Dissipation, redirection and staying true: What future for Euroscepticism in the UK?

Simon Usherwood

At a first cut, the 23 June referendum result has been the clearest possible vindication of the many years of concerted action by British Eurosceptics: on a high turnout, a majority of people voted to leave the EU, even if many of them wouldn’t have particularly described themselves as Eurosceptics. The result has opened up a new path, out of the Union and into some new situation. Even if we don’t know what that situation might be, the mere knowledge of its existence will prove to be an attractive lure for others.

And yet, in this moment of triumph there is a serious question for the British Eurosceptic movement: what is it for?

For the quarter century since the Maastricht treaty, which crystallised critical British attitudes into a constellation of groups, there has been the critique – something’s wrong with the EU – and a solution – reform or exit that organisation. Now that the country is indeed exiting, both the casual observer and the academic scholar might ask: what happens next. Does the movement continue, change or die?

Some context

Before we can answer this question, it’s helpful to set out some context, of how the UK arrived at this place and where this place is.

In many ways the UK has been the wellspring of Euroscepticism. This was the country that invented the very word, back in the 1980s, and saw the creation of the very first modern Eurosceptic groups at the end of that decade, building off Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech. The Maastricht treaty provided further mobilisation opportunities, with a raft of groups from across the political spectrum being formed and creating the basis for a much more critical political space in the UK for discussing European integration.

Aided and abetted by a print press willing to give a platform to these groups and a succession of governments not prepared to go beyond reactive problem/crisis management with regard to the EU, Eurosceptics were able to set public agendas to a very considerable extent, even if their power to make decisions remained very limited.

This last point is an important one, especially given the claims made by the likes of Nigel Farage after the referendum. For all the media attention that more focused, single-issue Eurosceptics received, it was those political actors for whom Euroscepticism was only one part of their make-up who actually shaped the political trajectory vis-à-vis the EU. The path to the referendum is a case in point.

The pressure from the 2000s on for popular referendums to underpin treaty reforms came from a broad spectrum, from those keen to build a stronger EU through to those wishing to slow or stop it. In the UK, the election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party in 2005 and his backtracking on a referendum on Lisbon once it made into force in 2009 provided a clear opportunity for his backbenches to pressure him towards every more critical positions on the EU.

That pressure came from a number of sources. The rise of UKIP from the late 2000s onwards had made some in the Tory party nervous that their voter base was at risk. But just as important were factors more internal to the Conservatives: the growing number of new MPs for whom Euroscepticism was a visceral part of their political being, drawing on a very-oversimplified image of Margaret Thatcher as an unbending critic of European integration.

All of this points to a number of key conclusions that we need to keep in mind as we consider the future possibilities.

Firstly, Euroscepticism is clearly shaped by the context within which it operates. It is not the main driver of political or social change, but rather a marker of other forces, notably around dissatisfaction and disengagement, nationalism and identity politics, economic and social marginalisation.

Secondly, there is no ‘Euroscepticism’, only Euroscepticisms. There is no positive ideological core to this phenomenon, only the negative one of disliking some aspect of European integration. Instead, we find conservatives and socialists, greens and liberals, racists and libertarians all using their ideological bases to justify their attacks on the EU. Those who consider the EU to be the whole problem and the sole problem can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Thirdly, and very much as a function of the first two points, Euroscepticism is contingent. As I have argued before, this does not mean that it is ephemeral, but rather that while it provides a convenient proxy for other discontents, it has achieved sufficient critical mass to transcend those specific discontents. Maybe the most useful analogy is of a relay team, passing the baton from one to the next: however, this is a relay with no course or specific finish line.

Three paths for British Eurosceptics

With this in mind, we might discern three main paths that the current Eurosceptic movement might move down. This is based on both the constellation of actors involved and the changing opportunity structures that present themselves. In particular, it recognises that with the securing of a Brexit majority in the referendum, we have now moved into a fundamental different situation.

This matters because it would appear to remove the key objective of the movement and thus the source of much of the mobilisation that has occurred. That mobilisation has three main elements, roughly equivalent to the point at which individuals became mobilised. 

