EU enlargement after Brexit: Temporary turmoil or the final nail in the coffin of enlargement?

Marko Stojić

The result of the British referendum on EU membership sent powerful shockwaves across the EU and beyond, throwing the Union into ‘an existential crisis’ and causing a period of unprecedented uncertainty over its future. How will the British decision to leave the EU affect the prospects of countries that still seek to join the Union?

Most commentators argued that Brexit will significantly slow down enlargement or even that ‘EU enlargement process is dead’. Conversely, EU and member state officials rushed to re-assure concerned Western Balkan candidates that ‘nothing has changed with Britain’s decision’. Regional leaders also pledged to continue with their efforts to join the Union. However, they also acknowledged that ‘this new era will be unpleasant’, bringing delays in EU integration process and boosting the, dormant yet ever-present, Eurosceptic sentiments in the region.

Thus far, there have been no major implications of Brexit for EU enlargement. Although the UK did not grant its consent for Serbia to open negotiation chapters in June due to ‘technical reasons’, it quickly reversed its decision, allowing the country to open two chapters in July. Montenegro also opened two chapters in June and in September, and the Council accepted the Bosnian membership application. Other candidates made no tangible progress, being held back by long-term internal political crises rather than Brexit. At first glance, it seems it is business as usual in Brussels.

However, Brexit is a significant event whose long term ramifications are potentially far-reaching. It will inevitably have a negative bearing on the enlargement process that hinges on two equally important factors: the willingness of member states and EU institutions to genuinely support, encourage or, at least, not to block the candidates on this arduous journey; as well as the resolve of regional elites to carry out reforms. The EU and member states are now likely to become even less enthusiastic about expanding the weakened Union, while the candidates will grow more ‘frustrated and annoyed’ with the pace of the process.

Yet, most political elites in the candidate states have not had EU-required reforms at the top of their agendas for quite some time now, regardless of Brexit. In other words, internal political and economic problems coupled with the negative regional dynamics – not the fallout from Brexit – will remain to be the key reason for the delay or absence of the candidates’ progress towards EU membership. The aspiring states will not be ready to join the Union for a long time to come, somewhat limiting the damaging effects of the British decision. Overall, it is unlikely that Brexit itself will halt the enlargement process, not least because all other alternatives – such as staying indefinitely in limbo outside of the EU or forging strong links with Russia – are neither viable nor adequate responses to the regional needs for political stability and democratic consolidation.

 

The EU after Brexit: No more magic power

Although no member state has officially opposed enlargement to the Western Balkans, most of them have been reluctant to support any expansion of the Union. Brexit will further exacerbate such sentiments. Despite the July 2016 Paris summit, which confirmed that ‘the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans is alive and as valid as ever’, an even lower level of commitment to enlargement has been already evident. In his annual address to MEPs, the Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker did not even mention EU enlargement and while the Bratislava Declaration did refer to the Western Balkans, it did so only in the context of migration and securing external borders. The Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has gone as far as to call for end to EU expansion, putting it rather bluntly let’s just say for once- this is it’.

The Commission’s plan to publish its next annual reports on candidates’ progress in spring 2018, instead of autumn 2017, may also be a cause for concern for those aspiring countries that are yet to begin negotiations. These reports are a crucial mechanism for not only monitoring, but also directing, reforms in the potential candidates which will now find themselves in a grey area for a relatively long period. It is yet to be seen if this is also a consequence of a more significant involvement of DG NEAR in negotiating future EU-UK relations, which is likely to put EU expansion off its radar. Overall, the bloc’s interest in the region seems to be waning along with a simultaneous loss of its ‘magic’ for the candidates that came to realise that ‘the EU is no longer the big dream it was in the past’.

However, a complete halt to enlargement is not likely to happen either. Indeed, it is a critical time for the Union faced with the complex challenges on its Southern and Eastern flanks. Yet, the EU has no other alternative but to continue with this policy. Severing relations with the Western Balkan candidates would have extremely negative consequences, not least given the more assertive Russian presence in the region. This would create a dangerous security and political vacuum, triggering a new cycle of regional tensions and dashing hopes for political stability and economic recovery.

Many pundits argued that the candidates will now lose an important ally in Brussels since the UK has been a promoter of enlargement. However, Britain has ceased to be a champion of enlargement in recent years. British enthusiasm for enlargement has eroded primarily as a consequence of the domestic political impact of mass migration from Central and Eastern Europe. The referendum campaign further revealed that British political elites – both in the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps – have deep reservations about the Western Balkan candidates ‘with poor populations and serious problems with organised crime, corruption, and sometimes even terrorism’. Post-Brexit Britain is thus more likely to block the aspirant countries. In October 2016, it was the only state blocking Montenegro from opening two chapters, doubting that this country (of only 620,000 people) was ready to make concessions on the free movement of labour. Britain apparently also blocked Serbia from opening three more chapters. According to an undisclosed EU diplomatic source, ‘London was preoccupied with its own problems’ and did not have a stance on this issue.

Moreover, given that the UK is the second biggest economy and a net contributor to EU budget, it may be reasonable to expect a decrease in EU funds available to the candidates. However, some analysts argued that the negative impact on the EU budget will be rather small. Likewise, the UK has never been a significant investor in the Western Balkans; British investments accounted for only 3% of the total FDIs in 2014. The potential economic decline of the UK as a fallout from Brexit may have thus a very limited impact on these economies.

 

The Western Balkans after Brexit: Shaken, but determined to ‘progress’

The bearing of Brexit on the candidates resolve to progress towards membership seems to be somewhat less significant. Although concerned about the EU prospects of their countries, regional leaders reiterated their determination to progress towards membership. However, they have been progressing very slowly and the reforms have been predominantly held back by internal and regional factors. Serbian EU accession remains a hostage to the ruling elites that have rhetorically supported EU membership (and relatively successfully implemented EU-required economic reforms). At the same time, they have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the key principles of modern democracies – the freedom of speech and the rule of law – best exemplified in the suspension of the latter in the Sava Mala case. In other countries, progress has been stalled by: an agonizing internal political crisis (Macedonia), unsettled constitutional arrangements coupled with deep mistrust among nationalist political elites (Bosnia and Herzegovina), weak state institutions and political polarization (Albania) or an unresolved status rendering EU membership de facto unattainable (Kosovo). Moreover, unresolved bilateral issues – such as a continued Greek opposition to Macedonian membership – are more likely to affect the Balkan candidates than Brexit.

