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 ( 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 ( 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

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,

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.

Europe and the 2015 Swiss election: On not jumping to majoritarian conclusions

Clive Church

Initial responses to the results of the Swiss elections of 18 October 2015 suggested a dramatic paradigm shift. And this was true both of outsiders and of Swiss journalists and others who ought to know better. Thus the best-selling tabloid ‘Blick’ claimed ‘The People’s Party Triumphs’ while other commentators made great play of the fact that, if one added together the seats won by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the Radicals and the regional extreme right parties, then the ‘right’ had an absolute majority. Others claimed that this meant the right now had a veto on policy and that the SVP had gained its revenge for 2011. All this boils down to an assumption that there will be sweeping political changes over the next four years as there might be in a majoritarian polity. Moreover, experience tells me that it is never wise to prophesy dramatic upheavals in Switzerland.

The reality is that Swiss politics are more complex than these simplistic assessments. In fact, Switzerland faces four more years of difficult negotiations and confrontations in parliament, as the increasingly divided political system struggles to agree deals. And things could be further complicated by referenda. So the only certainty is that the country faces further uncertainty.

On 18 October the SVP emerged with a historically unparalleled 29.4% of the vote and 65 seats. This represented a gain of 2.8% and 11 seats on its disappointing 2011 result. The Social Democrats came second with 18.8% and 43 seats. Although the latter marginally increased their vote share the party still lost three seats. It was followed by the Radicals who gained 1.3% and three seats, ending up with 16.4% and 33 seats. This was the first time in years that the party had not lost votes. The Christian Democrats lost less than normal, going down by only 0.7% and one seat to 11.6% and 26 seats.

The gains made by the SVP and the Radicals came mainly from the ecologists. In 2011 the latter benefitted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster which made environmental issues highly salient. Four years later fashions had changed and migration became the dominant concern, even though the wider European crisis had yet to impact on Switzerland. Hence the centrist Green Liberals lost 1.2% and 5 seats, ending with 4.6% and seven seats. The orthodox left-of-centre Green party lost 1.3% and 5 seats, finishing up with 7.1% and 10 seats. The other centrist winner from 2011, the Conservative Democratic Party (BPD), lost 1.3% and two seats ending up with 4.1% and 7 seats. Thus most of the 14 seats won by the two main right-wing parties came essentially from the centre, not the left. Hence, what was seen in 2011 as the ‘Neu Mitte’ was reduced to its real proportions in 2015.

The parliament also offers a home to three other parties. The centrist Evangelical People’s party (EVP) held on to its two seats, while two regional far right parties also maintained their place: the Ticinese League won two seats and the Genevan Citizens’ Movement (MCG) one. Despite the talk of a ‘slippage’ to the right, neither managed to win the extra seats they had hoped for. However, the Marxist Parti Ouvrier Populaire party won a seat in Neuchâtel. Hence, the National Council ended up hosting eleven parties, showing that Swiss political pluralism was alive and well.

This is one reason why the gains made by the SVP and the Radicals are not likely to translate into drastic changes of political direction. The Swiss have a very effective PR system which allows the people to enshrine their strongly held support for a wide range of parties. These cannot be side-lined as they are in the UK. Consequently, the kind of breakthroughs recently found in Scotland and Canada are just not possible. Unprecedented though the SVP’s figures are, they are still too limited to allow the party to re-shape politics and the polity in the way that parties with large majorities can do in majoritarian systems. In any case, the SVP’s gains only really restored it to where it was in 2007. Had it not forced its moderates out and into the new Conservative Democratic Party (BPD), it could probably now have even more seats. Certainly it fell short of the 33% that some hoped for.

There are other reasons. To begin with all the attention was on the Lower House. There are likely to be second rounds on the coming four Sundays. And these are likely to produce rather different results from those in the National Council, given the different electoral system used. Traditionally the SVP does not do well in them and it has already withdrawn its candidate from the re-run in Berne. Given that the Swiss Parliament is perfectly bi-cameral, the Council of States, widely regarded as a revising chamber, is well placed to block extremist policies.

Secondly, talk of ‘the right’ is an arithmetic construction not a political reality. Although there is much talk of ‘polarization’, Hanspeter Kriesi is right to say that Switzerland has a tri-polar political system, with a far-right, a centre-right, and a centre-left. The experience of the collapse of a pre-election agreement between the SVP, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats on economic policies to offset the rising value of the franc shows how limited their links are. And the nature of the government means that there is no manifesto to be implemented as there is in a majoritarian system Moreover, the Radicals have strengthened their position and will not wish to become a satellite of the SVP as cartoonists have suggested might happen. And, while there is a certain similarity in their views on economic matters, they disagree on EU relations. Thus the Radicals seem to have emerged as the most trusted, and sensible, party on EU relations.

Thirdly, although the SVP gained in the elections, it did so on the back of a singularly content-free campaign, described by some as ‘de-politicised’. Indeed, by the end the only real subject of discussion was the make-up of the government and whether the SVP would have another hissy fit if it was not given a second seat. This was partly because, for once, the SVP largely eschewed the inflammatory posters which have distinguished its previous campaigns and, like many others, resorted to dog whistle politics to win over its core supporters. Its slogans urged people to stay secure and free; in other words, to resist outside challenges, notably the growing waves of refugees seeking a European escape from Eastern war and chaos. It also talked much about breaking the alleged hold of the centre-left in Parliament. Hence it did not really engage in detailed policy prescriptions. In particular Europe was hardly mentioned at all.

So it cannot convincingly claim a mandate for specific policies especially as it failed to stop a further fall in turnout. Indeed, one senior SVP figure remarked that people knew what their parties stood for, and trusted them to pursue their interests in parliament. None of this means that the party campaigned ineffectively. It did not. It was as well organized as ever and even better funded. It also made greater use of Facebook than ever before.

