatly, as to whether they wanted (more) foreigners to be allowed to live in their country. Public opinion in Hungary is relatively hostile to non-European immigration and these attitudes have been reinforced by the Fidesz government’s relentless campaign to portray the refugees as a threat to Hungary’s way of life and well-being.

While the majority of the ‘No’ votes was taken for granted, turnout was seen as much more uncertain. Prime Minister Viktor Orban made it clear in the run-up to the referendum that the vote was to be a show of strength, of ‘national unity’ backing the government’s position. However, polls in the final days before the referendum indicated that the 50% threshold required for a valid result might not be reached, causing Orban and his colleagues to backpedal, trying to downplay the importance of high participation. In the event, turnout was only 44%, including 4% spoiled ballots (leaving the figure 10% below the required 50%). The low turnout was widely seen as a failure for the government and Orban personally.

“We must stop Brussels”

In many ways the referendum should have been a non-event. First, as a consultative referendum, it was widely known that the outcome would not be binding on the government. Second, as counter-campaigners repeatedly pointed out, Parliament’s authorization was at best a technicality: Fidesz has a comfortable majority in the national assembly, and its highly disciplined caucus reliably enacts the party leadership’s decisions, which, in any case, is in the best position to defend the country’s interests in the EU decision-making process. Hungary’s ministers and prime minister are members of the European Council and the Council of the European Union, respectively, where the EU’s response to the migration crisis is debated and decided. And finally, the ‘non-Hungarian citizens’ who might be relocated to Hungary, for the purposes of processing their asylum requests, as a consequence of the EU redistribution plan numbered roughly 1300 people – a much smaller number than the 10,000 beneficiaries of the Hungarian government’s extremely lax residency bond programme. Non-European immigration to Hungary has been negligible; the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in 2015 simply wanted to cross the country en route to Germany and Scandinavia.

More importantly, as many of Orban’s opponents both in Hungary and in the EU pointed out, the referendum should not have taken place, because it flies in the face of Hungary’s obligations as an EU member state. While the September 2015 Council decision on the mandatory relocation of 120,000 persons who have made an application in an EU country for international protection is hotly debated in the EU, and may eventually be overturned, in the meantime it is binding on all member states. (The two countries that voted against it, Hungary and Slovakia, legally challenged the decision at the European Court of Justice which however has not reached a verdict yet). Therefore, it was evident that should the referendum return a valid ‘No’ vote, the government would be forced to either disregard the outcome or adopt policies that directly defy the EU’s authority  something that Hungary’s prime minister is no stranger to.

So why hold a referendum? As David Cameron’s – and now Orban’s own – recent experience shows, referendums are always a bit of a gamble. Part of the answer probably lies in Viktor Orban’s supreme confidence in his own ability to read, and shape, the public mood. Another factor is Orban and his cabinet’s ambition to project (more) authority in the EU. The Hungarian government has sought to revive the previously rather lame Visegrad group and position itself as leader of the group, for which the issue presented a perfect platform. Viktor Orban is well-known for not shying away from conflict and has repeatedly clashed with the European Commission and other member states critical of his self-declared objective of building an ‘illiberal democracy’, cementing his party’s hold on power, and being friendly with Vladimir Putin. His vision for the EU is that of a Europe of nation states where supranational institutions cannot challenge the authority of national leaders. The government therefore framed the referendum as a vital boost to its authority vis-à-vis the EU institutions, arguing that it would be impossible for the European Commission in particular to go against the Hungarian government’s democratic mandate.

However, a clearer rationale for the referendum comes from Hungarian domestic politics, and Fidesz’s efforts to keep its stronghold on the political agenda – as its opponents claim, to divert attention from high-level corruption, the sorry state of healthcare and a bungled centralization of the school system. Halfway through the 2014-18 term, Fidesz wanted to solidify and broaden its electoral base, if possible by outflanking its main competitor, the extreme-right Jobbik. In this respect, from a purely partisan point of view, the refugee crisis was a godsend, allowing Fidesz to deepen its long-standing Euroscepticism.

From the spring of 2015, Fidesz strategists masterfully fuelled the public’s fears of uncontrolled (non-European) mass migration and used the EU as punching bag, moving from the EU’s inability to deal with the refugee crisis to a more systemic critique of the Union as dysfunctional, captured by special interests and/or the interests of the larger member states, and removed from the concerns of ordinary people. This was contrasted with the Hungarian government’s own measures, notably the controversial decision of building a fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to block the migrants’ transit route.