The ephemeral newcomers

The most recent supporters – those who only came to matters as a result of the referendum campaign – are arguably the least engaged with the issue of European integration. While they might have been active in the Leave campaign, for many this was primarily an opportunistic move to register discontent, either with the EU or with something else, such as the government.

If we take a working assumption that 37% of the UK’s adult population (the 52% majority on the 71.8% turnout) is not completely dissatisfied with the political system – and that would seem to be supported by the outcome of the 2015 general election – then we would expect these recent Eurosceptics to disappear back into the general population. As I noted in a previous piece, there are serious questions – both political and academic – about whether the Leave campaign could really be described as Eurosceptic, but even if we take a generous view, we would still anticipate that the passing of the moment will see some activists being lost to the movement. The obvious category of people here would be those who now regret their choice in June. 

The ideological masses

The second – and probably largest – group of Eurosceptics are those of more long standing, individuals who have been interested in the issue for some time and who might well have joined a pressure group or political party prior to 2015. For them, the European issue is more central to their political make-up, but probably still only part of their political identity.

As we know from various studies, even the most obvious destination for these people, UKIP, is a very broad church, in ideological terms. The party has no core ideology, only a shared negative of disliking the EU and, more latterly, of uncontrolled immigration. This breadth is seen in the various polls that have shown a small minority of UKIP supporters voting Remain, to take a more egregious example.

That breadth is seen across the Eurosceptic movement; indeed, it partly explains why there have been so many groups formed over the past 25 years – there is as much to divide as to unite. Thus, all political parties have their sceptics, as do trade unions, businesses and the rest. The organisational churn that has characterised the movement throughout its history will undoubtedly continue.

However, in the changed context of Brexit, we might expect that the force and effort of this second group will become redirected. This follows a logic of “we’ve won this one, so on to the next fight, to achieve our goals”. Here you can take your pick about where the next fight might be, but we can offer some obvious locations.

English nationalism has been highlighted by several as a very strong proxy for Euroscepticism and in the context of a revived Scottish independence movement the notion of enhancing (or even simply protecting) England’s place in the United Kingdom will become a more pressing issue. Add to this the scope for Northern Irish discontent over the reconstitution of the peace accords following Brexit and there is even more potential for Englishness to occupy a more central position in political debate. It touches on many of the same nexus of issues as Euroscepticism: representation, proximity of decision-making, group identity and ‘fairness’.

The immigration issue also still has much life in it, and even as the European dimension moves away from its current central position, there will be substantial pressures to keep the broader question alive. The likely persistence of high levels of immigration, whatever the regime for EU nationals, and the continued lack of central government policy to tackle the resolution of migration-related problems will provide a fertile ground for both more nativist and more moderate expressions of displeasure and concern. UKIP made use of this in their expansion since the mid-2000s, and any new leader of the party might decide that this is their best bet for continued relevance.

Finally, we might imagine that if there is a split in the Labour party between the Corbynistas and what used to be New Labour, then there is potential for a general reshaping of the party political system in the UK. In this scenario, the main cleavage would be between liberal cosmopolitans and more reactionary elements. This would offer new opportunities for members of this section of the Eurosceptic movement to move more fully into the party political system, again influenced by their ideological preferences. 

The true believers

The final group of Eurosceptics to consider are those for whom the EU is their sole focus. This includes the most long-standing individuals and those who have chosen to devote all of their energies to this one cause. Almost by definition, it is the smallest of the three segments we consider here, but it is also the most obdurate and determined.

Some years ago, I wrote about this group as the rock in the sand, the stable base around which others have built their efforts. For them, the EU is either all that they care about, or is so consuming that they must see things through to the very end.

With that in mind, we would expect that this group will be in the vanguard of policing Brexit negotiations, stopping any backsliding in either overt or covert manner by the government. They have been the ones who have pushed hardest in the movement for speedy Article 50 notification, who have defended the result of the referendum most heartily, who have the most detailed plans of how to move through this phase to a new situation and who will still be on this issue when most others have gone. Indeed, they will be the core of any post-Brexit anti-EU group that will be set up – much on the lines of Norway’s Nei til EU – to ensure that the UK does not drift back into the EU’s orbit.