Its strategy appeared to work. The party lost no seats and strengthened its control of the political agenda. And, although it is now the largest party in most districts and continued to attract former Social Democrat voters, its main gains came in its German-speaking heartland. This included seats in: Appenzell AR, Aargau, Berne, Graubunden, Lucerne, Schwytz, St Gallen, Uri and Zurich. These probably came from new or occasional voters with right-wing sympathies. It also won extra seats in the bilingual cantons of Fribourg and Valais. Four of these came from the Socialists, two from the Radicals and the rest from the centre parties. Exit polls also suggested that, while the party did well on the fringes of agglomerations, it did much less well in the big cities where its share of the vote never passed 17%. It was also somewhat weaker in several smaller cantonal capitals. This points to the continuing division between two Switzerlands: urban and outward looking, and rural and introverted.

Conversely the Social Democrats did well in such urban places, winning two seats in Zurich while losing in Aargau, Fribourg, Schwytz, Valais and Vaud. And in the biggest cities they won over 30% of the vote. The Radicals lost seats in Appenzell AR, Neuchâtel and Uri but won in six other cantons. The Christian Democrats also won a seat in Valais, although losing two in Solothurn and Basle City. Similarly the Green Party won a seat in the latter while losing elsewhere, largely in Western Switzerland. The other centre parties were unable to win any new seats.

All this points to a much more complicated picture than the press, traditionally more inclined to give more coverage to the right, often suggested. Switzerland remains a pluralist country and policies will have to evolve through parliamentary committees and debate. This will test the limits of the SVP’s new ‘muscle’ and its willingness to compromise. The latter will be particularly tested in the December elections for the national government where it will be hard for the SVP to persuade the other parties that it is willing to play the collegiate game.

Moreover there are at least two further complications. The SVP is going to challenge the new asylum law and there will certainly have to be a popular vote on the RAUS initiative, perhaps with a counter-project from NOMES/NEBS, the Swiss European movement. These could cut across on-going disputes, or possibly an impasse, on the twin linked issues of Europe and migration. This could mean parties resorting to yet more referenda. On financial questions things might be easier. As before the proof of the majoritarian headlines pudding will be in the Swiss eating, and this could be slow and anything but sure. Switzerland remains a divided mixed democracy and how it resolves its problems remains very uncertain.

Clive Church is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at the University of Kent.

The strategies of Eurosceptic Members of the European Parliament

Nathalie Brack

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

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

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

Four strategies available to Eurosceptic MEPs

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

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

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

Data from European Parliament and Votewatch

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

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

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

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

Eurosceptic MEPs: threat or asset for the EU?

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

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

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

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

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

Europe and the 2015 Snap Greek Elections, Round 2: Results, Patterns, and Divides

Nikoleta Kiapidou

Another general election was held in Greece on 20 September 2015. Greek people were asked to vote in an election for the fourth time since 2009, after prime minister and SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras resigned on 20 August. Mr Tsipras’ resignation came after only seven months in office followed by a rebellion by a significant number of SYRIZA MPs against the approval of the new austerity deal. In the previous election in January 2015, SYRIZA formed a coalition government with the minor right-wing Independent Greeks party and since then they had been negotiating for a better economic deal for the country.

However, the Greek government did not manage to avoid another bailout package being imposed by the European partners. The winning ‘No’ vote in the 2015 bailout agreement referendum also appeared also powerless – if not pointless. The one-time anti-austerity champions of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks signed the new austerity deal and the third Memorandum was eventually approved by the Greek parliament. However, SYRIZA’s U-turn did not, in spite of what most opinion polls predicted, result in large damage for the party. Rather, SYRIZA came first with 7% lead over the second party, New Democracy, and re-formed its coalition government with the Independent Greeks. The minor parties that have become stronger since 2012, succeeded in re-securing their seats in the parliament, which now comprises eight parties in total. The far right-wing Golden Dawn once again came in as the third largest political force in the parliament and an old, previously minor centre party called the Union of Centrists gained seats for the first time since its creation in 1992. At 56.6%, voter turnout reached its lowest score ever recorded in a Greek general election.

The Results

Although some pollsters predicted a different outcome, the election results were not much different than the previous general election in January 2015. As Table 1 shows, although slightly weaker SYRIZA was still largest party securing 35.5% of the vote, finishing 7.4% ahead of New Democracy with 28.1%. Immediately after the referendum result, Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, which supported the ‘Yes’ vote, resigned and was replaced by Vagelis Meimarakis. Mr Meimarakis promoted a more relaxed popular profile but did not manage to attract enough voters. The election result left most of New Democracy’s MPs disappointed and involved in talks about ways to restore the party’s performance. On the other hand, the extreme right Golden Dawn remained third and even increased their vote share by 0.7%. The fact that Golden Dawn MPs had been held in pre-trial detention since 2013, accused of forming a criminal gang, and that just two days before the election their leader took ‘political responsibility’ for the murder of a left-wing Greek singer did not seem to affect the party’s followers.

The one-time ruling party, the social democratic PASOK party, came fourth and increased its vote share by 1.1% since January. However, this increase was largely explained by its coalition with the Democratic Left party. The latter collapsed after joining the pro-Memorandum coalition government in 2012, but apparently retained some support. The Communists maintained their share, while the centrist ‘River’ and Independent Greeks saw a decrease in their share. The River appeared particularly dissatisfied with the result and stressed its willingness to re-assess its performance. In contrast, the Independent Greeks were rather happy with the outcome and their revised co-operation agreement with SYRIZA in office, as most opinion polls showed that they would not even make it to the parliament. The last party to enter the parliament, the Union of Centrists, an old minor centrist party, secured representation for the first time since its formation more than 20 years ago. Finally, Popular Unity, which was created by the SYRIZA rebels after the approval of the third Memorandum, received only 2.9% of the vote and did not manage to gain any seats, despite their consistent anti-austerity stance. 