Thus, although the referendum campaign only geared up in summer 2016, the ground was carefully prepared by an anti-immigration campaign starting a year before, featuring slogans such as ‘If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the Hungarians’ jobs away’. Fidesz also launched a so-called national consultation. A questionnaire mailed to every Hungarian household carefully made the link between immigration, terrorism, and unemployment, and pitted the refugees’ economic interests against those of Hungarian citizens. The party’s communication strategy then built up to the referendum in three distinct phases, using massive amounts of public funding as part of a ‘governmental information campaign’. Phase one focused on assigning blame: ‘Let’s send a message to Brussels they can understand’. Phase two centered on statements, disguised as objective fact, whipping up anti-migration sentiment. Giant billboards and a direct mail campaign posed questions such as ‘Did you know? The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants’; or ‘Did you know? Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary’. Finally, in the last weeks Fidesz instructed voters ‘not to take a risk – vote No’.

“Stay home – stay in Europe” and “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”

To what extent did the parliamentary opposition shape this turn of events? The answer is, at least concerning the moderate political forces in parliament, less than they could have had they been able to make up their minds about a common strategy early on. Fidesz’s arguably most effective competitor is Jobbik, the extreme right party that currently polls as Hungary’s second or third most popular (Fidesz continues to lead the polls). Jobbik campaigned for a ‘No’ in the referendum, and essentially claimed that Fidesz simply appropriated what was originally ‘their’ issue, but only for show. The several parties that nowadays make up the fragmented democratic opposition to Fidesz were, as is now usual, confused, confusing and divided on the issue. But after some hesitation the centre-left settled on boycotting the referendum, recognizing that repressing turnout was the only plausible way to defeat the government, in that at least the result would not be valid.

The advice to abstain was substantiated with the argument that, first, the referendum was not necessary, since there was no sinister EU migration ploy to combat, and second, that the vote was not about the resettlement quota or even about migration but ‘really’ about Hungary’s continued EU membership. Former Socialist prime minister Gyurcsany’s campaign posters consequently told people to ‘Stay home – stay in Europe’. This was based on sound strategic thinking: while anti-immigration sentiments are clearly strong in society, Hungarian voters are, at least in comparison with many other EU countries, relatively pro-EU. In spring 2016, three-quarters of the population supported Hungary’s membership in the European Union and only about one-fifth opposed it. Thus, managing to shift the debate from the migration issue to the EU issue was certainly suitable for dampening participation in a referendum that the government explicitly framed as a weapon against ‘Brussels’.

The main weakness of the Socialists’ and other centre-left opposition parties’ campaign was that they had relatively little street- or media-presence, for the simple reason that they could not compete with the massive financial and other resources that the government campaign drew on. In fact, the most visible counter-campaign came from a group of activists who define themselves as a ‘satirical party’ and go by the name Two-Tailed Dog Party (TTDP). The party became known in the previous election campaign where they ridiculed Orban’s populism, promoting ‘electoral pledges’ such as the classic: ‘Long life, free beer, down with taxes’. Their response to the government’s summer 2015 anti-immigration campaign was billboards addressed to the refugees making their way through Hungary: ‘Sorry about our prime minister’ and ‘Feel free to come to Hungary, we already work in England’.

The TTDP anti-referendum campaign was crowd-funded, and consisted almost entirely of (a few) large commercial billboards and in large cities masses of small posters, on photocopied A4 sheets, making fun of the government slogans in the same irreverent tone. Mirroring the government’s ‘Did you know’ (dis-)information campaign, TTDP posed questions such as ‘Did you know? The average Hungarian encounters more UFOs than migrants’. The party’s advice to voters was to register their disapproval by spoiling their ballot, captured in ‘Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer’. Given how small TTDP is, their impact on the outcome is remarkable: over 6% acted on the Two Tailed Dog advice nationally. In Budapest, almost 12% of those who voted spoiled their ballot, sending a message not so much to Brussels as to the prime minister’s office.

What’s next for Hungary, and for the study of Euroscepticism?

In Hungary, the low turnout is widely seen as a blow to Fidesz and Orban personally. After what some claim was the most expensive campaign in Hungarian political history, the 40% valid ‘No’ vote is clearly a disappointment, no matter how the party’s spin doctors and the prime minister himself insisted that only the large majority of the ‘No’ votes mattered. It is the first time since Fidesz’s landslide victory in 2010 that Orban’s will did not carry the day: despite the propaganda effort, the majority of Hungarians decided not to play along.