Concluding thoughts

The British Eurosceptic movement is a creature of its age. Its formation and evolution have followed and – to some degree – shaped the changing landscape of British politics. It is this basic characteristic that has informed this quick overview and which will be borne out by whatever actually comes to pass.

These changes again offer an excellent opportunity for us to consider what ‘Euroscepticism’ actually means (if anything) and to consider the subtle and wide-reaching effects that it has on the domestic and European political order. We stand at a crucial point in the development of Euroscepticism, as one country has chosen a path out of the Union and Eurosceptics elsewhere have to make decisions about whether this is a path worth following. Even if British Eurosceptics are unlikely to be the force that they once were, they might still find themselves role-models for many across the continent.

Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and currently a Senior Fellow in the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme.

The June 2016 Spanish elections: stabilizing party system change?

Luis Ramiro

The June 26th 2016, Spanish legislative elections were won by the incumbent People’s Party (Partido Popular: PP), in office since 2011 (see Table 1). The social democrat Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE) was the second largest party but at a considerable distance from the winner. The left-wing coalition United We Can (Unidos Podemos: UP), formed by the radical left United Left (Izquierda Unida: IU) and the populist radical left Podemos (We Can) – to which we can add three regional electoral alliances in which these two parties took part jointly with left-wing peripheral nationalist parties in Catalonia (En Comú Podem), Galicia (En Marea) and Comunidad Valenciana (A la Valenciana) – got the third place, only less than 2% behind the PSOE.

The other post-2008 crisis new nation-wide party, the centre-right Citizens (Ciudadanos) finished fourth. Among the very significant peripheral nationalist parties, the results confirmed patterns already apparent previously: the weakening of the radical left Basque nationalist Bildu formerly associated in different ways and degrees to the ETA terrorist group; the stable weight of the moderate centre-right Basque nationalism of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco: PNV); and the change in the balance within the Catalan nationalism, with the centre-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya: CDC) behind the centre-left Catalan Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya: ERC). However, the June elections were supposed to contribute to the clarification of several political issues of the greatest importance but, as will be explained, they left almost all these key questions without a clear answer.

Table 1. 2015 and 2016 Spanish general elections results (main parties): share of votes and number of MPs (in brackets)

  December 2015 June 2016
PP 28.7 (123) 33 (137)
PSOE 22 (90) 22.7 (85)
Citizens 13.9 (40) 13.1 (32)
Podemos/regional alliances 20.7 (69) 21 (71)
IU 3.7 (2)
ERC 2.4 (9) 2.6 (9)
CDC 2.2 (8) 2 (8)
PNV 1.2 (6) 1.2 (5)
Bildu 0.9 (2) 0.8 (2)

Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerio del Interior).

The June 2016 elections were called after the December 2015 elections produced a hung parliament and the parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government. During the months that followed the previous poll, during which the negotiations were expected to take place, the parties soon reached a stalemate that, amidst mutual vetoes, proved to be durable and permanent. The incumbent PP, aware of the difficulties of rallying a majority around it, somewhat surprisingly declined to even try to negotiate an agreement. The PSOE reached an agreement with the center-right Ciudadanos that required the support of the populist radical left Podemos. Yet, Podemos was not willing to support an agreement in which Ciudadanos took part. The PSOE did not accept the alternative agreement proposed by Podemos because it required the support of peripheral nationalist parties and the acceptance of independence referendums for some regions (as the Catalan allies of Podemos, En Comú Podem, strongly defended); and Ciudadanos explicitly rejected any agreement that included Podemos. The first key political issues that the June 2016 elections were expected to clarify were, therefore, whether the new elections would produce a result that would made government formation any easier, and the ensuing implications in terms of potential punishment and rewards for parties’ behaviour during the failed post-election government formation negotiations.

From this point of view, the June election results were far from conclusive. In a country where coalition governments have only (although very often) occurred at regional and local government levels, the allocation of seats pointed again towards a new hung parliament in which government formation would be far from straightforward. The PP improved its result compared to December 2015, both in terms of the share of the votes and number of MPs, despite its passive role during the government formation negotiations. The new centre-right party, Ciudadanos, lost ground. The PSOE slightly improved its share of the votes but saw its number of MPs reduced again. The poor Ciudadanos and PSOE results made the previous attempts by these two parties to form a minority government a very unlikely endeavour. UP maintained its number of MPs gained separately by IU and Podemos in December 2015, but their share of the votes fell well below the sum of what these two parties and their regional alliances had obtained then.