A post-Brexit upsurge in party and public Euroscepticism, however, appears unlikely. The region has not witnessed the surge in populist Euroscepticism driven by anti-immigration ideology. Eurosceptic parties are politically irrelevant in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania. Anti-EU parties returned to the Serbian parliament following the April 2016 election, but they are unable to present a serious alternative to the government. On the other hand, public support for EU membership has been high across the region: 71% in Macedonia, 74% in Montenegro, and 76% in Bosnia. Serbian public has been the only exception since support for EU membership hit a record low level in June 2016 with only 41% of respondents in favour. However, 53% of respondents still felt that even if the UK leaves the EU, Serbia should continue its EU accession process.

Brexit will, therefore, represent more than just temporary turmoil for the Balkan candidates. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to be the final nail in the coffin of enlargement. This is certainly not due to the resolve of EU and Balkan elites to work on overcoming the crisis or seizing an opportunity to invigorate this policy, but because all the other alternatives look less comforting. Despite enormous challenges ahead, the process that has widely lost its key purpose – to consolidate and transform the Western Balkan societies into liberal democracies – is thus likely to keep going, but will protracted and beset by domestic and regional problems, rather than the British decision to take back its sovereignty.

Marko Stojić (stojic.marko@gmail.com) is a lecturer at Metropolitan University in Prague. His research interests focus on the study of European integration, political parties and party systems in the Western Balkans. This post was first published on EUROPEUM blog.

Losing the Peace: English Nationalism and Euroscepticism

Ben Wellings

Brexit is Euroscepticism’s greatest victory to date. One of the most noticeable features of the June EU membership referendum vote was the divergence between the different nations of the United Kingdom, with Scotland’s overwhelming ‘Remain’ vote contrasting with the more complicated majority for ‘Leave’ in England.

Given my research on the links between Euroscepticism and English nationalism, this aspect of the vote was not a surprise. What follows is an outline of the argument I made in English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: losing the peace (2012). Based on archival research and semi-structured interviews, I argued that Euroscepticism was and is the most formed up expression of contemporary English nationalism.

I approached Euroscepticism obliquely. My principle concern was to understand the apparent ‘absence’ of English nationalism in the wake of devolution in the late 1990s. Euroscepticism was broadly defined as resistance to European integration (in its hard and soft varieties) and included all political resistance to European integration since the 1960s, during what we might call the ‘Anti-marketeer’ (1960s-70s) and ‘Eurosceptic’ periods (1980s to date).

It was the alignment of Euroscepticism and national imaginaries that gave Euroscepticism in England its popular resonance and its persistent quality. By linking Euroscepticism with the politics of nationalism in the United Kingdom, I argued that English nationalism was not absent at all, but instead expressed itself differently to other nationalisms in the United Kingdom.

In other words, we should not look to Scotland for an ideal-type against which to look for expressions of nationalism in England. This had been the mistaken assumption of much searching for the ‘English backlash’ against devolution that seemingly failed to materialise in the 2000s. Rather than being absent, English nationalism was hidden in plain view: a defence of British sovereignty against the deepening of the EU’s powers rather than an assertion of autonomy within the UK was the main vehicle for contemporary English nationalism even prior to devolution.

By linking English nationalism with the politics of European integration instead of devolution, new areas of inquiry were opened up. As one reviewer of the book put it, existing analysis focused on England within the UK was suffering from ‘Singapore syndrome’: all the intellectual firepower was facing in the wrong direction. To properly understand the drivers of English nationalism and the alignment between Euroscepticism and dominant English national narratives that gave resistance to European integration such force, we should turn our analytical attention across the Channel to Brussels rather than across the Tweed to Edinburgh.

To understand the depth of this alignment between English nationalism and Euroscepticism, it is important to understand that for centuries English nationalism was constructed around a defence and legitimisation of British sovereignty. This powerful link between English nationhood and British statehood was formed in the centuries when the British state was consolidating its rule across the British Isles and the Empire. Advancing from an understanding of nationalism as a novel means of legitimising statehood in the modern era, conceptions of Englishness and Britishness merged. Nationalists in England became habituated to defending British sovereignty. For such actors, nationalism was not about secession, but rather about defending the idea of the prodigious reach of British sovereignty within the UK and across the globe.

Sovereignty was, therefore, linked to ‘greatness’ in the English national consciousness. The Twentieth Century brought very real threats to the existence of this sovereignty, most notably in 1940. Survival was followed by victory, even if that victory turned out to be a Pyrrhic one.

More than any other, it was this historical experience that set English national consciousness on a different trajectory to the post-War European identity. In the ideology required to legitimise the very novel form of political organisation required by European integration, the two wars represented catastrophe followed by renaissance. ‘Post-War’ in the new Europe was not just a period of time but an ontological state. But in Britain, ‘the War’ represented an apogee followed by eclipse; it was Britain’s ‘finest hour’ and what came thereafter was decline.

The greatest admission of that decline was ‘Europe’. In the official British mindset of the 1940s and 1950s, European integration was literally for losers. Membership of the fledgling EU was itself a belated admission of defeat. Sovereignty – so important in the construction of English nationalism and so dearly defended – was being voluntarily surrendered for the dubious advantage of selling washing machines in Dusseldorf, as Harold Wilson put it. Britain may have won the war, but it had lost the peace.

All this was important for the emergence of an English nationalism focused on resisting European integration, but older forms of identification had to go first. The end of Empire weakened a particular version of Britishness that had developed in order to legitimise imperial dominion. Enoch Powell sought to outline a post-imperial English nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s opposed to Commonwealth integration and European integration. Powell injected an odd sort of Tory populism into British politics that rested on a veneration of parliamentary sovereignty and British political institutions.

One of the historical ironies of the English resistance to European integration is that Parliamentary Sovereignty was eclipsed by the efforts to save it. In this regard we might say that the operation was a success, but the patient died. This outcome was brought about by the advent of the referendum. Although Norman St John Stevas described referendums as a ‘nasty continental aberration’, it found its way into British political practice. This novel device was introduced into British politics to preserve Labour unity rather than cement European unity. The party was so divided on the question of membership of the European Communities the leadership handed the decision over to the electorate to avoid opposition within the party’s mass membership. This innovation had the effect of ultimately elevating the ‘European question’ to a level above Parliamentary control and making it seem like an issue of such national importance that only ‘The People’ could decide it.