Table 1: The 2015 September Greek general election results (parties in parliament)

Party Vote Share % (% difference to previous election) Seats
SYRIZA 35.5 (-0.8) 145
New Democracy 28.1 (+0.3) 75
Golden Dawn 7.0 (+0.7) 18
PASOK-DIMAR 6.3 (+1.1) 17
Communist Party 5.6 (+0.1) 15
The River 4.1 (-2.0) 11
Independent Greeks 3.7 (-1.1) 10
United Centrists 3.4 (+1.6) 9

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior,

Long-term patterns

The main patterns that emerged from this election were not much different from what we have seen in the Greek party system since the earthquake twin elections of 2012. Figure 1 illustrates the vote share of all the parties that secured parliamentary representation in all the legislative elections held from 2009 until 2015 and reveals certain repeated patterns, namely: an updated duopoly and a highly fragmented and polarised party system.

A Revised Two-party System

Although PASOK secured some additional votes in this election, the party is now considered a one of the minor ones with no hope of going back to its glorious times in the once stable two-partism in Greece. However, the Greek party system never abandoned the familiar pattern of duopoly: the PASOK-New Democracy divide has now been replaced by the SYRIZA-New Democracy duet. Certainly, the combined vote of the two major parties does not reach the high levels that PASOK and New Democracy once secured. Nevertheless, SYRIZA and New Democracy appear as the two largest, steady competitors who still manage to secure more than 60% of the total vote and immobilise the biggest part of the left/centre-left and the right/centre-right camps respectively.

As Fragmented as it Gets

High fragmentation has been another characteristic of the Greek party system since 2012 and this was also evident in this last election. As Figure 1 shows, although only four parties managed to pass the 3% electoral threshold in 2009, this number increased to seven in 2012 and January 2015, and eight in September 2015, the highest number of parties in the history of the Greek parliament. New actors such as the Independent Greeks and the River, and old parties such as Golden Dawn and the Union of Centrists gained attention and benefited from high electoral volatility during these years. These parties not only get the opportunity to have their voice heard in parliament but were also involved in discussions about coalition formation.

A Wide Ideological Spectrum

Once again, high fragmentation went hand in hand with high levels of polarisation. As in every election held since 2012, the Greek parliament consists of parties of an extremely wide ideological spectrum. With SYRIZA moving even further to the centre-left after approving the third bailout package and New Democracy bringing together a large part of the centre-right electoral base, many of the minor parties are left with collecting the protest and extreme votes. In the post-September 2015 parliament one can find parties that range from the far left (the Communist party), and the moderate centre (the River and the Union of Centrists) through to the extreme right (Golden Dawn).

Figure 1: General election results from 2009 until 2015 in Greece (parties in parliament)


Source: Greek Ministry of Interior,

The Main Divides

The existence of a coalition government comprising SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks since January 2015 showed that the left-right divide of the Greek party system had further weakened under the fierce conditions of the economic crisis. A new pro-/anti-austerity debate was born around which parties competed instead. However, with SYRIZA, the previously biggest anti-austerity movement in Greece, signing the third Memorandum in spite of the ‘No’ vote in the referendum, one wonders why SYRIZA was still the biggest party and what was the purpose of remaining in a coalition with a right-wing party> The answer is the powerful combination of features that SYRIZA developed during these years, representing a new, ‘forced-to-be’ pro-austerity, and being pro-European.

The Old versus the New

The main reason behind SYRIZA’s was the effective use of the growing old/new political system divide in the Greek party system. A falling combined vote of PASOK and New Democracy, along with a significant decline in popular trust in the national political institutions, showed that the power of the old two-partism started decreasing even before the crisis began. SYRIZA capitalised on public discontent with the old political system and further promoted the division between the old and the new in Greek politics. It, therefore, tried to represent a new political force which was not associated with the scandals, corruption, and the elitism of the past. Popular dissatisfaction with the old political system was so high that even a U-turn by SYRIZA on the most salient issue of austerity was not enough to damage the party’s performance. As SYRIZA’s current coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, are also a part of the new non-corrupted political system, Mr Tsipras stated that he could even co-operate with PASOK as long as the latter let certain ‘old-PASOK’ members go. As a result, the main message of SYRIZA’s pre-election campaign ‘Let’s get rid of the old’ was what Greek people wanted to hear most.

Pro-austerity vs. ‘Forced-to-be’ Pro-Austerity

The pro-/anti-austerity divide was particularly strong from the beginning of the crisis until the 2015 January election. Nevertheless, SYRIZA’s re-election proved that this debate has taken an interesting turn. While in opposition SYRIZA burnished its anti-bailout profile, but when in office it was forced to sign the third bailout package.  However, the difference with the previous government of New Democracy and PASOK, who favoured similar deals, was that SYRIZA ‘did not fall without fighting’. Mr Tsipras presented the failed negotiations with the European actors as the ultimate struggle against the elites who blackmailed the country. After months of discussions with Europe, several impressive talks given by the former Minister of Economics, Gianis Varoufakis, and a controversial referendum, SYRIZA appeared themselves as being left with no more weapons to fight with. The Independent Greeks also followed the same logic when signing the austerity deal. Indeed, SYRIZA’s approach to its European partners, at least at the beginning of the negotiations, seemed very different from its predecessors, who seemed more willing to accept the austerity deals. SYRIZA argued that, in the end, they were forced to sign the Memorandum and Greek people liked to hear that the new political power ‘did not give up without a fight’.

The European Issue

The pro-/anti-European divide also played an interesting role in shaping party competition since SYRIZA started growing. Although it was relatively weakened from 2010 until 2012, SYRIZA’s rise led other parties – and, most importantly, New Democracy – presenting it as an anti-European force that would put Greece’s EU and Eurozone membership in danger. This pattern was particularly evident in New Democracy’s pre-election campaign in January 2015, but also in the referendum. SYRIZA’s main opponent developed a discourse of fear in case SYRIZA won the elections and Greek voters voted against the bailout package in the referendum. In both instances, the European issue gained significant ground as parties rushed to position themselves among the pro-/anti-European and pro-/anti-drachma arguments. Nevertheless, once again SYRIZA followed what most Greek people supported. As a constantly pro-European political force, SYRIZA ended any claims that it would lead the country out of the euro by accepting the third Memorandum. In what can be considered as a particularly smart move, SYRIZA managed to sign a bailout agreement without losing its popular appeal. And this could only be achieved by a party that featured these three components: being new, presenting itself as a ‘fighter’ against Europe, and yet remaining pro-European.