In this context, the clear winner of the elections, the PP, was forced to search for a very difficult agreement involving Ciudadanos and PSOE. In this way, compared to December the PP strengthened its position, though not greatly, and Ciudadanos and the PSOE were forced to a more secondary and subordinate role. UP can only repeat the strategy of appealing to a ‘progressive’ alliance with the PSOE that was unsuccessful after the December election and now faces the same, unresolved arithmetic and political problems, but with the two left-wing parties in an even weaker position. The PP’s passive role after the December elections appeared to be rewarded by the voters as a result of the unsuccessful maneuvers of the PSOE and Ciudadanos to form a minority government.

The second key political issue at stake in the June 2016 election was linked to the party system change that has been taking place in Spain since the start of the economic crisis. This has been clearly and dramatically visible since the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections and, wholly articulated by the December 2015 elections results, has involved the severe weakening of the previously hegemonic position of the two larger parties (PSOE and PP), the weakening of the traditional or established radical left (IU), the rise of a centre-right party previously active only in Catalonia to a new role of nation-wide medium-sized party (Ciudadanos), and the forceful growth of a new populist radical left party (Podemos) that has been able to challenge the balance of power within the Spanish left. The June 2016 elections confirmed this new party system format with four big players. This was probably because the new elections took place only after six months after the previous ones but also consolidated the new party politics dynamics of post-2008 Spain.

These party political dynamics were the third key aspect emerging from the June 2016 elections. Besides the most prominent issue of government formation, two very relevant party competition issues were at stake. First, the competition in the centre-right political space between a new party, Ciudadanos, and the incumbent PP finally favored the latter. After the powerful showing of Ciudadanos in the December 2015 election the June one meant a significant strengthening of the incumbent PP and a weakening of the new party. Second, after the sky-rocketing results of the populist radical left Podemos in almost every election since 2014, the polls before the June 2016 elections indicated that it was going to overcome the PSOE as the main left-wing party. The Podemos-IU coalition (UP), jointly with their regional alliances, was apparently ahead of PSOE. However, as already happened in the December 2015 elections when Podemos did not reach its original extremely ambitious goal of winning, this time the expectations were also un-fulfilled. The coalition did not persuade or mobilize enough previous IU and Podemos voters and, as a consequence, its share of votes was well below what IU and Podemos had gained separately in December. UP did not win the elections and did not even overcome the PSOE as the largest party on the left. After a campaign in which the worst scenarios for the PSOE (a further decrease in its share of votes, becoming only the third largest party, and falling behind UP in popular support) were considered most likely, they were finally averted.

Finally, a fourth key political issue at stake in the June 2016 Spanish elections was of a more general and broader nature. It refers to the lessons that these elections leave us in terms of the post-2008 economic crisis elections in Europe. The elections after the 2008 crisis have very often resulted in: the electoral punishment of incumbents, the appearance of new parties, the rise of new populist contenders, and, in sum, significant party system changes. Spain certainly was a good candidate to show every one of these elements given that it was one of the hardest hit countries in the 2008 Great Recession. In Spain the very severe economic crisis, including hardly bearable unemployment levels, was soon followed by a political crisis, expressed through increased dissatisfaction and negative opinions of mainstream parties by citizens. The political crisis included recurrent cases of political corruption affecting above all the centre-right PP.

In a certain sense, Spanish politics lived through a perfect storm, and the expected consequences of such a crisis soon were fully visible. The incumbent PSOE was punished for its austerity policies in the first Great Recession election in 2011, successively the incumbent PP was punished in the 2015 elections also due to the continuation of austerity policies, a new centre-right party aiming at political regeneration, Ciudadanos, appeared to increase its public support rapidly, and a new populist radical left party, Podemos, achieved astonishing electoral successes in the 2015 and 2016 general elections. The mainstream parties saw their support severely weakened and the two new entrants on the right and left of the ideological spectrum introduced a party system change of seismic dimensions.

