Increased support for Euro-sceptics will have limited impact on the European parliament, writes Timo Lochocki.
For the past decade, right-wing populist parties — like Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France or Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands — have succeeded in using a Euro-sceptic discourse to reach out to a new electorate. Their voters feel threatened by changing values, multiculturalism, and permeable national borders, and the influence of the European Union embodies these alleged threats in a single narrative. Given the gains of these right-wing populist parties in the European Parliament election three weeks ago, media attention is focused on these political players.
However, the gains of these parties will hardly be a challenge to the European Parliament’s balance of power. Ultimately, the European level, in stark contrast to the national level, offers few opportunities for right-wing populists to influence European politics. Deputies from pro-European mainstream parties are building a substantial majority; meanwhile, Euro-sceptic parties will remain divided along ideological differences. At the same time, the role of the parliament in the European integration process is particularly limited.
In fact, the right-wing populists’ vote share increased only moderately, from 9% in the 2009 election to 11-14% this year (based on which party one considers as “right-wing populist”). This is a rather small constituency in comparison to the quasi-institutionalized coalition between the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Christian Democrats’ Europe’s People Party (EPP), who garnered around 55% of the votes. All in all, well-organised, clearly pro-European parties (ranging from the Social-Democrats, the Greens, and the Liberals to the Christian Democrats and Conservatives) have garnered no less than three out of four votes cast.
Consequently, the increased support for Euro-sceptical parties has a limited impact on the European parliament. There are three reasons for this.
First, as mentioned above, their share of the vote will hardly allow them to influence the balance of the Parliament. Even Marine Le Pen’s plans — and those of several other Euro-sceptics — to unite and form a coalition will not alter this political arithmetic. Rather the contrary: right-wing populists’ campaigns and interests vary so substantially that cooperation between various nationalist parties is hardly imaginable.
Second, as experience has shown, the actual number of Euro-sceptic deputies participating constructively with parliamentarian work will be even lower. Only a small minority of “soft” Euro-sceptics, advocating a reform of the European Union rather than its complete dissolution, will be pragmatic enough to participate efficiently with parliamentary work.
Third, the role of the European Parliament in the integration process is quite restrained by the legal framework of the European Union. The parliament is not entitled to alter this legal framework itself; thus, chances for its deputies to influence the general course of European Integration — by influencing institutional reforms, for example — are severely limited. Instead, the parliament is in charge of day-to-day policies.
Ultimately, decisions on more or less European integration are made at the intergovernmental level. Thus, right-wing populists could only influence these processes directly if they took part in national coalition governments of powerful member states. Up to now, they have only managed to join few national governments for brief periods in relatively smaller countries (for instance, in Austria or the Netherlands), but have not joined the governments of the main drivers of European Integration: France and Germany.
Even though the rising appeal of right-wing populists is clearly visible in the recent European elections, their direct impact will remain mostly at the national level; low electoral thresholds allowed various European right populist parties to win seats. This has attracted previously unseen national media attention for parties with hitherto small national constituencies. This media attention is of lesser importance for well-established right-wing populist parties — in France, the Netherlands, or Austria, for example — but a boost for those still without representation in national and regional parliaments (e.g. in England and Germany).
Euro-sceptic parties will not directly challenge the process of European Integration despite their increased vote share in the European Parliament. They will remain a divided minority, one that can hardly compete with the established pro-European parties that continue to win 75% of the votes on the European level. In addition, right-wing populists lack direct influence in powerful national governments, and have little impact on decisions concerning substantial steps of the European project.
However, especially in countries with a substantial right-wing populist vote (especially England and France), established parties will be tempted to regain right-wing populists’ voters by adopting parts of their Euro-sceptical agenda. Therein lies the real challenge for the European project.
Timo Lochocki is a Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.