Nikoleta Kiapidou is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.

Europe and the 2015 Danish election

Carina Bischoff, Flemming Juul Christiansen and Mads Dagnis Jensen

On May 27th 2015, Danish Social Democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called for general elections to be held on June 18th 2015. The government’s four-year-term was due to expire in September. Ms Thorning-Schmidt held the strategic advantage of being able to control the date. When the Social Democrats launched their campaign in early spring 2015, this was viewed as an attempt to ‘prepare the soil’ for a later electoral harvest. The campaign had two main messages. First, it was claimed that the centre-left government had led Denmark out of the economic crisis and laid the ground for a healthy economic upswing already in progress. The second message was on the topic of immigration. Analyses had shown that the question of immigration was back at the top of the electoral agenda.

In this context, the Social Democrats’ ‘pre-election’ campaign made perfect sense. It aimed to strengthen confidence that it would be ‘tough on immigration’ and thus present a viable option for the large share of voters perceiving this as a critical issue. Moreover, it sought to justify its austerity policies that had cost support in its traditional electoral base. The Social Democrats had suffered from the widespread public perception that they had failed to cash in on many of their ‘leftist’ pre-election promises.

The campaign paid off in the polls and the Social Democrats could, therefore, begin the actual election campaign with a certain momentum. They tried to frame the election as a choice between the two candidates thereby playing on the fact that a majority of the electorate, according to the polls, preferred Ms Thorning-Schmidt as prime minister rather than Lars Løkke Rasmussen from the Liberals, who served as prime minister from 2009-2011. The Social Democrats hardly missed an opportunity in the following weeks to remind voters of stories of personal expenditures covered by the public (or party) purse that had tarnished Mr Løkke Rasmussen’s personal reputation.

By contrast, the Liberals tried to put the incentives of working compared to receiving social benefits at the top of the political agenda. The Social Democrats responded by questioning the correctness of the proposed calculations and thereby indirectly tapping into the trustworthiness of the opposition leader. While Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s approval ratings descended, his largest ally in the quest for government power, the Danish People’s Party, could boast of a leader whose ratings were soaring. In fact, Kristian Thulesen-Dahl was just a few percentage points behind Ms Thorning-Schmidt in the polls as the most popular party leader. The move to attack a weak opponent may have appeared to be a solid tactic in a race where two candidates for the post of prime minister were competing for power. However, in the post-election analyses, pundits suggested that voters reacted by turning to Ms Thulesen-Dahl rather than to Ms Thorning-Schmidt. The enemy of the Social Democrats was perhaps defeated, but the enemy’s ally picked up the losses, leaving the attacker no better off than before.

During the campaign, the Social Democrats and Liberals pursued a strategy of appealing to the median voter. To a large extent, they copied each others’ policies to the point where many complained that differences were hard to detect. In addition, both parties were wary of making promises that would prove difficult to keep should they manage to gain office. Only one key issue divided the two parties: the extent to which the public sector should be allowed to grow or not. The Social Democrats advocated moderate growth of 0.6% while the Liberals supported zero growth. One of the latter’s main allies, the Danish People’s Party, did not agree with the zero growth platform, however, and cracks in the centre-right coalition were, therefore, apparent on this issue.

Denmark has a working multi-party system, but is, as just described, defined by relatively disciplined competition for government by two opposing ‘blocs’ in the run-up to elections. All parties thus pointed to either Helle Thorning-Schmidt or Lars Løkke Rasmussen as their preferred candidate for prime minister. The ‘blue bloc’ consisted of 4 parties, plus one that failed to secure parliamentary representation, and the ‘red bloc’ was composed of 5 parties.

The ‘blue bloc’ has been led by the Liberal party since the 1990s.With a new leader in place who had no previous experience in national politics, the Conservatives ran a highly profiled advertisement voicing its intent to ‘stop’ everything from crime to bureaucracy and radical Islam. The Danish People’s Party had become a ‘normal’ party and thereby crossed the Rubicon from political ‘outcast’ to responsible alliance partner. Its economic policies make the ‘red bloc’ a more obvious choice of partner, although it found more resonance for its strict immigration policies on the political right. However, the ‘immigration issue’ was less emphasized by the party this time around and more emphasis given to welfare and its own economic plan. This, combined with its leader’s agreeable style, probably explains the wider appeal of the party at this election. The latest addition to the ‘blue bloc’ was the Liberal Alliance which originated in the run-up to the 2007 elections. After a name change, a series of setbacks, internal disagreements, and leader exits and entries, it managed to define itself successfully as a party with a strong liberal stance on economic as well as on value politics. During the campaign, they were the sole advocates of significant cut backs in the welfare state, while they were joined by the Conservative party in proposing tax cuts for the highest income brackets.

The ‘red bloc’ was led by the Social Democrats, and also included the Social Liberal Party, the Socialist People’s Party, the Red-Green Alliance and, as the latest addition in this election, ‘The Alternative’. The Social Liberal Party has been the traditional king-maker of Danish politics occupying a position in the political centre. The Socialist People’s party entered government in 2011 for the first time since its formation in 1959 and virtually crashed in the process. It left the government in mid-term amid internal strife over the sale of the state owned energy company to foreign investors. A vocal critic of several of these reforms since its exit it also advocated for green growth and increasing security for children, the elderly, and the unemployed. Somewhat surprisingly, it reached an agreement with the Danish People’s Party to undo the unpopular reform of the unemployment insurance system during the campaign. The Red-Green alliance on the far left thrived under the charismatic leadership of Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen and successfully picked up voters who were disappointed with the government’s lack of leftist-oriented economic policies and its increasingly hardline positions on immigration. The ‘new kid on the bloc’ for this election was ‘The Alternative’: a party founded by a former member and government minister for the Social Liberal Party. Without a clear programme, it set out to develop its policies in open dialogue workshops across the country. Most, if not all, political pundits did not anticipate its subsequent successful entry into parliament. It did not appear to be made of the ‘stuff’ successful parties are typically made of. However, during the campaign it managed to bring a series of left-leaning economic as well as green proposals and stood out with a very different style of debating.