However, interestingly enough the electoral and political earthquake did not reach ‘Greek’ dimensions in the Spanish case. Some noteworthy elements should be mentioned in relation to this. The centre-right PP and centre-left PSOE maintained their positions as the two largest nationwide parties (although the latter by a very small margin), and the new actors were not able to win an election or to replace them. The PP was able to win the 2015 and 2016 elections, improving its results in the latter, despite the implementation of painful austerity policies and the bail out of the financial sector. In this sense, Spain joined the not-very-numerous group of West European countries where the incumbent was able to win the elections despite the electoral impact of the economic crisis.

Spain also showed that the joint effect of economic and political crises causes critical electoral and party system changes, as the historic decrease in support for the PP and PSOE shows. However, Podemos’ hopes of repeating the Greek Syriza experience in Spain and winning office (or being close to it) – or at least overcoming the PSOE as the largest left-wing party – were possibly unwarranted. In the December 2015 elections, although still tainted by the austerity implemented in its 2008-2011 term, the PSOE maintained its status as the second (and largest left-wing) party, and in the June 2016 elections, confronted by an even more threatening left-wing coalition headed by IU and Podemos, it was able to maintain its position. The challenger parties, and above all Podemos, could not repeat the success of Syriza in Greece despite the PSOE’s discredit in the absence of some of the Greek contextual conditions. These included a centre-left party that was not only delegitimized by the austerity policies that it implemented but also by its alliances with what some voters considered unacceptable government partners.

Finally, the Spanish June 2016 elections also showed an interesting feature in relation to EU politics and policies. Contrary to what has happened in some European countries in which the crisis has produced the rise of populist and challenger parties with strong anti-EU views, in the Spanish case the new actors still navigate within the limits of a broad pro-European integration consensus. Even Podemos and UP only display what could be at most considered as soft Euroscepticism. The de-legitimization of national elites and EU actors has not translated into a rejection of the European integration project in Spain.

Luis Ramiro is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester where he specializes in party politics.

The Greens in the European Parliament: an overview

Nathalie Brack and Camille Kelbel

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

Graph 1: EP Groups Cohesiveness in Roll Call Votes

Graph1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Webb

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

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

The context and the campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results

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

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

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

Reactions and ramifications

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

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

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

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

Constitutional reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dutch Ukraine-referendum: campaign, results and aftermath

Saskia Hollander and Stijn van Kessel

In a referendum on 6 April 2016, 61% of Dutch voters who participated in the poll rejected the ratification of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. After the referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005, this was the second time in modern history that the Dutch voted in a national referendum. It was also the second time that the Dutch pulled the emergency brake when it comes to EU affairs. The referendum campaign failed to foster a well-informed public debate about the subject matter, and the outcome is unlikely to lead to substantial revisions in the agreement.

The Dutch referendum law

The referendum on the EU-Ukraine agreement constituted a newly acquired democratic right. Since July 2015, Dutch citizens have the possibility to initiate a corrective referendum (that is, a citizens’ veto) on legislative proposals approved by parliament. Referendums organised under the Dutch referendum law are advisory and a turnout quorum of 30% applies. Thus, citizens can trigger a referendum to *advise* the government to withdraw a legislative proposal, but the authorities only need to *consider* the outcome when 30% of voters participate in the poll.

The new referendum law signifies a break with the past: for a long time, the Netherlands was one of the few EU countries without formal regulations for holding national referendums. In comparative perspective, the Dutch referendum law is exceptional: the Netherlands is the only EU country where citizen-initiated referendums are advisory and where a quorum applies to advisory referendums. This design is due to the difficult process through which it came into being.

Proposals to introduce a referendum were consistently opposed by the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberals (VVD), two of the three traditionally dominant parties in the Netherlands – the third being the Labour Party (PvdA). In 2005, after a second parliamentary rejection of a government bill to introduce binding citizens’ vetoes, MPs from three left-wing/socially liberal parties (Labour, GroenLinks and D66) filed two alternative proposals: one to introduce a binding citizens’ veto, and one to introduce an advisory version. It took almost 10 years for the bills to be voted on in parliament. After the approval of both bills by the Dutch Upper House in 2014, the advisory referendum came into effect in July 2015. The bill on the binding veto, on the other hand, required a constitutional revision, and therefore awaits approval in both Houses by a qualified majority in the second parliamentary reading, which is due to take place after the 2017 parliamentary election.