The hope that the 1975 referendum would resolve the issue of Britain’s place in Europe proved illusory. The relationship between late Thatcherism and the emergence of Euroscepticism is well known. But the Thatcherite decade linked a socially conservative yet neo-liberal Euroscepticism to an emerging English nationhood that was expressed in the language of assertive Britishness. This Britishness was increasingly opposed to European integration and had the additional effect of alienating nationalist sentiment outside of England.

Until this point, this emergent English nationalism expressed itself in the language of Britishness. This did not change greatly in the early 1990s, but devolution led to the emergence of England as a political community by default. Scottish and Welsh nationalisms were the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the emergence of English nationalism. Many commentators expected an English ‘backlash’ after devolution, but none came; at least not in the form many were expecting. The fact that a backlash was expected was related to the increased visibility of a cultural form of Englishness – linked strongly to football and an English obsession with ‘the War’ – which appeared to have no political corollary.

But this wasn’t the case. It was just that in defending British sovereignty from nationalists within the UK as well as from the advances of European integration, de facto English nationalists emerged speaking the language of Britishness. Just when secessionists in Scotland and Wales began to campaign for ‘Independence in Europe’, nationalists in England began to campaign for ‘Independence from Europe’.

The self-evident Englishness of this new political force struggled to emerge. The Conservative leadership in opposition refused to embrace the Englishness of the grassroots, preferring to mask their position as the de facto English party with a strident Euroscepticism. New Labour was ideologically opposed to English nationalism, seeing it as the racist baggage of Empire and was too wedded to Scottish seats at Westminster to develop any feeling for English nationalism. The UK Independence Party filled this space. UKIP was another avowedly British party with its heartland in England that only made the link between a politicalised English nationhood and hard Euroscepticism clearer than ever before.

The analysis in this book stopped with the formation of the Coalition government in 2010. Events between then and the Brexit referendum in 2016 appear to have supported the claim made about the causal link made between Euroscepticism and an emergent English nationalism. The blunt version of the argument in this book is that Euroscepticism represents the most formed-up expression of contemporary English nationalism. Since 2010 the debate about the ‘absence’ of Englishness has moved on. Few now suggest that there is no such thing as English nationalism. Brexit has made understanding the link between English nationalism and Euroscepticism even more urgent. English imaginaries are an important place to start. It is not possible to understand ‘British’ attitudes towards the EU without understanding the role of British sovereignty and memories of ‘greatness’ in English national consciousness.

Dr Ben Wellings (ben.wellings@monash.edu) is Deputy-director of the Monash European and EU Centre at Monash University in Australia. His current research examines the place of the Anglosphere in English Eurosceptic thought and politics.

The Greens in the European Parliament: an overview

Nathalie Brack and Camille Kelbel

Over the recent period, European Parliament (EP) political groups, their behaviour, coalition formations and cohesiveness have raised lot of public attention as well as scholarly interest. Admittedly, the EP groups’ cohesion has increased over time as the main ones have grown and as the powers of the Parliament have increased. Most observers, however, tend to focus on the larger EP groups, which dominate the chamber politically. As a result, we know comparatively little about smaller groups, including the Greens. Despite diverging views of the various parties on several issues – including on the process of European integration itself – and a somewhat wobbly alliance with the regionalists, the Green group has managed to become one of the most cohesive ones, in the sense that its MEPs increasingly tend to align and vote together in the assembly (we concentrate here on the period up to the 2014 EP elections). Let us examine why this is the case.

Graph 1: EP Groups Cohesiveness in Roll Call Votes

Graph1

Source: Cicchi, 2011: 141
SOC.: Party of European Socialists, then Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)
EPP: European People’s Party-Christian Democrats & Conservatives, (EPP-ED), then EPP alone
ELDR: European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party (ELD, ELDR), then Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, after 2004)
LEFT: Radical Left (COM, LU, EUL/NGL) and Italian Communists & allies (EUL)
GREENS: Greens & allies (RBW[84], G, G/EFA)
ANTI: Anti-Europeans (EN, I-EN, EDD, IND/DEM after 2004, then EFD)
NA: Non-attached members

A first stream of explanation that naturally comes to our mind is the characteristics of the political group. Although it manages to be more influential on some policies (for example, data protection, environment policy) than its size would suggest, as a small group it is clearly not able to play a similar role as larger groups, such as the European People’s Party (EPP) or Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) which still dominate EP politics. The group is not in a position to strongly influence EP legislative outcomes on most issues as the parliament tends to be dominated by a ‘2+1 coalition’ that excludes it. Neither does it have many ‘sticks and carrots’ to reward or punish its members in case of defection as it does not control the main EP positions and offices. Besides its limited size, the group is constrained by its high diversity: it contains members from two European political parties, the European Green Party (EGP) and the European Free Alliance (EFA), that negotiate a political agreement on a yearly-basis, and embodies MEPs from no less than 15 member states and 21 national parties.

In our recent chapter on the topic, we find two main elements explaining why MEPs from the Greens-EFA group nevertheless often come to vote together: strategy and organisation. First, the Greens have developed a specific strategy aiming at maintaining the group’s unity by focusing on non-contentious issues among national delegations. This seems to be in line with the idea of a ‘mellowing’ of fundamental Green values and issues (Bomberg, 2002) rather than the development of a pan-European Green ideology as such. Our interviews suggest that the cohesion of the Greens is related to the group’s ability to leave aside more problematic matters and focus on consensual issues such as: ecology, the integrated approach of environment in other policy fields, peace and more diffuse policies related to ‘good governance’ concerns (such as data protection, transparency). At least in part thanks to this strategy, the Greens have been the first party at European level to run on a common platform for EP elections.

Second, the group’s organization is key to ensuring its cohesion. We argue that the Greens’ cohesiveness revealed by the roll call votes is at least partially explained by structural discipline mechanisms. This discipline does not echo the group’s general characteristics but rather its organizational specificities and level of institutionalisation. Although the Greens/EFA group cannot be considered one of the major groups, its organisation is very similar and plays a key role in its cohesiveness. The group has two deputy secretary generals who work at maintaining contacts with MEPs, policy experts, its co-Presidents and external actors. The group’s cohesion appears to be among their priorities. It also holds regular meetings as well as thematic working groups to define the common line. And all key political decisions are taken by the Bureau where ‘a common language’ is defined, especially when the position of the group is not self-evident. Furthermore, the Greens have adopted a co-presidency system and the leadership also plays a key role in ensuring the group’s political unity. The analysis of the frequency of contact shows that the Greens/EFA MEPs indicate a higher contact frequency with their group leaders than with national Ministers, members of their national political party or members of their national party’s executive. Moreover, our research has found that Greens/EFA MEPs also indicate a higher frequency of contacts with their group leader than MEPs from any other political group.