As usual, the EU only played a minor role in political debates. The EU question does not follow the usual left-right lines of conflict that typically dominates national elections and it is generally of low salience to Danish voters. It did manage to slip through the cracks at this election, however. The ‘blue bloc’ thus took everybody by surprise when they put forward a common proposal to work towards limiting the rights of EU migrant workers to social benefits for their families. Moreover, they expressed support for UK prime minister David Cameron’s quest for renegotiating the terms of EU British membership.

As Table 1 shows, the clear winners of the election were to be found on the political ‘wings’ and in the centre of Danish politics. The Danish People’s Party, known for its anti-immigration positions and pro-welfare stance, became the second largest parliamentary party and the largest of the centre-right coalition – and, therefore, normally the natural leader of the governing coalition. Instead, however, the decimated Liberal Party, that suffered a major defeat, was asked to take up the mantle of power. The other winners were: the Liberal Alliance, ‘The Alternative’ and the Red-Green Alliance. Parties at opposite ends of the left-right divide with one thing in common: a clear vision for the future development of the country. The losers were the ‘older’ and more pragmatic parties.

Table 1: 2015 Danish parliamentary election results 2015
% votes Seats Seat change
Social Democrats 26.3 47 +3
Danish People’s Party 21.1 37 +15
Liberal Party 19.5 34 –13
Red–Green Alliance 7.8 14 +2
Liberal Alliance 7.5 13 +4
The Alternative 4.8 9 New
Danish Social Liberal Party 4.6 8 –9
Socialist People’s Party 4.2 7 –9
Conservative People’s Party 3.4 6 –2
Christian Democrats 0.8 0 0
Independents 0.1 0
Total 100 175 0
Registered voters/turnout 85.9

Source: Danmarks Statistik (20 June, 2015)

One election night, when Helle Thorning-Schmidt accepted the consequence of her narrow 90-89 defeat, and declared her intent to resign, the only thing known to the public was that a new government would be formed among the four winning parties in the ‘blue bloc’ and would include the Liberal Party. Negotiations to form a coalition government fell apart due to differences between the four parties, especially over the EU issue. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, therefore, formed a single-party Liberal minority government with only 34 seats out of 179 in parliament. There were 17 ministers in the new government and, at only 40 pages long, the government declaration was shorter and less detailed than for previous administrations.

The new government’s control of 19 per cent of the seats makes it the second-weakest in parliamentary history. Denmark is used to minority government but most of them have controlled at least 35 per cent of the seats, and in particular the Liberal-Conservative-government enjoyed permanent support from the Danish People’s Party. Since 1982 all governments have been coalitions.

Mr Løkke Rasmussen will need all his skills as a deal-maker. On EU matters and socio-cultural issues such as immigration policy and law and order, the Liberal Party could be said to hold the pivotal position in the new parliament. The European refugee crisis puts this to the test. However, when it comes to general economic policies and reforms on the classical left/right-scale zero growth places the Liberals to right of median in parliament and, for this reason issues, may emerge where the governments will be put under pressure. The Social Democrats, however, have ruled out agreements with the Danish People’s Party without the government. Every year, the government will have to find support for its state budget. It is too early to predict whether the government will be able to survive for long. The first months in office have shown that this government that it needs to manoeuvre and find majorities from case-to-case much more than any government since the 1980s.

Dr. Carina S. Bischoff is an assistant professor at Roskilde University. Her research interests lie in the field of comparative politics where she has worked on questions related to the parties and party systems, elections and voter behaviour.

Dr. Flemming Juul Christiansen is an associate professor at Roskilde University with particular interests in how parties work together in coalitions, not least in the Danish case. That includes coalition agreements, pre-electoral coalitions, parliamentary opposition and legislative agreements.

Dr. Mads Dagnis Jensen is an associate professor at Roskilde University. His research deals with institutions and policy processes in the EU, co-ordination within and between central governments, and political systems in Europe.

The Making of Eurosceptic Britain

Chris Gifford

No longer on the margins and extremes of party politics, Euroscepticism’s ‘coming in from the cold’ (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2013) has significant implications for how we approach the subject. Sofia Vasilopoulou (2013) argues that it is time to re-think the history of European integration, viewing Euroscepticism as central to its history rather than as an aberration. Simon Usherwood and Nick Startin (2013) have called for more holistic, nuanced and interdisciplinary approaches that can address Euroscepticism’s persistence and complexity. While I was writing my new edition of The Making of Eurosceptic Britain (Ashgate 2014), I became increasingly aware that I was working in an emerging field (Eurosceptic Studies?) in which the conceptual and theoretical landscape was changing. The book hopefully contributes to this widening of the Eurosceptic lens by exploring British Euroscepticism historically, as an embedded and structural feature of British politics. Such an approach, while arguably sacrificing depth, examines and evidences continuities across time as different actors encounter situational contexts that lead them to make and remake Eurosceptic Britain.

Many of the difficulties surrounding Britain’s relationship with the EU I believe have their roots in the political struggles over membership in the 1960s and 1970s. For much of the 1950s, British elites encountered European integration as antithetical to Britain as a global power, operating in partnership with the US in pursuit of a liberal economic order. For all of the changes brought about by the post-war settlement, the state retained an outlook that was cosmopolitan and imperial rather than national and corporatist. A post-imperial crisis was a consequence of the closing stages of this regime, characterised by absolute political and relative economic decline in the face of global Fordism under Pax Americana. It was in this sense a crisis of modernisation and the ‘turn to Europe’ represented a highly contested and problematic response to this situation. It contrasted with post-war European reconstruction that successfully linked national projects of modernisation with the political and economic organisation of Western Europe.