The initiators made several compromises to ensure the support of sufficient parties for the advisory referendum, and thus the passing of the proposal. These included the introduction of a turnout quorum and the guarantee that referendums could also be held on international treaties. As turned out, the devil is exactly in these compromises.

The birth of the ‘Ukraine referendum’

Soon after the referendum law came into effect, the Eurosceptic citizens’ movement GeenPeil, together with the Citizens’ Committee-EU (Burgercomité-EU) and the Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie), was able to collect more than 400,000 valid signatures, exceeding the required 300,000, for an initiative that would trigger a referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The initiative was motivated by concerns related to ongoing European integration and the EU’s democratic deficit, not the association agreement as such. GeenPeil declared that it opposed the EU’s expansionist aspirations, even though the agreement did not touch on the question of a possible EU membership of Ukraine. Notably, in an interview in late March the chairman of the Citizens’ Committee-EU declared that his organisation ‘didn’t care about Ukraine’ and that its ultimate goal was to ‘destroy the EU’, or force a Dutch ‘exit’ from the EU.

The debate

As with the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the referendum sparked considerable public debate in the run-up to the vote. Although the initiators may primarily have used the instrument to place on the agenda the broader issue of European integration, the public debate largely focused on the perceived benefits and flaws of the association agreement. An often-repeated argument on the ‘against’ side was that political and economic integration with a corrupt country like Ukraine was undesirable. Arguments in favour of the agreement often centred on the moral duty to help the transition of Ukraine to a full-fledged democracy – as previously happened with regard to post-communist EU members – and the desire to pull the country out of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Of the political parties represented in the Dutch parliament, only the Socialist Party (SP), Freedom Party (PVV) and the single-issue Party for the Animals (PvdD) campaigned on the ‘no’ side, albeit for different reasons. For the Socialist Party, the association agreement underscored the EU’s neoliberal aspirations, and the party stressed that essentially only large companies would benefit from it, at the expense of the ordinary Ukrainian and EU citizens. The Freedom Party argued that the agreement would eventually lead to the accession of a corrupt country to the EU and an influx of Ukrainian immigrants. Moreover, according to the party, a popular rejection of the agreement would also signal a rejection of the ‘elites’ in Brussels. The Party for the Animals, in its turn, opposed the agreement on the grounds that EU trade agreements supposedly lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in animal welfare standards. All other Dutch political parties were in favour of the agreement, stressing that it would benefit Ukrainian democracy, economy and, thus, its citizens. Nevertheless, only D66 actively campaigned on the ‘Yes’ side’.

Although the referendum generated a public debate, it was hardly an informed one. This was unsurprising given the lengthy and technical nature of the agreement. The problems surrounding the distribution of campaign money further hampered a well-informed debate. For example, an organisation was granted almost €48,000 in campaign money to print toilet paper with false arguments against the agreement, such as the suggestions that Ukrainians would be allowed to work in the EU without a visa, and that no women were represented in Ukrainian politics. Moreover, the questionable assumption that the agreement was the first step towards Ukrainian EU membership was not truly defused.

The vote

The results of the referendum signified a resounding victory for the ‘no’ camp: 61% of those who turned out voted against the association agreement, 38% voted in favour. Whether this result accurately represented the views of the entire Dutch electorate is a moot point: only 32% of the eligible voters took the effort to vote. This only slightly exceeded the 30% required to make the result valid. Polls indicate that many voters who essentially supported the agreement abstained strategically, in the hope that the quorum would not be met, thereby skewing the eventual results.