The patterns in terms of voting recommendations reinforce this idea. Group leaders dispense voting recommendations on specific policy issues. Greens/EFA MEPs indicate that they received voting recommendations from the group leadership more frequently than from other sources (the national government, national party leadership, national party delegation of MEPs, or EP committee leadership). The frequency of voting recommendations from the group leadership is also higher according to Greens/EFA MEPs than to their colleagues from other political groups.

The role of the national delegation – that is, the gathering and organization of MEPs from the same national party – could also be a key determinant for a group’s cohesion. Although the Greens/EFA group is subject to the influence of national delegations (and has often been dominated by the two large delegations, the Germans and French), this influence is arguably lower than in other groups in the sense that national delegations do not seem to constitute an obstacle to cohesion within the Greens/EFA group. If national party positions often differ from the EP group’s position, the culture of deliberation and compromises often helps to close the gap. Second, accounting for the delegations, the organization of the group reflects the balance of power between the national delegations. As in other groups, the leadership of the EP party is composed of the leaders of the larger national delegations. This eventually entails less policy conflicts for the MEPs from these major national parties, which make up the bulk of the group. These leaders thus retain control over a large proportion of the group’s MEPs. The co-presidency appears as a specific means of national delegation management. Given that the Greens/EFA group is almost invariably dominated by the French and the German delegations, its positions are largely traceable to the positions of these national delegations, which are also the more loyal.

In a nutshell, the Greens have become the most cohesive group in the EP and the organizational structure of the group plays a significant role in this respect. Through the function of its staff as brokers of interest, the importance given to co-leadership, the interactions between the group and the national delegations, as well as the strategy of the group to avoid controversial issues, the Greens/EFA group manages to be united on a wide range of policy areas. Yet, other explanatory variables deserve further research. Internally, analysing roll call initiative strategies would shed further light on the leadership-MEPs relations and mutual influence, as a means to ensure discipline.

Enlargement should also be further studied as an external factor of (un)cohesion. The main challenge for the Greens/EFA group is precisely the development and success of Green parties in Eastern and Southern Europe. The group has benefited less than any other EP group from the two last enlargement rounds. Despite a strategy clearly aiming at their implantation there, the Greens have not been successful in gaining seats in the 2014 EP elections in those countries. Paradoxically, if the relative weakness of Green parties from Eastern and Southern Europe is an important challenge, it also constitutes an asset. It has helped maintain a certain level of homogeneity within the group, contributing to its cohesion, thereby allowing the group to be more influential than its numerical size would suggest.

Nathalie Brack (nbrack@ulb.ac.be) is FNRS Researcher at the Cevipol (Université libre de Bruxelles) and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. Her research interests include Euroscepticism, EU institutions, radical right, political opposition and parliamentary studies. She recently co-edited a special issue of the International Political Science Review on the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism (with Nick Startin, 2015).

Camille Kelbel (camille.kelbel@ulb.ac.be) is a PhD candidate at the ULB, taking part in the ‘PartiRep’ Interuniversity Attraction Pole. Prior to joining the ULB, Camille Kelbel was an academic assistant at the College of Europe, Bruges. Her PhD project focuses on candidate selection for European elections. More generally, her research interests lie in EU politics, political parties and elections.

It’s not just the economy, stupid: The UK referendum on EU membership, 2016

Paul Webb

‘…the worst form of majoritarian rule is when a minority actually rules, in the absence of an effective system of checks and balances’ (Bill Kissane ‘Is the Irish referendum a majoritarian device?’, in W. Marxer Direct Democracy and Minorities, Springer Verlag 2012, p.153.)

So ends the most bitter and polarising experience of postwar British electoral democracy. The economics of Brexit were heatedly and endlessly debated in the UK’s referendum campaign on EU membership, but ultimately they was trumped by voters’ considerations about national integrity and identity. A majority of 17.4m people voted to leave, while 16.1m voted to remain. For Brexiters ultimately these motives outweighed any concerns about the economic downside. To voters such as these, these are non-negotiable matters of identity – which is partly why their implications will resonate in complex ways beyond the event of the referendum itself. It is now inevitable that the issues which were the subject of so much febrile claim and counter-claim during the prolonged referendum campaign will continue to impact on the agenda of British politics and to forge realignments within and across the old lines of party politics.

The context and the campaign

Under pressure from the Europhobic wing of his own Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron promised ahead of the 2015 general election that, should his party win a parliamentary majority, the government would seek to negotiate more favourable terms for British membership of the EU, before holding a referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU. On winning that majority (quite possibly to his surprise), he announced that a referendum would be held by the end of 2017 and embarked on negotiations with EU partners.

These negotiations resulted in a number of concessions and assurances being made to the UK. There were limits to in-work benefits for new EU immigrants , exclusion of the UK from ‘ever closer union’; more power for national parliaments to colletively veto proposed EU laws; and easier deportation of EU nationals for public security reasons. In February 2016, Cameron announced that the Government was content to recommend that the UK should remain in the EU on this basis, and that the referendum would be held on 23 June. He also announced that Conservative MPs – including government ministers – would be free to campaign on either side of the debate.

The campaign was focused around two officially recognised cross-party campaign groups – Britain Stronger in Europe for the ‘Remain’ side and Vote Leave for ‘Leave’. Each official campaign was entitled to spend up to £7m, free mailshots, TV broadcasts and £600,000 of public funding. In addition, an unofficial Leave.EU campaign, and a further offshoot of this called Grassroots Out, were active. While these unofficial operations were closely associated with UKIP and its maverick leader Nigel Farage, Vote Leave was largely the vehicle of Conservative Brexiteers with tensions between the two never far below the surface.

The campaign revolved around three major issues: the economy, immigration and the political independence of the UK from the EU. Evidence from an opinion poll conducted on the day of the vote suggests that the first of these was of overwhelming importance for those who wished the UK to remain in the EU, while those who opted to Leave were strongly motivated by the latter two concerns. Thus, while 40% of Remainers nominated the impact on jobs, investment and the economy generally as the number one reason for voting, and a further 13% felt that it would be better for their family circumstances, the respective figures for Leavers were only 5% for each of these options. By contrast, some 45% of Leavers nominated Britain’s right to act independently of other countries, and 26% believed it would improve the country’s ability to deal effectively with immigration as the most important factor, compared to figures of just 21% and 1% respectively for Remainers. Other issues also emerged in the course of the debate, especially the likely impact of a vote for Brexit on the integrity of the UK, but these did not attract the same degree of attention at the time – although this rapidly changed after 23 June. Overall, though, it is clear from this evidence that this voters’ choices in the referendum were not just about the economy, stupid.

