Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom have announced that they intend to form a ‘Eurosceptic alliance’ in the European Parliament after the 2014 European elections. Duncan McDonnell writes that while the overall picture in the European elections will see Eurosceptic parties make gains in their overall vote share, they will have a fairly limited impact in the Parliament itself. He argues that the real threat to European integration is not a large Eurosceptic vote, but the potential for a low turnout brought about through general apathy toward the EU among ordinary voters.
With one month to go until the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections, the candidates have been chosen, the posters printed and the media interpretation of the results (probably) decided. “A wake-up call for Europe”, “Euroscepticism triumphs”, “Europe’s populist revolt” and the inevitable “Return of the far-right in Europe” are the types of headline I expect to see on opinion pieces in the last days of May.
Certainly, the great and the good of the international media have been rehearsing their lines for long enough. Both The Guardian and the The New York Times ran op-eds best described as misguided in November 2013 about how the far-right was supposedly on the march once again across Europe. Likewise, The Economist dedicated a whole special section in January 2014 to the apparently sudden rise of Europe’s “populist insurgents”.
My favourite line from The New York Times piece (by Federico Finchelstein and Fabián Bosoeris) is “many fear that the European Parliament may be at risk of a right-wing populist takeover following elections in May 2014”. Finchelstein and Bosoeris don’t tell us who “many” is, which is probably just as well for the unnamed “many”, given that there is no chance whatsoever of this actually happening. Nor, as claimed by John Palmer in The Guardian, has the post-2008 economic crisis in Europe caused a clear and uniform rise of the far-right – see Cas Mudde’s fine piece here debunking that particular myth. And nor is there anything particularly new in Europe about populist parties doing well. They have been increasing their share of the vote for the past two decades.
All the above notwithstanding, 2014 will indeed almost certainly be a “Eurosceptic success” since the total Eurosceptic vote is likely to reach its highest level to date. The key point though here is that we are talking about a “total vote”, not that of a single, unified block. Euroscepticism does not denote a homogenous ideological category or a single party family. Rather, it encompasses parties not only of the radical Left and Right, but also environmental and conservative ones – most of which would not entertain the idea of sitting alongside one another simply due to some shared Eurosceptic beliefs.
Indeed, one party’s Euroscepticism may be very different from another’s. The term includes a vast range of conflicting positions on Europe – from left-wing parties which denounce the EU’s pro-market policies to right-wing ones which condemn the loss of national sovereignty; from parties which are critical of the EU’s current direction and want to change it (but deem integration a fundamentally good idea), to those that reject European integration as a ruinous elite-driven project which should be quickly abandoned.
Runners and riders
Their many differences aside, who are the Eurosceptic runners and riders worth keeping an eye on over the next month? Looking at the surveys on the excellent Metapolls website, a number of interesting races stand out for me. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party is very impressively leading the pack with around a quarter of the vote (having finished fourth in the 2009 EP election), while in Italy the Five-Star Movement may improve on its spectacular February 2013 debut general election result of 25.6 per cent – leaving those commentators who foolishly predicted it would decline after poor local election results last year with a lot of egg on their faces.
Likewise, in Britain, UKIP appears to be going from strength to strength in the polls, having just been placed first on 31 per cent in a YouGov survey published on Sunday. Although far less significant in terms of its vote share, the possible breakthrough of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) – currently on 6-7 per cent in polls – is another one to watch given that country’s absence to date of a notable right-wing Eurosceptic party.
A lot of media attention will of course be focused on the members of the new radical right Eurosceptic alliance fronted by Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. Its star performer looks certain to be Le Pen’s party which is vying for first place with the mainstream centre-right in France on 22-24 per cent – which would be by far its best election result to date and a massive improvement on the 6.3 per cent it took in the 2009 EP elections under Le Pen senior.
As for Wilders’s party, it has slipped back over the past month, but remains well-placed with support ranging from 15 to 18 per cent in different polls. The Austrian Freedom Party has also declined slightly of late, still easily above its 13 per cent result in 2009, but firmly in third place. Bringing up the rear of this group will be the Northern League in Italy – which looks set to gain just half of the 10 per cent share it received in 2009 – and the Sweden Democrats on around 5 per cent.
Some of the above will be the main “Eurosceptic winners” we’ll be reading about in a month’s time in assorted opinion columns. The consolation for Europhiles is that, even taken as an implausible whole, the Eurosceptics will receive only a fraction of the total votes given to those parties which continue to support the EU and European integration.
However, the very broad and divided churches of Europhiles and Eurosceptics will almost certainly each be outnumbered by a less vocal category, which will be the real “winner” of these elections: the Euroabstainers. Turnout has declined at each of the six European Parliament elections since 1979, reaching a new low of 43 per cent in 2009. And while it may not make for such an appealing headline, it is the extent of this apathy rather than Euroscepticism, populism or the purported rise of a new right which – at least for the moment – should really worry those who profess to believe in the EU.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Duncan McDonnell – European University Institute, Florence
Duncan McDonnell is Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute. From September 2014, he will be Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy and the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane. He is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Populism and has recently published articles on technocratic governments, the Lega Nord, Outsider Parties, Silvio Berlusconi’s personal parties and the relationships between mayors and parties. He is currently working with Daniele Albertazzi on a book entitled ‘Populists in Power’ which will be published by Routledge. He tweets @duncanmcdonnell