Post-Suez the Europe option was therefore an elite strategy associated with decline and failure. For the Macmillan government it emerged as the only option for retaining some degree of British influence in the world and economic survival, as the Commonwealth option receded. When the Wilson government decided to renew the British application, it was a response to its own governing crisis in the wake of the collapse of its plan for national modernisation. Following the failure of the second application, the fragile consensus on membership that had been established across the political class fractured. By the time that the Heath government successfully negotiated membership, Britain faced chronic economic problems, industrial strife and civil war in Northern Ireland. Europe was as much about crisis management as it was about a new direction, and both main parties entered the 1970s divided on the issue. A central argument of the book is that the governing position on Europe has been as much about continuity as it has about change. In particular, it has been important in maintaining the UK as a globalised economy, re-assuring large-scale capital and the City and providing an entry point to Europe for US multinationals.

The 1970s signalled the rise of populist Euroscepticism as a political phenomenon; politicians on both the left and right were prepared to sacrifice party unity for an issue they considered to be fundamental to ‘the British people’. The first period of Eurosceptic mobilisation took place from the 1971 ‘Great Debate’ on membership, to accession and the 1975 referendum. Populist Euroscepticism is a central theme running throughout the book. I consider it to be an outcome of the post-imperial context and conceived as a broad-based, albeit fragmented, movement mobilising and configuring national and political identities. As such it transcends the mainstream party system to include: populist protest and anti-establishment parties; policy, pressure and interest groups; civil society organisations independent of political parties; and, importantly, a large segment of the national press. EU membership could not be debated without invoking the nation and ‘the people’. Europe was re-imagined by Eurosceptic forces as the ‘other’ of British political identity and interests. It was symbolically constituted as a threat to Britain’s exceptional social and political development.

Once Europe had become a populist political issue, what we find is that it was no longer contained by the party system and the capacity to establish the kind of political consensus on the issue that was evident in other member states proved impossible. This was evident in the relationship between Thatcherism and Euroscepticism. The early Thatcher governments successfully de-politicised the European issue. They exploited the budgetary issue and the drive for the single market. The Conservative leadership faced little opposition from within the party and was able to occupy the political mainstream in the face of Labour’s left-wing Euroscepticism. However, in the face of the drive for economic and monetary unification, Thatcherism was reconfigured as a right wing populist Euroscepticism that asserted a globalised free market nationalism in opposition to a regulated social Europe. The issue became fundamental and divisive within the Conservative party. The Major government struggled to maintain governing autonomy in the face of party rebellions and Eurosceptic mobilisations. Moreover, Britain’s ejection from the exchange rate mechanism reasserted a national approach to monetary policy that put paid to joining the Eurozone in the first wave. The consolidation of Thatcherism in Britain effectively marginalised the European cause in Britain. It was consistent with the identification of British patriotic and national interest with an unstable US global hegemony. The Tory Europeanism of Macmillan and Heath, also associated with a new wave of modernisers such as Heseltine and Clarke, was the main casualty of the Conservative party’s 1990s European wars.

The dominance of Euroscepticism was also evident in the failure of Labour under Blair and Brown to establish its European credentials, and the Eurosceptic nationalism that came to typify its dealings with the EU. While Labour was prepared to Europeanise policy and accept a reduced role for national governments in decision-making, this was legitimated on the belief in British leadership and influence. This was an attempt to renew the governing strategy on Europe in the guise of Third Way modernisation. While it affirmed Britain’s continued membership of the EU, it was also complicit in the reproduction of Eurosceptic Britain. This was illustrative of how British governments have not just expressed distinctive national interests in the process of European integration, but have been a vehicle for international and global projects that represent an alternative model of politico-economic development.

Labour’s attempt to remodel British-Europeanism depended upon constructing an Anglo-Europe rooted in its project of a financially-driven but progressive globalisation. This proved increasingly difficult to sustain outside of the Euro and in the face of new integrationist developments, particularly the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties. Such developments provided new opportunities for Eurosceptic mobilisations, backed by the virulent anti-Europeanism of large sections of the press, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch, which fuelled the scepticism of British public opinion. In the end the financial crisis swept away Labour’s European vision, discrediting its Third Way political economy. Meanwhile, the Eurozone crisis was successfully constituted as a threat to British economic recovery, and a dangerous experiment from which Britain must be kept apart. The ‘sinner’ states of the Eurozone provided a justification for the austerity measures of the new Coalition government.

The final substantive chapter of the book explores the Coalition government’s failure to de-politicise the European issue and turn it into a pragmatic issue of government. For the Conservative leadership, the hope was that the European Union Bill would placate Eurosceptics by putting a halt on any further integration without a referendum. This was not the case and the Eurosceptic surge that followed was consistent with the pattern that was seen in earlier mobilisations. It was an extra-parliamentary populist movement, constituted in opposition to the governing position and provided with new ammunition as the Eurozone crisis unfolded. It was particularly successful in mainstreaming the possibility of British withdrawal as a legitimate position. Notably, the low salience of EU issues for domestic public opinion was challenged by high profile concerns about immigration, as controls on the free movement Bulgarians and Romanians came to an end.

The rise of UKIP in polls and elections signalled the coming of age of an anti-establishment, Eurosceptic populism to which the Conservative leadership struggled to find a response to. The concession by Cameron of a future referendum on membership left the Conservative leadership in the unenviable position of having to achieve significant EU reform in line with British ideas of an open and flexible EU. This looked increasingly unlikely in the face of other member-states’ resistance to treaty change. Moreover, a competences review designed to provide the basis for a possible reform agenda largely supported the status quo. It demonstrated the extent to which British governance and policy had become transnational and Europeanised largely in line with the ideas of functional integration that the European founding fathers had envisaged. Nevertheless, Eurosceptic arguments for a post-exit Britain along the lines of Switzerland and Norway began to enter the public debate as serious alternatives to the governing position. British political and economic power could not be ignored by the EU, so the argument went, and would enable a successful re-negotiation on favourable terms. On this view, freed from the constraints of the EU, Britain would be able to revive its global mission by building on its connections with the Anglosphere and fully exploiting global economic opportunities. Most importantly sovereignty and British democracy would be reclaimed. The arguments were reminiscent of the reasons for keeping out of the EC in the 1950s, and implied a return to Britain’s true vocation before the fateful wrong ‘turn to Europe’.