Nonetheless, Fidesz leaders have little reason to worry. The party continues to lead the polls by a large margin. The referendum’s ‘No’ voters (approximately 3.3 million) number some 300,000 more than those who supported Hungary’s EU membership in the 2003 referendum, and about a million more than those who supported the Fidesz list in the 2014 elections, suggesting that the government succeeded in reaching people beyond its core base. Given, furthermore, the electoral system tailored to the party’s needs, the dominance of Fidesz-friendly media outlets, and the fragmented mainstream opposition, it is unlikely that Hungary’s next elections will lead to a new government.

As to scholarship on parties, elections and referendums, Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart note in a previous comment that in the wake of Brexit advocating for leaving the EU could (again) become a litmus test for hard Euroscepticism, since this is now a viable policy position. But politicians like Hungary’s feisty populist prime minister defy categorization as hard or soft Eurosceptic along these lines. He displays principled, ideological opposition to most if not all the supranational features of the EU, yet does not wish to quit the club. Orban and his allies in other EU member states (notably Poland) seek to change the EU from within, possibly by unraveling particular aspects of European integration. This would entail the rest of the EU coming around to Orban’s point of view.

It is highly unlikely that Viktor Orban will succeed where David Cameron failed. However, for scholarship on Euroscepticism to remain relevant, finding the right label is perhaps less important than understanding party strategies devised for a multi-level political system – the repercussions of cultivated Euroscepticism in the member states, its effects on the EU and vice versa.


Agnes Batory ( is Professor of Public Policy at Central European University. Her research interests include party politics and European public policy.

Crisis Averted? France’s 2015 regional elections

Ben Margulies

The Front National can keep growing, even if it’s unlikely to reach the Elysee

The French Fifth Republic managed to pull itself, punch-drunk, off the ropes to deny the right-populist Front National a victory in the second round of regional elections. Despite fears that the party would take control of two of France’s 13 European regions (France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian oceans have their own regional authorities; the figure of 13 regions includes Corsica, where a nationalist list won in an overlooked development), the Front was locked out in all of them. It took extreme measures – the left withdrew its lists in the two most-threatened regions, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, creating a front républicain against the Front – but in the end, the far right failed to top the polls in any region. The electoral rules for the regional councils assured their mainstream opponents a majority so long as they came in first.

Still, the Front’s performance can only be described as alarming. The party took more than 6 million votes in the first round on December 6th, 27.73% of the total. On December 13th, it took 6.8 million; only a higher turnout kept its vote share from rising (it fell to 27.1%). One could argue that this is simply the FN’s base – after all, Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader since early 2011, won about 6.4 million votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. That was a bit less than 18% of the total, since the turnout was of course higher.

But the recent regional elections were second-order elections, where the crucial socio-economic, social and foreign-policy issues of general elections are absent. (As Kevin Lees points out, regional councils in France have very limited powers.) Turnout is lower in such elections, so the total number of voters for the Front – even with protest votes – should be lower than in a presidential poll. Take last year’s European Parliament elections, which the Front won for the first time with about a quarter of the vote. Even then, the party took only 4.7 million votes, implying that, when the presidential elections came around and the party reached its maximum mobilisation capacity, it would be unable to do much better than Marine Le Pen achieved in 2012. The Front seemed to have an absolute ceiling of 6-7 million votes, and that would never exceed 20% of the vote for the presidency.

Except now the Front not only won a record share of the vote (27-28%), but managed to mobilise that 6-7 million in an off-year election to a not particularly important tier of government. The Front’s trend in recent second-order elections has been relentlessly buoyant – from 4.7 million and 24.85% at the June 2014 European polls, to 5.14 million and 25.24% at the March 2015 departmental elections, to the 6.8 million it scored on December 13th. Marine Le Pen won more than 40% in both rounds in her base, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, and apparently did not even run the most vigorous campaign there.

Almost certainly, this growth is partly due to the various security- and immigration-related crises of the past year: the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the mass exodus of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, and the November 2015 Paris massacres. But the Front’s unsettling rise long precedes these events, and the decay of France’s establishment and mainstream parties was clear to observers as far back as the end of the last century. Peter Mair’s thesis on the decay of mainstream parties, starved by the dissolution of mass memberships and organisational linkages and choked by a stifling neoliberal consensus, applies to France with particular acuteness, with its elitist political culture and decades of poor economic performance and strained social cohesion.

So how far can the Front go? This question is of special import in France, because of its almost uniquely strong presidency, and the two-round ballotage system used to elect it. To become President, Marine Le Pen needs an absolute majority of votes, a barrier almost uniquely high in Western democracies. Can the Front win that majority?

