Eurosceptic effect at the European Parliament: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament
In May 2014, the European Parliament elections revealed a rising tide of Euroscepticism across the EU. Here in the UK, this was most obviously manifested by the success of UKIP, which became the first party other than Labour or the Conservatives to win a national election since 1906.
Despite their success, the Eurosceptic parties are unlikely to be cohesive or sizeable enough to effect any material change to policymaking in the European Parliament on their own.
However, other parties in the Parliament, other EU institutions, and national Governments may still wish to respond to the expression of discontent with the EU project among such a significant proportion of the electorate.
Aside from UKIP, the 2014 elections saw significant gains for France's National Front, which won 24 of 74 seats, becoming the largest French party in the European Parliament.
Further still to the Right, Golden Dawn, whose leader denies the Holocaust, won three of Greece's 21 seats. Germany, meanwhile, got its first neo-Nazi MEP.
While the Eurosceptic turn predominantly benefited parties on the Right, there were gains for other parties too: the Finns Party, which won two of Finland's 13 seats, is heavily nationalist, yet espouses left-wing economic policies.
In Italy, meanwhile, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement won 17 of the country's 73 seats.
The results illustrate that Euroscepticism comes in many flavours and strengths across the continent. The nature of parties' scepticism differs too. Some, like UKIP, seek complete withdrawal from the EU; others merely wish to ensure that the EU's powers are prevented from expanding further.
Just as no Eurosceptic party is alike, there is no single factor which can explain their electoral success. The countries where Eurosceptic parties made gains in 2014 range from crisis-stricken Eurozone members (such as Greece), to those outside the Eurozone and doing rather better (Denmark and the UK).
To confound matters further, Spain, a Eurozone member under an austerity programme with an unemployment rate over 20%, did not elect any Eurosceptic MEPs.
In general terms, the rise of Euroscepticism is likely to reflect dissatisfaction or loss of faith in the EU project. This is supported by polling data showing a rise in distrust of the EU (Chart 2).
In the Eurozone, this may have been exacerbated by the response to the euro crisis, which in the view of some has seen the EU cross lines of national sovereignty. In creditor countries like Germany, many fear they will have to accept higher inflation and taxes as a price for saving the euro.
In debtor countries like Greece, the European Commission and ECB have demanded wide-ranging changes to economic and social policy as a condition of assistance.
Another consequence of the euro crisis is that the interests of the Eurozone periphery and its core have appeared increasingly opposed: in such an environment, the nationalist message may appear more relevant.
European politics – business as usual?
The effect of the result depends partly on whether the common ground of Euroscepticism is sufficient for the disparate parties to coalesce into an organised force in the European Parliament.
The voting records of the 2009 European Parliament suggest that Eurosceptic parties do not have a great deal in common on other issues.
However, even on the occasions when Eurosceptic parties do compromise and coalesce, they will remain heavily outnumbered by pro-EU groups, which control 70% of the seats in the European Parliament. The other parties can, at least in a numerical sense, afford to ignore the Eurosceptics.
National politics – implicit influence
The extent to which the shift towards Euroscepticism will be replicated in domestic politics is difficult to gauge. European elections have traditionally seen a larger “protest vote” than national elections.
Their success in national legislatures may also be diluted by non-proportional voting systems: in France, for instance, the runoff system for Presidential elections means that even though the National Front is the largest French party in the European Parliament, no candidate from that party is likely to be a serious contender for the Presidency in the near future.
The real influence of the Eurosceptic parties may instead come indirectly, by spurring national governments to take a more sceptical stance than they otherwise would.
After the strong performance of the Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament elections, national leaders may well be more wary of lending support to integrationist EU policies for fear that success is replicated at home.