The story of Britain and Europe perfectly illustrates the dilemmas of a post-war, post-imperial state and society that, while experiencing considerable change, remains institutionally continuous in key respects. Since the 1950s, governing elites have been suspicious of the integrationist project, largely basing their arguments for British membership on pragmatic and economic arguments. Europe only fits the British governing narrative as long as it is in line with, yet subordinate to, more fundamental strategic concerns such as Atlanticism and securing global finance. Elites have regularly asserted British exceptionalism from Europe, and have been complicit in the reproduction of Eurosceptic Britain. An instrumental Europeanism has been an insufficient basis on which to secure legitimacy in a context of declining support for mainstream parties and growing distrust of elites. A pragmatic elite strategy has therefore faced sustained attack on the basis that it is antithetical to fundamental national values and identity.

The traditional institutions of British parliamentary democracy have proved ineffective in containing the European issue, particularly when ‘the people’ are invoked against Europe. Euroscepticism has therefore been concomitant with, if not the catalyst for, a revival in the idea of popular sovereignty, evident in the campaigns for referenda. There is a certain irony that this challenge to parliamentary sovereignty has come from those on the right, who see themselves as the guardians of British institutions. Cameron’s decision to support a referendum on membership represented the success of a Eurosceptic mobilisation that had been underway since Maastricht, it also signalled the exhaustion of elite attempts to accommodate Britain to European integration as a progressive project. It provided a fitting context on which to end my book. 

Dr Chris Gifford is a political sociologist at the University of Huddersfield. His research and writing explores the impact of global and trans-national conditions on states, citizenship and politics.

The European radical left beyond Syriza – a new left-wing Zeitgeist?

Luke March 

For years now, several analysts (including me) have been proclaiming that the European radical left is on the upswing. However, reality has often confounded prognosis, with electoral dividends from the Great Recession meagre, and every success counteracted by an apparent debacle. Certainly, politically it is the right and austerity programmes that have dominated the crisis response, leading to suspicions that the radical left had passed up a perfect opportunity to exploit capitalism’s travails.

Until now. Syriza’s stunning victory in the Greek parliamentary poll saw the election of the first anti-austerity radical left government within the EU, at a time when the austerity consensus is under sustained assault from many angles. This has led to a profusion of sympathetic articles proclaiming that Syriza ‘magic equation’ will usher in a sea change in European politics, with a wave of hope transforming Europe and finally undermining TINA (Thatcher’s adage that ‘There is No Alternative’ to neo-liberalism). Not so fast! TINA has been proclaimed dead before (particularly after the 1999 Seattle protests), while if simply asserting austerity’s demise (however forcefully) were enough to transform Europe, the left would have done so long ago.

A closer focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the European radical left shows that Syriza remains exceptional and its success is unlikely to be repeated imminently anywhere else, even if activists draw specific lessons as well as inspiration. Similarly, dramatic ruptures in European politics remain remote possibilities. Nevertheless, the longer-term prospects for the radical left will continue to improve, especially if Syriza’s governing experience offers benefits both to the Greek population and the wider European left alike.

The mosaic left – from movement to mutation 

Today’s European radical left is a ‘mosaic left’ – a constellation of variegated parties/movements from motley backgrounds. There have been concerted efforts to develop common policies and networks, and, still more importantly, to bridge chasms between different ideological traditions, both in forming new electorally-focussed parties which are coalitions of different tendencies and in emphasising as never before European nuclei of common action (e.g. the European Social Forums, the GUE/NGL European Parliament [EP] group and the European Left Party). This radical left is no longer in full-blown crisis, as it was until the 2000s, and the emphasis has shifted from (eternal) fragmentation to limited fusion. There has even been a significant uptick in party performance from the mid-2000s with parties increasing their vote share by over 50% on average since the onset of the Great Recession.

Nevertheless, aggregate growth can’t conceal inconsistency. A 10% average vote share is not negligible but is much less impressive when Syriza, Latvia’s Harmony Centre (a coalition between the larger social democrats and the Latvian Socialist Party which the latter has now left) and the former Soviet bloc (where historical legacy increases party support) are excluded. The radical left tends to do better in poorer and/or smaller countries, and is regularly dwarfed by the radical right in some of the more prosperous and or larger countries (e.g. France, Italy and the UK). Iceland excepted, the Nordic countries are no longer a zone of particular strength. The performance of the radical left in the 2014 EP elections was similarly patchwork. On one hand, the GUE/NGL group was one of the winners, increasing its seat share from 4.8% to 6.9% (52 seats), becoming the largest EP radical left group since 1986, and broadening its membership to 14 countries, far beyond the Latin communist core of the 1980s and early 1990s. On the other hand, in the 1980s it held nearly 10% of EP seats. Moreover, its total is disproportionally boosted by stellar results in Greece and Spain and its current diversity encompasses regionalist and nationalist members unlikely to help build a true radical left family: the group will hardly overcome its record as one of the EP’s least cohesive groups.

More troublingly, the radical left no longer exists as a movement in the pre-1989 sense (albeit in few European countries) of strongly institutionalised parties embedded in sub-cultures with a panoply of affiliated social organisations. This is why some from the Marxist-Leninist tradition regard the radical left as still in deep crisis, summarily dismissing the achievements of what they regard as ‘left reformist’ parties with weak social bases incapable of exploiting class discontent. However, the fact remains that, for much of the last two decades, genuine protest movements have largely by-passed organised political parties, including the radical left, and even (still infused by the spirit of ‘68) seen them as ossified institutions of the ‘system’ rather than as part of the solution. Even mass demonstrations in which trade unions and parties of the left have played key roles have often failed to bring obvious electoral dividends (e.g. the anti-austerity general strikes in Portugal in 2012-3)). Exceptions to this rule are younger radical left groupuscules in Eastern Europe (e.g. Bosnia, Croatia and, above all, Slovenia, where the United Left entered parliament in 2014).

