The big risk for European Union policy will be that increasing populism has a dramatic effect on domestic politics and, in turn, the position of member states towards Brussels – warns Adam Nathan
Europe’s leaders are worried. Polling suggests that next May’s elections for the European Parliament may deliver a large volume of Eurosceptic MEPs – between 15 and 30 per cent. A certain amount of anti-European votes may be considered a good thing for democracy. But anything higher than 20 per cent means that Europe is doing something wrong. Anything approaching 30 per cent would be disastrous.
The likely cause behind this rise in Euroscepticism across the continent is the economic and political fallout from the eurozone debt crisis. The economic meltdown in Spain, Portugal, Ireland Greece and Cyprus and a still sluggish European Union economy make it hard to argue that being in EU is about power and prosperity for the people.
Eurosceptic parties founded solely to campaign against the concept of the EU no longer appear as single-issue parties. They can portray themselves as addressing voters’ core concerns about the economy. Bringing the single market into the digital age and connecting it to America through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – and other emerging economies – will create thousands of jobs and significantly increase gross domestic product across the EU. But it will not come in time for May’s elections.
Furthermore, the lifting of controls on migration from Romania and Bulgaria on January 1 has led to political attacks on the impacts of eastern European migrants on schools and hospitals that hit home during a time of austerity and falling national budgets. Immigration concerns inflamed by the media are troubling the political classes in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as well as the United Kingdom – with calls from British Prime Minister David Cameron for an extension of the time limit on the ability of EU migrants to claim welfare benefits to one year.
Cameron, it should be noted, is not calling for any basic block on the free movement of people, which is what hardline Eurosceptics desire as a means to unravel the fabric of the EU. He also hopes to be able to bring Eurosceptics in his own party and the public across to his more moderate way of thinking; that by working with allies you can win reforms to make Europe fairer and more globally competitive. If he fails, and the genuine fear is that he may fail miserably in the EP elections in May, they may shed MPs to less moderate parties or be toppled by a hardliner.
As one seasoned British official puts it: “If you sit on theological views of free movement of people and EU citizenship under the treaty and don’t give mainstream politicians any tunes they can play, then they will be consumed on this by the non-mainstream ones – read the polling.”
Indeed, the polling indicates a public deeply fed-up with EU immigration after the influx of 2004. And hardline Eurosceptics such as UKIP, who play mercilessly on the public’s fear of immigration, are due to increase their vote in May – perhaps even to win outright as well as boost their local government presence in London.
And UKIP already dominates the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament – its main Eurosceptic grouping. The EFD group includes a number of other national Eurosceptic movements. It rejects the union’s existence outright and aggressively criticises the institutions of the EU. Its MEPs attend few committee meetings and allegedly do little work for their money.
Others Eurosceptics are far less radical. The European Conservatives and Reformists group, which the UK Conservative Party is a member of having left the main centre-right European People’s Party group, plays an active and constructive role in the development and drafting of European legislation.
Finally, a third category of parties focuses on securing anti-establishment votes and uses Euroscepticism as a means to assemble protest movements, such as the Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands and the Front National in France.
Despite overtures from both parties, UKIP has so far refused to accept them into the EFD for fear of contaminating its brand with overt racism and homophobia. The revelation that a number of UKIP local election candidates were linked to the far right in the UK has been a severe embarrassment to the party’s leadership.
With the expected surge in seats on the Eurosceptic right, the question is whether extremist parties from across Europe currently rejected by UKIP will now win enough seats to form their own parliamentary alliance. What they could also do then is look to form a ‘blocking minority’ that could have a disruptive influence on process in the EP.
If there also developed a significant level of coordination among protest parties, they could all come together to block the formation of a working majority in the parliament and – as has recently happened in the United States – bring Europe to shutdown. But this risk should not be overstated. Even if all the Eurosceptic groups collaborate, legislation in the EP is unlikely to be significantly derailed. In addition, the overall influence of the EP in the Brussels decision-making process is limited.
The bigger risk for EU policy will be indirect through the impact increasing populism has on domestic politics and, in turn, the position of governments towards Brussels. Mainstream parties like Cameron’s Conservative Party are coming under pressure to toughen their own policies on Europe to give assurances of referendums on European membership, and to call for repatriation of sovereignty in areas of EU competence.
National parliamentarians are increasingly standing up against EU policies, which they consider could be better managed at a local level through the so-called ‘yellow card’ system. In a recently published position paper on the role of national parliaments in the EU, the Dutch Lower House of Parliament stated that “legitimacy and support for the EU decision making process should be established bottom-up (from the citizen)”.
The report called for the EU’s ‘yellow card’ procedure to be strengthened. Other proposals include a ‘green card’. This would allow national parliaments to propose new policies to the European Commission, including the amendment or repeal of existing EU laws. How far such democratic reform initiatives go may hinge on the results in May.
Adam Nathan is deputy director of the United Kingdom-based British Influence think-tank