The referendum proved to be a case of history repeating itself. As in 2005, about two-thirds of those who turned out voted against a piece of EU-related legislation, and against the wishes of a great majority of Dutch MPs. A poll conducted by Ipsos revealed that in particular the two governing parties failed to persuade their electorates to act in accordance with their wishes: 62% of Liberal voters voted against, while almost 80% per cent of Labour voters abstained. As in 2005, the referendum also exposed an educational gap. According to the same Ipsos poll, especially better-educated voters voted in favour of the agreement. Yet, of this group a considerable proportion of 64% abstained. Most less well-educated voters either voted against the agreement or stayed at home.

Considering the highly complex subject matter, and the related lack of knowledge among most voters, it is not realistic to claim that the referendum outcome reflected a well-informed assessment of the costs and benefits of the EU-Ukraine treaty. The results are more likely a proxy for the prevailing Eurosceptic and anti-establishment sentiments among the Dutch population.

Uncertainty about the referendum’s implications…

The popular rejection of the EU-Ukraine agreement by no means implies withdrawal of the Dutch signature. Prior to the referendum, the Dutch government – currently holding the EU presidency – had not made it clear what it would do in case the Dutch voters would ‘advise’ the authorities to put halt to ratification. The referendum law prescribes that the Dutch government needs to make clear its position (whether or not to proceed with ratification) as soon as possible. After the vote, however, the government asked parliament permission to postpone its decision. In response, the Socialist Party filed a motion that demanded the government to respect the outcome of the referendum and to withdraw the Dutch ratification. This motion was supported by the entire opposition – with elections upcoming in spring 2017 this was ostensibly a good opportunity to embarrass the government. Yet the two governing parties, which have a small majority in the Lower House, supported the government’s plea to negotiate with the other 27 EU member countries about the implications of the Dutch ‘No’.

In the meantime, some parts of the agreement that deal with trade regulations have already come into effect in January 2016. To annul these provisions in retrospect requires the approval of all 28 member states. This, or a complete renegotiation of the agreement, is highly unlikely to happen, given the fact that the agreement has already been approved by the other EU member states and Ukraine. These countries have little appetite for renegotiations, and are unlikely to accept one country bringing to a halt the ratification process. The EU, moreover, faces other problems of seemingly greater importance and urgency, including the looming Brexit-referendum. It remains unclear for the moment how the Dutch government will attempt to please the ‘No’ voters – other than asking for symbolic changes or silently letting the issue slip off the political agenda. In a meeting with MPs from EU countries on the 13th of June, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Liberals) did little to defend the referendum outcome, which he described as ‘disastrous’. He further declared himself to be ‘totally, totally, totally against referenda on multilateral agreements, because it makes no sense’.

Essentially, it is unlikely that the no-voters will be satisfied. If the referendum outcome indeed proves inconsequential, the main result will probably be the fuelling of further scepticism with the Dutch and European political elites, who can be blamed for ignoring ‘the voice of the people’. Such scepticism is likely to come to the fore again in a possible referendum on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), for which citizens’ groups are already gathering signatures.

…and about the Dutch referendum law

The referendum has sparked considerable debate about the value of the instrument in general, and specific aspects of the referendum law in particular. One day after the vote, Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk announced an evaluation of the law. Any changes to the law will likely see either the abolition or the increase of the widely criticised quorum. The second option is more likely, considering that the three traditionally dominant parties (Liberals, Christian Democrats and Labour) supported the introduction of a quorum when the law was introduced. Another possibility is to replace the advisory citizens’ referendum with the binding version, which awaits approval by parliament in the second parliamentary reading. However, the bitter taste of this referendum for the mainstream political parties, which were all in favour of the EU-Ukraine agreement, suggests that the bill on the binding citizens’ veto is awaiting an uncertain fate.

Saskia Hollander has recently submitted her doctoral thesis on the use of referendums in Europe at the Radboud University Nijmegen. She is knowledge broker and coordinator of the Inclusive Economy programme at The Broker, a Dutch thinknet on globalisation and development.

Stijn van Kessel is Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University. His current research mainly focuses on populism in Europe and radical right party discourse. He is the author of Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent? (2015).

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

Yiannos Katsourides

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

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

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

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

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

Lacklustre campaign

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

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

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

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

Winners and losers

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

Table 1: Results of the May 2016 Cyprus parliamentary election

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

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

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

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

What do these elections tell us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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