There were various external interventions during the campaigns, especially by business representatives and independent researchers. Surveys of large UK businesses generally showed a strong preference for the UK to remain in the EU, while small and medium-sized UK firms (many of which depend less directly on overseas trade) were more equivocal. The UK Treasury warned of severe negative economic consequences of leaving the EU, a view that was backed up in various ways by independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (which estimated potential losses in tax revenues of tens of billions of pounds), and the IMF. As leading Brexit campaigners recognised that the UK would probably have to leave not just the EU but also the European Economic Area in order to control the free movement of people they became increasingly inclined to argue that a post-Brexit UK should trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules (which is to say, with import tariffs), which in turn sparked further warnings that such a turn would damage the British economy; for instance, the Centre for Economics and Business Research warned that half to thre-quarters of a million jobs could be lost if this happened.

The general tone of the debate became increasingly vitriolic as it progressed, with both sides accusing each other of making exaggerated claims, of ‘scaremongering’  or of downright mendacity. The nadir was reached with the shocking assassination of the pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency on 16 June. Her assailant shouted ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ when arraigned in court.

The results

Table 1: United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016
Choice Votes  %
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89
Remain a member of the EU 16,141,241 48.11
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 46,501,241 72.2%

In demographic terms, the Remain and Brexit camps have been well defined for some time. Support for Brexit resembles that for UKIP in various ways, with particular strengths among older people, lower social class and less well educated voters. In YouGov’s final referendum poll conducted on the day of the vote itself, Leave seemed to enjoy commanding leads among voters aged over 50, and those whose highest educational qualification was GCSE or lower. Remain was the clear preference of those aged 18-49 and those educated to A-Level or degree standard. However, younger voters were far less likely to turnout at the referendum than older voters.

The polarisation of the UK is now sharply apparent in geographical terms. The vote for Brexit was strongest in a swathe of areas running down the east of England, especially in parts of Lincolnshire, Essex and the East Midlands, while London, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain the outposts of pro-EU sentiment. With Wales also voting for Leave, the electoral picture shows a divided Union.

Reactions and ramifications

The consequences for UK and Europe can only be speculated on so soon after the referendum, but it did not take long for the impact on party politics to become apparent. David Cameron resigned immediately, thus sparking a Conservative Party leadership contest. Boris Johnson emerged as an early favourite, with Stephen Crabb  Home Secretary Theresa May, Energy minister Andrea Leadsom and former minister Liam Fox declaring their candidacies. To widespread surprise, Johnson’s key ally in the referendum campaign, Michael Gove, announced that he could not support Johnson and declared his own candidacy instead. Johnson then decided not to stand for the leadership.

Even more striking was the impact on Labour: the referendum outcome ignited a new spasm of factionalism as a clamour of complaint and recrimination about Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre performance in the campaign developed. Within 48 hours of the referendum result being declared the majority of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet had resigned or been sacked, and shortly afterwards 172 Labour MPs (more than 80% of those taking part) supported a No Confidence motion against him. However, he refused to resign as Leader, arguing that he retained the overwhelming support of the party membership. At the time of writing, it seems inevitable that he will be formally challenged in a new leadership contest, with ex-Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle apparently willing to be nominated. The possibility of a second victory for Corbyn within a year (given his continuing support amongst members) holds out the prospect of an eventual schism in the party. There is a very real prospect that Labour will fare badly in future elections, notwithstanding the Tories’ own problems, as the threat of enduring realignment of many of its traditional core voters to UKIP now looms very large.

While the parties struggled to come to terms with the outcome of the referendum, so did the electorate at large. The days following the referendum witnessed demonstrations against Brexit, outpourings of social media angst and recrimination, a marked growth in incidents of xenophobic abuse of foreigners of both EU and non-EU origin, petitions demanding a second referendum, and calls to lobby MPs not to support any Brexit vote in Parliament.

Beyond the UK (or what will eventually be left of it) the ramifications will be felt with perhaps even greater resonance: populists in France, Italy and the Netherlands swiftly demanded their own national referendums on EU membership. Leading figures from Merkel to Hollande and Juncker made it clear that the UK could not expect a special deal whereby it could cherry pick the parts of the EU that it liked and reject those it didn’t. In particular, there would be no prospect of British access to the Single Market without the free movement of people. It was also made clear that they wanted the UK to invoke Article 50 as soon as possible, and would not be negotiating behind the scenes until it did. Closer to home, relations between the two Irelands, one in the EU and one outside it, will bring further complexity to that island’s convoluted and troubled politics. Predictably, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pointed to Scotland’s overwhelming support for Remain in the referendum and claimed that the material circumstances had now changed to such an extent that a second referendum on Scottish independence was ‘highly likely’; new opinion polls revealed a surge in support for independence. She travelled to Brussels and immediately started lobbying for ways in which Scotland could retain its links with the EU after Brexit even in the face of Spanish opposition fearing Catalan independence.

Constitutional reflections

Was the referendum a legitimate way of making a major constitutional change such as withdrawal from the EU? Using Arendt Lijphart’s well known ideal types, in a classic majoritarian democracy such as Westminster, Parliament is sovereign, which means that the majority there has the right to determine laws in a more or less undiluted manner, unchecked by other actors such as constitutional courts, or sub-national jurisdictions as in a federal system. This is an archaic view in some ways since it has evolved over centuries of practice in the UK, but it has accommodated itself to democracy since the 19th century to become a representative democracy based on the virtual model of representation: MPs are supposed to be chosen for their wisdom and experience to make decisions on behalf of their electors with a view to the national interest, and they are then duly held to account for their actions at ensuing elections. The alternative is a consensus model of democracy in which as many people and groups as possible get to influence the making (or vetoing) of decisions. This is based on a written constitution, constitutional courts and judicial review, proportional representation, multiparty politics and various other checks and balances designed to  protect minorities and prevent the accretion of power by a single political, social or territorial block. Constitutional revision is regarded as so fundamental to the stability and wellbeing of the polity that the procedure for changing it is typically rather complex and involves the need to overcome high barriers to change.