Yet even today, most European countries have some half-a-dozen competing radical left parties, usually individually miniscule but salami-slicing an already fragile vote. Several of the earlier generation of ‘broad left’ parties uniting different ideological traditions (e.g. Rifondazione Comunista, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Portuguese Left Bloc) found schismatic traditions stubbornly persistent and have foundered as a result (the former two are now on the edge of oblivion). Even some of the larger, more established parties such as the German Die Linke and Dutch Socialist Party have struggled to increase support during the crisis. Gradual moderation to increase governing perspectives has often risked disappointing more radical supporters while failing to fully convince new voters and coalition partners that they mean business, while the business community itself often weighs in heavily against the radical left and their supposedly obsolete, ‘extreme’ or ‘far left’ policies. At the same time, the radical right often benefits more than the radical left, mainly because they are more ideologically flexible and can appropriate left-wing arguments (defence of the welfare state, protection of workers) while the left often struggles to come up with a popular response to right-wing arguments. Repugnant though anti-immigration sentiment is, it can be electorally dynamic in a way that international solidarity is not.

At the same time, Syriza’s success is clearly somewhat exceptional, with a remarkably propitious combination of external and internal factors. Externally, as Stathis Kouvelakis has argued, Greece has suffered from an unprecedented, violent socio-economic cataclysm resulting in political polarisation. Nowhere else in Europe (except Ukraine, for obviously very different reasons) has experienced anything like this. Relatedly, the complete collapse of the mainstream left PASOK, because of its role in the imposition of the Troika’s policies (as well as in systemic corruption), has allowed Syriza to appropriate much of PASOK’s electoral space, activists and organisation, as well as remaining one of the few untainted parties. Although social democrats are in trouble across Europe, nowhere else is a PASOK-like implosion (yet) on the horizon.

Simultaneously, Syriza possesses something of a magic formula for radical left party success, namely: a populist ideology that projects defiance and can unite different ideological tendencies by articulating popular anger against the ‘establishment’ and a pragmatic but principled approach to power (seeking government around clear anti-austerity principles, yet downplaying maximalist demands and proving coalitionable with ideological opponents such as the Independent Greeks). In addition, the party leadership’s calibre is not lightly to be dismissed – it clearly (especially in Yanis Varoufakis) contains intelligent and charismatic individuals. Alexis Tsipras himself, although politically inexperienced, is ‘an effective leader but not a charismatic one’, presenting a solid, statesman-like quality and charm. Obviously, the leadership remains to be tested, and whether Tsipras has the stature or qualities to unite a potentially fractious party throughout future travails is unclear.

The party also has strong ties with the anti-austerity ‘Squares’ movement, which allows Syriza to present itself as a genuinely ‘new’ force, even though its antecedent parties have been around for decades. For all that, while some analysts see it as a recent product of Ernesto Laclau, or a new left populist spectre haunting the continent, although many other successful radical left parties have aspired to such qualities over the last decade or more, few have acquired all of them nor benefitted from such a unique external environment.

Sustaining the Syriza surge

It is this singularity that means that there is unlikely to be an immediate ‘Syriza surge’ elsewhere in Europe. Only in Spain, and perhaps Denmark, are we likely to see dramatic gains for the radical left in 2015 elections (although the quasi-left Sinn Féin is currently topping the Irish polls for the 2016 elections). Podemos is often portrayed as the next Syriza and, indeed, possesses some extra advantages: a more developed, populist image as the defender of popular ‘common sense’; an even more charismatic and media-friendly leader in Pablo Iglesias; a centralised party structure; organic links with the anti-austerity Indignados; and a greater authenticity as a ‘new’ force battling the corrupt establishment ‘caste’. That said, the barriers are still formidable with the Spanish Socialists much more resilient than PASOK (‘badly beaten but not defeated’), a modest economic recovery in progress, and the presence of the established United Left party likely to complicate matters further.

In the longer run Syriza’s victory can clearly have a galvanising effect elsewhere; as, indeed, it already has: Tsipras has emerged as a left-wing figurehead, leading the European Left Party in the 2014 EP elections, and inspiring a ‘Tsipras List’ to unite the fractious Italian left. But sustaining this figurehead status will depend on the longer-term performance of the Syriza government. At the time of writing this is entirely unclear as Greece and EU ‘have become stuck in a passive-aggressive standoff that has made serious negotiation impossible’. Remember that Syriza is the first anti-austerity but not the first radical left government in Europe: such parties have governed alone in Cyprus and Moldova, as well as being in coalition in several other countries during the last decade, although they have been satisfied with meagre adjustments to the neo-liberal status quo. If Syriza manages to gain even limited respite from Greece’s debt burden that allows it to soften domestic conditions and contributes to rolling back austerity elsewhere, then this will be a comparative victory that can contribute to a credibility breakthrough for the radical left, and its increased inclusion in governmental calculations elsewhere. Such an outcome is devoutly wished by many, not just on the radical left: the prestigious US Foreign Affairs journal, hardly a bastion of Marxism, even called on the EU to make ‘some sort of deal with Syriza’, and (unlike many analyses) saw the radical left as a lesser evil than the radical right. On the other hand, if the EU continues playing hardball and the ‘Grexit’ scenario or a complete Syriza capitulation ensue, these risk undermining almost all Syriza’s achievements to date and reinforcing the mainstream view of the radical left as an economic pariah or juvenile. Consequently, the radical right may be the chief beneficiary, not least in Greece itself.

That said, the longer-term opportunities for the radical left will remain brighter than for decades. After all, support for radical left parties is scarcely negligible in Europe now and, whereas one obviously cannot directly extrapolate party success from individual level data, the potential vote for such parties is considerably greater than their achieved success. Even in a notionally ‘post-austerity’ Europe, inequality, poverty and corruption will scarcely be dormant issues. And whatever Syriza’s actual policy achievements, its electoral performance demonstrates a ‘success formula’ of populism, principle and pragmatism that other parties may emulate more explicitly than before. If we add in the stirrings of radical left protest in Eastern Europe, then Syriza will be the first but not the last party of the anti-austerity left to gain power in Europe.

Luke March is Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics at the University of Edinburgh and author of Radical Left Parties in Europe (Routledge, 2011).