One way to consider the question is to examine who votes for the Front and similar parties. Typically, right-wing populist parties appeal to certain kinds of voters. One key group, according to current theory, are “modernization losers” from the industrial working classes who have lost their jobs with globalization – as Loch and Norocel (2014) put it: ‘The ideal-typical voter of such parties is a first-time voting young male, belonging to the petty bourgeoisie and the working class, with a relatively weak formal education qualifications and a rather low level of religious practice.’ Goodliffe (2013) adds in the petits indépendants of the middle-class: artisanal workers and small-business owners side-lined by globalization. Betz (1993) describes these as the ‘one-third’ of society that has not benefited from the post-industrial and globalized economy (‘an increasingly marginalized sector of unskilled and semiskilled workers, young people without complete formal education and training, and the growing mass of the long-term unemployed’). To this we can add social conservatives and authoritarians, and some specifically French groups, including traditionalist Catholics and the pieds noirs, the former French settler populations in North Africa.

If Betz’s thesis is correct, than the Front should have a natural ceiling; not everyone can be a modernization loser, and only a minority of voters vote for ‘post-materialist’ reasons. And the Front won’t capture all of these groups; France’s banlieues are full of ethnic-minority modernization losers, who certainly aren’t voting Le Pen (or at all, it would seem). As major parties decline in a fragmenting society, we can expect the number of parties to grow, and that too would tend to put a ceiling on the Front’s capacity to expand its support, and that ceiling is well below 50%. One of Le Pen’s former advisers suggested as much: ‘They have gathered as many votes as they can among French people who are suffering, who are dissatisfied with the government and hate the “system”. But they need to get from 30-50% of the vote, and that is going to be the hardest part by far. I don’t think they have the means, currently, to do it.’

In established Western European states, it is fairly rare for far-right parties like the Front National to get 30% of the vote, much less an absolute majority. The Freedom Party of Austria, one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties, which has been in federal and state governments several times, has never done better than 26.9% in a general election (2009). The Swiss National Party, that country’s leading purveyor of anti-immigrant sentiment, topped out at 29.6% in October 2015’s legislative polls.

All this suggests that the Front has a larger core base now than it did, say, even five years ago, and that Marine Le Pen could exceed her 2012 score quite easily in the next presidential election, due in the spring of 2017. The opinion polls suggest much the same, rarely giving Le Pen more than 30% of the vote in the first round. In the forced choice of the run-off, Marine Le Pen loses, just as she did in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie on December 13th. The National Front’s strength does seem to mobilize leftist, or just anti-Front, voters: turnout jumped from 50 to 58% between the two rounds of the regional election, while the Front’s vote share remained little changed.

However, it may not be impossible. Remember, one of the factors in Mair’s thesis about party breakdown is the fragmentation of society in general; the decline of mass working- or middle-class organizations and identities, and of collective identities in general. In general, this seems to be causing fragmentation, making large pluralities more difficult. But this decline of class and other historical internal cleavages also means that Western Europe is converging, somewhat, with post-Communist Eastern Europe, where class identities and other natural cleavages were obliterated under Communism. With fewer hard class barriers, it may be possible for a populist party to someday cast a much wider net. And Marine Le Pen herself has worked very hard to broaden her party’s appeal, abandoning the less popular extremist stances her father embraced, such as his barely concealed anti-Semitism, and to adopt a bastardized form of France’s mainstream liberal, republican discourse (which she claims to be able to defend better than the incumbent elites). The Front is showing signs that it is appealing to new groups of voters, including new elements of the middle classes; it took a fifth of the vote of the professional classes in the 2014 European polls, not too far off the 24.85% it won overall.

We can look at the comparative performance of other right-populist parties. Take Poland’s Law and Justice, an organic-nationalist party which also represents ‘modernisation losers’ and has deep roots in a Catholic-inflected right. Law and Justice narrowly won an absolute majority in the October 2015 general elections in Poland. A parliamentary system affords a lower hurdle than a two-round presidential election: Law and Justice only won 37.6% of the vote. But in Hungary, Fidesz really did win an absolute majority in a general election, in 2010 – on a low turnout, but it won. In both cases, the combination of a discredited elite, weaker party loyalty and civil societies and a large concentration of ‘modernization losers’ created populist pluralities or majorities. Fidesz’s subsequent turn in government – its emasculation of checks and balances, politicization of public services, legislative gerrymandering and ethnic and religious chauvinism – may provide a foretaste of what Front National France would look like.