Seen in this light, what the UK has done with the EU referendum is to hand over decision making power on an extraordinarily complicated and important constitutional issue to the electorate with no provision for establishing a consensus. No special thresholds or super-majorities were put in place to render constitutional change difficult, no checks or balances were introduced, and no special measures to protect minority rights or interests. In effect, the elected representatives who were elected for their wisdom and expertise absolved themselves of their usual responsibilities, so we were left with neither a true majoritarian nor an authentic consensus style democracy. Indeed, one might reflect that this is not even a case of genuine majority rule, given that only 37.4% of the registered electorate voted for Brexit. Rather, it bears the signs of an incoherent, simplistic and ill thought-through approach to matters of major constitutional importance, which renders the whole exercise quite illegitimate in the eyes of some critics.

Paul Webb (p.webb@sussex.ac.uk) is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, and co-editor of the journal ‘Party Politics’.

The 2016 Serbian elections: the triumph of ‘Europe’ or a Eurosceptic backlash

When earlier this year Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić called a snap parliamentary election to solidify his essentially unlimited power, no major surprises were expected. A landslide victory for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party – receiving 48.25% of the total votes – was convincing, but the real drama which unfolded concerned which parties would get into parliament, since four electoral lists were only slightly above a 5% electoral threshold.

After several turbulent nights at the Electoral Commission, accusations of electoral fraud, a vote recount, and the second round of elections, seven lists entered the parliament, including two Eurosceptic ones: the radical right Serbian Radical Party, which received 8.1% of the total vote, and the national conservative coalition between the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri, securing 5.04%. Many observers saw the overall results as a major victory for pro-EU parties, as these will remain the most dominant forces in parliament for the foreseeable future. However, given that not a single MP opposed EU membership in the previous parliament, that the election process was less fair compared to previous ones (it was widely seen as free but without equal opportunities for all participants), and given growing concerns over the pro-EU, and particularly democratic, credentials of the dominant Serbian Progressive Party, the triumph of ‘Europe’ is to be taken with a certain reserve.

Almost all previous elections were marked by a deep polarization between two blocs of parties divided over the issue of Serbian EU membership and the reaction to the proclamation – sponsored by leading EU member states – of Kosovo’s independence. Serbia was, therefore, one of the few countries where European issues dominated domestic politics and elections were often seen as a referendum on EU membership. This is, however, no longer the case: the April 2016 election seems to have confirmed a trend, following from that of the 2014 poll, that EU membership and the related issue of Kosovo have ceased to be the most important matter of party contestation. Instead, domestic social and economic issues dominated the electoral campaign, with most parties for the first time advancing relatively elaborate proposals for concrete public policies – although often based on unrealistic promises, such as: re-instating public sector salaries and pensions to the level prior to the 2014 cuts, increasing the minimum wage, returning subsidies for farmers or adopting a new labour law.

The low profile of European issues, including the migrant crisis (although 700,000 migrants have transited through the country over the past two years), may be attributed to the fact that the heightened public emotions regarding Kosovo subsided over time and many Eurosceptic parties became opportunistic advocates of Serbian EU membership. Consequently, the deep line of division between anti- and pro-EU parties effectively ceased to exist in such a form. Crucially, the country finally began negotiating the conditions of EU membership. As a result, it entered a more ‘peaceful’ phase of its European integration that is largely devoid of significant statehood issues and emotionally-charged rhetoric: the more ‘technical’ nature of its interaction with the EU has greatly depoliticized this issue. Not even the recent Croatian blockade of the opening of talks on Chapter 23 seems to have reversed this trend.

Most parties, therefore, did not compete on an EU ticket, assessing that it would not bring them significant electoral gains. Traditionally pro-EU opposition parties lost their trump card – that is, presenting themselves as the only legitimate pro-EU forces – which they had played for many years. There was, for instance, a conspicuous absence of EU issues in the manifestos and campaigns of the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. Their platforms were instead focused on the negative effects of the government’s austerity policies and particularly its authoritarian style of governance that continues to threaten the fabric of the weak Serbian democracy. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party emphasized EU membership to a greater extent by taking credit for the opening of (only) two negotiating chapters. However, the focal points of its campaign were economic issues and the positive results of the EU-supported reforms.

On the other side, Eurosceptic parties advocated an immediate end to membership negotiations, calling for a referendum on the continuation of EU accession as well as on stronger links with Russia. In particular, they claimed that the EU set unacceptable conditions for Serbian membership, such as the legal recognition of Kosovo, imposing sanctions on Russia and joining NATO. However, the emphasis of the campaign of the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri was mostly on safeguarding ‘endangered’ traditional and family values as well as ‘economic patriotism’ based on giving preference to domestic producers as opposed to the government policy of subsidizing foreign (mostly EU) investors. The Serbian Radical Party attempted to profit more from the EU issue, although corruption and economic difficulties also featured prominently in its campaign. As the only relevant party in favor of Serbian entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the radicals portrayed themselves as the only alternative to European integration. Public burning of EU and NATO flags, traditionally fierce anti-Western rhetoric and the first instance of acquittal for war crimes of its leader Vojislav Šešelj contributed to this party’s political comeback.

The previous parliament failed to represent Eurosceptic views, although a stable minority of approximately 30% of citizens opposes EU membership. The relative success of the Eurosceptics is a potentially significant outcome of this election, even though they will not be able to alter policies of the Euroenthusiastic parliamentary majority. If these parties offer a valid criticism of the pro-EU agenda of the ruling elites, an informed debate on EU membership would indeed be beneficial for both Serbian parliamentarianism and improved preparation for membership of the Union. However, the first debates in the new parliament have been very fierce, and both pro-EU and Eurosceptic parties have thus far largely failed to elaborate concrete and reasoned views on this issue. Their rhetoric has been mostly general, lacking policy proposals on, for instance, which national interests Serbia should protect in this process, what the viable alternatives to EU membership might be and what they essentially entail.

The election also exposed the real nature of the pro-EU commitment of the Serbian Progressive Party. Specifically, this party gathered a broad pre-election coalition of very diverse Euroenthusiastic and Eurosceptic parties. A joint slate included, among others, the national conservative, strongly Eurosceptic and pro-Russian Serbian People’s Party, whose platform was epitomized by the slogan ‘Only with Russia can Serbia win’. Unlike other parties, it also employed anti-immigration rhetoric calling for the building of a fence on Serbia’s Southern borders, which is in direct opposition to policies pursued by the Serbian Progressive Party-led government. As a typical catch-all party lacking any identifiable ideology, the Serbian Progressive Party was driven to reach out to significant Eurosceptic and pro-Russian segments of the electorate in order to maximize its electoral gains. The party thus clearly prioritized its electoral gains over consistent dedication for a Serbian EU membership bid, demonstrating the low extent to which EU membership constitutes its fundamental commitment.

Moreover, Serbian President and former party leader Tomislav Nikolić adopted increasingly Eurosceptic rhetoric in the run-up to the election. Traditionally more sceptical towards the West and considering Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘his best friend’, Nikolić repeatedly argued that if the accession means that ‘someone will force us to recognize the independence of Kosovo and give up our cooperation with Russia, then we’d rather not join the EU’, although he ultimately concluded that the EU is essentially ‘a necessary evil’. Significantly, this view appears to be shared by many within the party ranks although it has been thus far successfully suppressed by an authoritative party leader. The Serbian Progressive Party, nevertheless, remains a broad church that includes members expressing a range of opposing opinions but united in their quest for political power. Although disguised, this Euroscepticism may re-surface in a new parliament. Forced to compete with other potentially stronger candidates in the 2017 presidential race, Nikolić is likely to strengthen his Eurosceptic position – particularly if he does not receive support from the Serbian Progressive Party – which will inevitably pit him against an opportunistically pro-EU party leader.

Finally, this time the EU did not interfere in the election process. It remained silent even on allegations of serious electoral fraud raised by independent observers and the opposition – such as: that the incumbents abused the administrative advantages of office, that there was a media blockade of the opposition and that 200,000 votes were ‘stolen’ from the opposition. This is a clear consequence of the fact that prime minister Vučić made significant political capital out of his cooperative position on Kosovo and handling the migrant crisis. The increasingly authoritarian style of his government – including dis-regarding freedom of expression, the independence of regulatory bodies and the judiciary, and electoral frauds allegations – was largely ignored given that Vučić proved to be a willing partner in regard to these issues.

In marked contrast to EU officials, the Party of European Socialists (PES) was ‘extremely concerned’ about growing threats against opposition parties and the democratic media. Motivated to protect its Serbian member, the PES condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms the attempted intimidation against politicians of the leading opposition Democratic Party’ and concluded that the Serbian elections fell short of necessary standards, calling on the Serbian Progressive Party to undertake democratic reforms and thus place the country on the path towards EU accession. The European Peoples’ Party (EPP), on the other hand, congratulated Serbian citizens on the elections and the Serbian Progressive Party (which has been seeking membership of the latter since 2008) on a clear victory, expressing support for a clear progress toward the EU. The EPP has thus prioritized its relations with (potential) Balkan members over the genuine democratic transformation that it rhetorically champions. This has further undermined its credibility and limited its leverage in this region – most visibly in the case of the Croatian Democratic Union and the Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE.

Marko Stojić (stojic.marko@gmail.com) is a lecturer at Masaryk University and University of New York in Prague. His is also an associate research fellow at EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague. His research interests focus on the study of European integration, political parties and party systems in the Western Balkans.

The 2016 parliamentary election in the Republic of Cyprus: Centrifugal tendencies and dealignment

Yiannos Katsourides

On 22 May 2016, Cypriots went to the polls to elect deputies for the eleventh time in the short 56-year-old history of the Republic of Cyprus. There were 543,186 eligible voters and 494 candidates – the most ever in Cyprus’s electoral history, and which corresponded to one candidate for every 1099 voters. There were a total of 13 parties and platforms ranging from the left to the far right and covering niche agendas such as the Animal Party as well as individual candidates.

In the end, the elections were basically little more than a fight among the political parties amidst a largely indifferent electorate. It was a fight between big parties and smaller parties; a fight between the two largest parties to secure the lead in the balance of power and in view of the forthcoming presidential elections of 2018; a fight between the smaller parties for survival and for the lead in the so-called middle space; a fight among all parties against abstention; a fight within the parties for who would be elected.

The context of the elections was defined by three parameters. First and foremost was the huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This was a crisis intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and led to the widespread perception among the public that all politicians are corrupt and selfish and that all parties are the same.

Second were the repercussions of the bail-in of 2013, which caused the economy, for the first time, to be the most important issue of the elections. The Cyprus problem is usually the focus of political campaigns, and during these elections the negotiations for a possible solution to the long-standing Cyprus problem had been revived, bringing the issue into headlines again. Nevertheless, the economy won out as the major issue.

Finally, there was the decision to increase the electoral threshold from 1.8% to 3.6% just a few months before the elections. This was a joint decision of the two major parties – the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) and the Democratic Rally (DISY), an obvious attempt to keep out unwanted newcomers – for example, the extreme right National Popular Front (ELAM) and also limit their losses to smaller parties. This act invited the severe criticism of the smaller parties as they accused the larger, mainstream parties of authoritarianism, criticizing their decision as undemocratic.

Lacklustre campaign

The campaign was rather short by Cypriot standards and was a far cry from the passionate campaigns of the past. Indifference among the voters was the principal characteristic of these elections; polls indicated that approximately one-third of them would abstain.

The parties focused on a variety of different issues: the two major parties (AKEL and DISY) stressed the economy in lieu of the Cyprus problem and the ongoing negotiations; this was done to highlight their differences in the face of accusations by the smaller parties that their stances on the Cyprus problem were too similar. Thus, the other parties focused on the Cyprus problem while criticizing the two main parties for co-operation and making too many concessions towards the Turkish side. This perceived cooperation necessitated, according to smaller parties, a decrease in the total vote for these two main parties.

The governing right-wing DISY’s campaign called upon voters to place their trust in the party, reminding them that its realistic policies had led the country out of the crisis and out of the memorandum of understanding (‘success story’). They also warned of the risk and consequences of relying on the former governing party (AKEL), with their populist proposals. The opposition left-wing AKEL, on the other hand, stressed the need to terminate the austerity policies resulting from the Troika demands but also from the government’s policy choices, and blamed DISY and the government for the downfall of the economy.

The centre-right DIKO emphasized its pivotal role in the functioning of the entire political system, and called on voters to move forward, instead of left or right. The social democratic United Democratic Union of the Centre (EDEK), amidst internal tensions, initially underlined the importance of maintaining the sovereign Republic of Cyprus, which it accused the two main parties of aiming to abolish. Later in the campaign, the party changed tactics and focused on the economy, proposing that all debts be frozen. The other smaller and newly founded parties campaigned on a platform asking for an end to the dominance of the traditional mainstream parties, which they accused of corruption.