So are we likely to see a President Le Pen? On the balance of probabilities, we are not, or at least not we are not anytime soon. The French system of government introduces an unusually high barrier to executive power which few parties can surmount, and provides unusually strong incentives to anti-Front alliances. Tellingly, Michel Houllebecq’s succès de scandale from earlier this year, Soumission (Submission), suggested it was more likely that a version of the Muslim Brotherhood would win the presidency than Marine Le Pen. But in a world where old certainties and identities are being swept away, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Marine Le Pen or another National Front figure could someday win power. The changes to European party politics are unprecedented; we have never had a mass politics without the old mass parties, or in the context of a European Union and such high rates of immigration. If right-populists like Le Pen are the spectre haunting Europe now, uncertainty is the white sheet cloaking its ghostly form.

Ben Margulies 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. Ben is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick, currently working on the ERC-funded Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty Project.

Busted flush or breaking through? UKIP and the 2015 British election result

Paul Taggart

The 2015 UK general election result for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) may look as if the spectacular coverage of the party and the predictions for its impact during the campaign were overblown. The party attained only one MP and the Conservative Party managed to pull a parliamentary majority out of the bag, against all expectations. UKIP compounded the turmoil of the post-election period with the resignation and un-resignation of its leader, Nigel Farage. At the same time, the mantle of the new challenger on the block clearly went to the Scottish National Party (SNP) which arrived in Westminster with 56 MPs. But we need to be very careful not to write UKIP off as a busted flush. In a number of ways UKIP was highly successful in 2015 and we need to not lose sight of this.

UKIP’s vote share was 12.6% with nearly 4 million voters. Most importantly, this means that UKIP is now the UK’s third party in terms of the electorate. Its vote share increased more than any of the other party with a rise of 9.5%. The compares with nearly 1.5 million votes for the SNP. And the SNP were the fourth largest party with 7.9% of the vote and nearly 2.5 million voters. And UKIP came second in 120 constituencies. The simple fact is that the vagaries, or more accurately the specificities, of a single-member plurality electoral system mean that, as Liberal Democrats have always known, large dispersed electoral support is not worth as much as smaller concentrated vote shares. The SNP won 56 MPs by winning a plurality in 56 Scottish constituencies but not even standing in 593 constituencies. Whatever Westminster holds, Britain now has a party system in the electorate that places a right-wing populist party right at the heart of the party system.

During the campaign, it was sometimes easy to forget that UKIP was formed as a ‘hard’ Eurosceptic party, campaigning for British withdrawal from the EU. The focus on immigration and on the control of immigration came to the fore and party political broadcasts for UKIP failed sometimes to even mention Europe. But the linkage between the issues of immigration and Europe were foremost in the thinking of Farage and the party. The inability to control borders and immigration were linked to the UK’s membership of the EU, it was time and time again asserted by Farage. And even if we are to think of the two issues as decoupled, for voters the support for a party portraying itself as against the establishment on immigration and Europe come from the same fundamental well-spring. UKIP’s profile has always been more of a populist Eurosceptic force than as a Eurosceptic party that happens to be populist. The focus on immigration has policy links to the EU issue but it has populist sources deeply embedded in this anti-establishment party of the right. In this sense it is much more realistic to view UKIP as part of wave of populist parties in Europe that mobilise around different issues (immigration, regionalism, corruption and Euroscepticism) depending on the context in which they find themselves.

Keeping in mind the level of support, and looking at other populist parties across Europe, it is clear that, however low the supply of UKIP MPs is, the demand in the electorate for a party of this nature is both significant and unlikely to dissipate. The party faces a challenge in how it reacts to the failure to break into Westminster but we should not underestimate the on-going challenge that the party represents for the British party system.

The up-coming referendum on UK membership of the EU is not only largely a consequence of UKIP but it will also provide an important arena on which the party can mobilise. The commitment made by Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron in January 2013 to an EU membership referendum was an attempt to both manage internal divisions within his party over Europe, but also represented a strategy to remove support for UKIP as a challenger for traditional Conservative voters. Now, sitting on a Conservative parliamentary majority, Cameron may well see this as a success but it is also a key goal for UKIP and, therefore, in this one way, the election was a score for Farage.

Europe is set to be the subject of fierce debate in the next year or so in the UK as the country heads towards the membership referendum. If the outcome is ‘Brexit’, UKIP will have achieved their core mission. If the outcome is to stay in the UK, the issue will not disappear. If we have learned one thing from the Scottish referendum, it is that a vote for the status quo on a divisive issue with a challenger party capturing the opposite position is a recipe for continuing the vitality and salience of that issue. The election result for UKIP shows them as a major party in the UK electorate. The impact of UKIP on British politics and, potentially, on the politics of the EU should not be underplayed.

Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He is Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendum Network (EPERN) and Co-Director of the Sussex European Institute (SEI).

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 and

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


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 and

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.