Winners and losers

The most telling story of this election was the high degree of abstention, 33.26%; this set a record for post-1974 Cyprus and revealed an 11.96 % increase from 2011. This figure is even more important if we factor in the 22,000 (out of the 32,000) young voters who were eligible to register yet declined to do so. Although not confined to the younger cohorts, exit polls revealed their turnout to be the lowest. 

Table 1: Results of the May 2016 Cyprus parliamentary election

Party % (seats) Votes Difference from 2011 (%)(seats) Difference from 2011 (Votes) Results if abstention is included (%)
DISY(Democratic Rally) 30.68 (18) 107,825 -3.99 (-2) -30,857 19.85
AKEL (Progressive Party of the Working People) 25.67 (16) 90,204 -7 (-2) -41,967 16.6
DIKO (Democratic Party) 14.49 (9) 50,923 -1.28  (-) -12,840 9.25
EDEK (United Democratic Union of the Centre) 6.18 (3) 21,732 -2.75 (-2) -14,381 4
Citizens Alliance 6.01 (3) 21,114 3.88
Solidarity Movement 5.24 (3) 18,424 3.39
Greens 4.81 (2) 16,909 +2.6 (+1) +7,949 3.11
ELAM (National Popular Front) 3.71 (2) 13,041 +2.6 (+2) +8,687 2.4
Others 3.21 11,217 -1.86 (-) -9,317 4.26 (including blanks and void)
Abstention  33.26 180,644 +11.96 +67,468 33.26

Source: Author’s compilation of data based on official results at http://www.ekloges.gov.cy

The results reveal clear winners and losers. The biggest winners were the centre-right DIKO and all the smaller parties except EDEK; the biggest losers are the two main parties and especially the left-wing AKEL. AKEL lost 7%, 42,000 voters and three seats compared to the 2011 elections when they were in government. DISY lost 4%, more than 30,000 voters and two seats. DIKO is the only historical/mainstream party that managed to maintain its seats despite the loss of approximately 13,000 voters; the party also managed to retain its modulatory role in the middle space.

Together, the newly founded parties polled 14.26% (including those that did not enter parliament), a clear indication of voter frustration with the mainstream parties. In contrast, the entire ‘middle space’ – that is, all other parties except the two big ones – polled 36.73%, a very important development since together they now have the largest representation in the parliament. This fact does not mean that these parties are ideologically similar. Their parliamentary representation shows that they can have a considerable say in all future developments on the island, and especially with regard to the Cyprus problem: these parties all profess a more hardline position, albeit to varying degrees.

What do these elections tell us?

These elections reveal interesting patterns and offer important insights. First of all, they reinforce the trend in Cyprus towards de-alignment, which indicates a crisis of representation. Abstention has become a systemic feature of Cypriot electoral politics, with many voters deliberately abstaining to punish the political parties and to convey their anger at the entire political system for its failure to respond to their concerns. However, election results also revealed a partial re-alignment, with up to 25% of voters, according to the exit polls, changing party allegiance. Those who benefited were, of course, the newer parties, which garnered votes and parliamentary seats at the expense of the more traditional ones.

This disconnect between people and politics (see the last column of the table), most likely accounts for the increase in younger candidates who are not tarnished by accusations of corruption; 28 new MPs were elected (24 for a first time) which represented half the total number of deputies in the House of Representatives.

Second, if we consider the election results in Sartorian terms, the party system of Cyprus seems to resemble the polarized pluralism model. For a second time in its history, the Cypriot parliament houses eight parties compared to only six previously; this has significant implications both for the internal working of the parliament and for the relations between the legislature and the President. In this regard, co-operation and alliances between the parties will become more complicated than ever before, which will definitely affect the President’s ability to pass legislation. In turn, this will affect coalition building with regard to the forthcoming presidential elections.

Third, the elections also reveal a shift in the Cyprus party system’s ideological centre of gravity: the centre-right, albeit more fragmented now, has increased its vote share at the expense of the centre-left. In 2011 the centre-left represented by AKEL, EDEK and the Greens polled approximately 44%, whereas in 2016 their overall share dropped to approximately 37%. The right and centre-right (including the extreme right), represented by DISY, DIKO, Citizens Alliance, Solidarity and ELAM, rose from 51% to approximately 60%. This could be related to, and could also explain, as many scholars argue, the inability of the (centre) left to provide feasible alternatives for overcoming the huge economic crisis, which reinforces conservative reactions among the electorates.

Fourth, the strength of bipolarism has declined considerably. Although AKEL and DISY still commanded more than half of the votes, together their vote total 56.36%, down from 66.95% in 2011. Moreover, these two parties together now have 34 deputies compared to 39 in the last elections. These losses represent the price they paid for holding the executive in this turbulent period, which saw both parties failing to meet the expectations of their constituencies. This decrease combined with the increased vote share for smaller and new parties verifies the trend shown in other recent elections, that is: that Cyprus has entered an era of increased fluidity. Nevertheless, the new parties’ breakthrough does not prove their endurance, which must be tested in consecutive elections.

Fifth, these elections are the first in which an extreme, ultra-nationalist, right-wing party garnered enough votes to win seats in the House of Representatives. ELAM, the sister party of the Greece’s Golden Dawn, tripled its vote share to elect two MPs. Their presence in parliament offers them an institutional/legitimate channel to air their (populist) views, while their anticipated marginalization by other parties will probably act as a public signifier of their fake ‘anti-systemeness’. In turn, this could help them fuel their propaganda and consequently their electoral fortunes, especially amidst the ongoing negotiations for a possible solution to the Cyprus problem. However, their mere participation in the parliament is also an expression of their incorporation in the political system and their acceptance of the political rules.

Sixth, the number of female MPs increased in these elections from 7 to 10 (it would have been 11 but E. Theocharous, the leader of Solidarity and an MEP, opted to stay in the European Parliament). This is definitely a positive development in a country where civic and equal gender rights tend to be respected on paper but not in actuality.

Finally, the two big parties’ decision to increase the electoral threshold to their benefit not only failed but even backfired. Many analysts now say that this act has created a reverse dynamic against the big parties and actually helped the smaller parties gain seats in the House.

Yiannos Katsourides teaches in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus.

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.